Fractals in African Design

KUDU is about embracing a contemporary African interior style and I am always looking for new ways in which to convey that African design is about many styles, not just one look.

When thinking of ‘ African interior design’ there is a type of look that often springs to people’s minds.  This is a style that evokes the romance of the concept of ‘Safari’. A Swahili word for ‘journey’, we associate safari with the African wilderness, Big Game animals and gin and tonic at sunset. Safari style was popularised by the film 1985 film, Out of Africa.  Is it an authentic ‘African’ style? Perhaps… It is true that similar themes to that of the colonial style are present in Safari style. It is very luxurious camping.  Campaign furniture will be present on safari as well as textiles of canvas, muslin, linen, animal hides and decorative items made out of natural materials in wood, leather grass and brass.

African camp design

Photography © Luxury Safari Camps

Where are the other styles of African homes and interiors? Sometimes when I write about African interior style I try to look for reference points in the past, as by learning about the past we can put the present into context. Sadly, it is difficult to unearth enough information about the history of interior design on the African continent.

In searching for reference points for this post I decided to consult a heavyweight book, A History of Interior Design (Third Edition) by John Pile. Those familiar with interior design and architecture will know the terms ‘Rococo’ and ‘Palladian’, ‘Neo-classical’ as they are movements and styles within Western architecture and design. I hoped to find a few passages on the history of interior design movements of the African continent. However, in spite of chapters dedicated to the influence of Islamic and Asian culture on interior design there was no chapter dedicated to African influence on interior design and the only mention of Africa was to be found on page sixteen- a brief mention of the architecture of a tribal cultural.  This is not a criticism of the knowledgeable author of this particular book but a reflection of the gap between how one continent can have such a wealth of information to refer to its design history and how another has very little.

On reflection, I should not be surprised by this. The lack of sources for historical accounts of domestic interiors around the African continent might be rooted in several causes. The first is that a lack of written record-keeping within many African societies with a history of oral record-keeping tradition means that there are few surviving written or drawn sources for what the interior of, for example, an East African village house from 16th Century looked like, let alone what the 1870s interiors trends were in Benin. The main places to find this kind of information are either in academic archives or ethnographic museums. This is frustrating, as it can sometimes reduce kingdoms and centuries of culture to a series of seemingly random objects in the vein of, ‘‘West African wooden headrest- circa 19th Century’’.

The Geffrye Museum in London is exclusively dedicated to the home. Within the Geffrye there are a series of living rooms from specific centuries and decades. If you wonder what a typical living room might have looked like in 1830 then you can see this set-up as you wander through the rooms. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an African version, so you could take a peek at what a 15th century Ghanaian merchant’s home looked like? Or see how 21st century Tanzanian village home was arranged?

Geffrye museum London

A drawing room in 1830 © Peter Dazeley, photography Peter Dazeley

The 19th Century expansion of European powers further into Africa coincided with the adoption of photography as a medium. Early photographs of Africa and African were almost exclusively taken by Europeans, so it was it is through the prism of the colonial gaze that we get the first recorded images of the architecture and style of homes in Africa. There are a couple of issues with this. One is technical. Lack of sufficient light indoors and the limited lighting apparatus available to early photographers might be why so few photographs were taken of the interiors of African homes and structures. Another issue is that early European settlers were not very concerned with interior domestic household settings of the kingdoms they were busy conquering so this resulted in few photographs being taken in this context. There are plenty of surviving photographic images taken in Africa in the 19th century and sketches of costumes, dress, tribal ceremony, chiefs, and a few of the exterior of buildings and villages yet almost none available to tell us what they looked like inside.

I have been fascinated to find out that when Europeans started visiting and trying to conquer Africa they thought that the layout of the cities and villages was chaotic and disorganised. What might have seemed haphazard to Europeans was not, as across the African continent many town layouts used fractals, which at that time in Europe were not being used much at all.. It has been really exciting to stumble upon this TED talk by mathematician Ron Eglash about The Fractals at the heart of African Design.

To summarise: fractals are at the heart of design. They are often described as ‘the geometry found in nature’. They have a shape that is self-replicating at every scale.

Here are some examples:

Fractal pattern 1  Fractal pattern 2  Fractal pattern 3

Photography © Flickr 1. CatDancing // 2. Maia C // 3. Tin G

How is it that across Africa the use of fractals to construct, create and divine and to play was going on at a time before Europeans saw a use for them? African cultures were using fractals to create complex patterns in their designs, as well as build villages and towns using fractal symmetry.

African fractal design village 1 African fractal design village 2

Mokulek village © Ron Eglash website:

Read more in his book

Lunda street and houses

Lunda Street and Houses © New York Public Library

I did find a really interesting website with a list of examples of different styles of architecture from across the African continent. Here is an illustration of what a row of houses looked like in the state of Lunda ( part of what is now Congo) If only we could see what they looked like inside!

There is a beautifully descriptive account by the Scottish poet and abolitionist, Thomas Pringle, Narrative of a Residence in South Africa, published in 1834 which includes his visit to a ‘Dutch- African’ ( ‘they would later become known as ‘Afrikaners’) family homestead. On page 19 he describes in great detail what the interior of the house looked like. It is so interesting that it would be nice to find more of this type of information.

So we fast forward to the era when cameras became widely available and there was a stream of people travelling from Europe and settling in what had become ‘The African Colonies’. It is from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that we see photographs of what has come to be known as ‘African Colonial Style. This is characterised by use of highly-polished, dark wood; imported European furniture mixed with ‘campaign’ furniture- that is furniture that was easy to dismantle or fold and travel with. Fabrics were often light in colour and eclectic, shutters, mosquito netting draped over beds, and ceiling fans; essential to keep air moving in hot summer months and keep mosquitos at bay.

Other than this, the visual information about period African homes is scarce. I will have to do some detective work to find out more. In researching images of the interior from an African home I found this glorious kitchen style from Zimbabwe.

Kitchen National Gallery Zimbabwe

Traditional Rural Kitchen National Gallery Zimbabwe © Stephen Garan’anga Visual Art

It is of a typical rural Zimbabwean rural kitchen. Isn’t it ingenious how the clay is moulded into shelves to fit the cups and plates that are proudly on display? It is a fine example of organic African design. Now I would like to know where to find more of this kind of information. I am no expert on historical or traditional African architecture or interiors but I love learning more about them. The quest for knowledge continues…

Yours, bringing Africa home,



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