By Christy Anyanwu
Nwamaka Okoye is the managing director of Housessories, a Nigerian furniture manufacturing and interior design company. The amiable entrepreneur spoke about her sojourn as furniture maker, her aspirations, among others.
What inspired you to go into the furniture making?
I was inspired by my love for beautiful interiors and my father owned a furniture company, when I was younger. I did my first job at Ricco Furniture Company as a sales assistant in the showroom. I was more interested in interior design as a whole, but was frustrated by the lack of options in the Nigerian market.
There were just not enough tools for an interior designer to work with. I graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Nigeria, and then was admitted into the Master of Arts programme in Interior Design. I began working on interior design projects in 2008.
That was when I first experienced the frustrations of having such a small repertoire of furniture pieces available locally as well as quality issues when I tried to design and have local artisans produce for me. That was how Housessories Limited was created. It is an interior design company that designs and manufactures furniture. This means that we create complete interiors.
What was it like at the beginning?
It was both tough and exciting at the beginning; tough because I had to rough it out. I put almost everything back as I earned it. I only took what I needed to survive. I remember living on the mainland and working on a renovation in Ikoyi. We would wait for long hours for workmen to show up on site. They were not incredibly pleased with my attention to detail and found me to be very exacting. Sometimes we ended so late, that as I headed back to the mainland about 11pm, we would load up the workmen we could fit in the car and drop them off at their respective bus stops. During those memorable trips on Third Mainland Bridge, I remember with nostalgia the barbs the worker would trade, as they “yabbed” each other light-heartedly and narrated very tall tales of their personal experiences.
What are the challenges encountered?
I experienced many challenges as a young entrepreneur in the building industry. One of them was misogyny. The construction and furniture making artisans are mainly men. Young men, often times with secondary school education as their highest level of education. They did not like being led by a woman and many times would challenge my authority or dare me. I enjoyed witnessing the pride and wonder in their eyes when we finally finished an interior space and they saw it all come together. They finally understood what we were doing. In the beginning, everyone wanted to show how good their specific skill was and did not want to do simple designs. However, at the end, they finally understood that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. Access to finance to expand was also a challenge. Another challenge was the corruption. Regardless of the controls you put in place within the organization, we kept discovering new rackets set up to circumvent those controls. Then externally, the calls for big deals if you could make a private arrangement to provide kickbacks once the deal came through. As a result of my ethical stance, we could not go for many lucrative projects, because I wanted to be a part of a solution to the problem, and not contribute to the problem.
Tell us about your designs, what makes them different from others.
My designs are very simple, but well resolved. Everything in the design must be functional, and the more tension there is in the design the better. In an interior space, wherever possible, I try to connect the interior with the exterior, and to introduce gardens and water elements wherever possible. I find nature very soothing. For furniture design, being able to marry form and function is critical. You meet instant judgement when a person interacts with a piece of furniture you created. Certain ergonomic considerations must be taken into account. If the chair is not comfortable, then it’s a failure. If the table height is wrong, it causes pain and discomfort to the user. The design must meet the practical function it was created to meet. At Housessories we believe that design is problem-solving with an aesthetic consciousness.
Tell us about some memorable moments as a designer?
For me, every step of the design process is memorable. It’s like being a conductor in an orchestra. You have a symphony you are creating, but you need many players to make beautiful music. When my team and the client, walk through the space or use our furniture pieces and experience the magic we have created the wonder in their eyes is memorable. The sigh of a person sinking into a chair that is beautiful and comfortable, I find memorable.
What are some of the other things that occupy your time?
I read a lot and like to write. I also dream a lot. I have an inside world and that is where I create things. I have to retreat to that space to make things, to design spaces, to create movies, poems, to philosophize. I love listening to music.
Who or what do you consider as the greatest influence in your life?
I don’t mind saying it straight out that my relationship with God serves as the greatest influence in my life. It is the lens through which I make decisions and relate with others. It guides my behaviour and conversations.
What lessons has life taught you?
I am still in the school of life, but so far I have learnt that it is important to be kind to people and help, whenever I am in the position to help, without expecting anything in return, regardless of the response. I now accept that people will be malicious at times and not take it to heart. I have learnt to lower my expectation of gratitude or loyalty when I go the extra mile for people that work for me. So I make decisions to help based on the principle of mercy rather than the principle of justice. I am imperfect and a recipient of mercy myself. It does not mean that I turn a blind eye to disorder or dishonesty. I believe justice is required for an orderly community or society to exist. If you habitually refuse to apply consequences people become lawless. No matter how much you care for someone, you cannot force them to change for the better unless they are ready. I have in the past strived with people I felt were going to the wrong way trying so hard to show them what was wrong with what they were doing. What I learnt was that an adult must be willing and ready to make changes, and then you support them. You cannot initiate change in an unwilling person. You cannot teach people by force. One must come to a position of discovery and realise that they need to make a change. I learnt that if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. The sooner you start trying, the better. May times, the great breakthrough you are waiting for lies on the other side of helping someone or being kind to someone.
Tell us about the people you admire.
I admire my parents. My mother is ultra-intelligent and has such a large heart. She thinks outside the box and is really bold. Her work ethic is unparalleled. My father is bold and resourceful. He is a peace maker and very young at heart. He is an early adopter of technology and is very trendy.
If you had to advise young people, what would you tell them?
You can do anything you want to do. Your dreams can come true. It’s great to dream, but record the dream, paint it clearly. Then when you wake up, make a plan, whatever you feel you need, start working towards getting it. In the beginning, work to gain skills that would help you achieve your dreams. Also, value relationships and don’t burn bridges. If you don’t like your job, resign with sufficient notice. Thank people for helping you and supporting you. The world does not owe you anything. Remember that people that are privileged also have needs and appreciate gifts. Go with a gift and seek to be a blessing and have a heart of service.
Where do you hope to be in the next few years?
I hope to operate in the media space. I think this industry is the key to driving positive societal change in Nigeria. I am looking into the leadership conundrum in Nigeria. The question of how to raise effective leaders and turn the trajectory of this nation around is what I hope to spend the next few years attempting to solve.