African motifs fit eclectic rooms Home: The natural materials, spiritual symbolism, pattern and color work with any architectural and design style, adding oomph to almost any room of the house.


Armand P. Arman, an artist, lives with his family and an astonishing mix of objects in a former pickle factory in New York. In the Armans' living room, you can collapse into a modern white sofa by Le Corbusier, gaze at portraits by Andy Warhol, and set your drink on -- or rather into -- a most unusual coffee table.

It is a hand-carved stool with a seat scooped out like a shallow bowl and legs proportioned like a young dog's. As a result, it looks perpetually edgy, ready to trot out of the room with your drink on its back. Like the carved figures that seem to jostle for space on the shelves, it comes from Africa.

Why marry a humble wooden stool to a leather-and-steel sofa? Because one or two elements of traditional African design can give any room a pleasurable jolt of life. Its four major ingredients -- natural materials, spiritual symbolism, pattern and color -- can be integrated into kitchens and baths, bedrooms and dining rooms, New York apartments and Baltimore rowhouses, all with equal grace.

This powerful mix of styles is celebrated in "The Spirit of African Design" (Clarkson Potter, $35), by Philadelphia designers and stylists Sharne Algotsson and Denys Davis, with text by Yanick Rice Lamb. Their timing could not have been better: African influences have been steadily seeping into American music, art and fashion, with tribal motifs being printed on everything from layettes to bomber jackets, sheets to evening gowns, wallpaper to plates.

"African style has many faces," the authors write. "It can be traditional, classical, contemporary, bohemian, minimal, trendy or quirky."

In her Philadelphia living room, for example, Algotsson has tall, arched bookcases that touch the ceiling, and classical columns support her mantel. But if you put your feet up, they will rest on a Senufo stool. And where one expects an English landscape painting above the sofa, Algotsson has set four Masai spears of iron and wood. (Many African objects are defined not by national borders, but by ethnic identity.)

No more is needed. In the presence of these cues, even her plain-est furnishings -- a wicker porch chair, a sisal rug -- suggest savanna.

Napoleon, inspired by those North African time capsules, the pharaohs' tombs, launched the first revival of Egyptian style. Suddenly European furniture was being embellished with sphinxes and scarabs. Campaign furniture, designed in Napoleon's honor, was inspired by folding seats and beds that the Egyptians placed in tombs so the dead could bring furniture into the afterlife.

Two centuries later, this mixed marriage of European and African design works just as well in the American living room.

The collectors in "The Spirit of African Design" paint West African textile motifs around their windows and doorways. They hang the work of Picasso and Matisse -- who were deeply influenced by African masks -- in the company of headdresses from Cameroon, and they stencil their own jumpy patterns in bands, like molding, around their rooms.

"Consider producing your own work," Algotsson and Davis say, "whether it is reupholstering furniture with an Ashoke textile, or painting a freehand window trim."


Unlike many books on exotic interior design, this one is stocked with practical advice and a list of resources. Among the tips:

* Cover floors with natural-fiber carpeting such as sisal, jute, sea grass or wool. Over it, you can layer Moroccan rugs. Or paint a geometric border around a wood floor, copying simple motifs from pictures of textiles and art.

* Buy African fabrics (or good copies) to cover pillows, hang as art, drape over a table or use as upholstery. One dazzling example is Kente cloth, easily recognized by its weave of 4-inch-wide strips of patterned fabric. In red, it represents death; green means fertility, white symbolizes purity or victory, yellow is for glory and blue is for love.

* Plant an African garden. Aloe, amaryllis, black-eyed Susan, calla lily, impatiens and hibiscus are all common in Africa, and easily available here.

* Be wary of safari cliches. One leopard or zebra pattern looks exotic, but a room filled with animal prints and wicker trunks can look like a movie set.

African style is about mixing, not matching. From Bauhaus to Berber, almost all simple and clean-lined furnishings and art will complement each other and make for a comfortable home.

Dylan Landis is the author of "Designing for Small Homes" (PBC International) and a contributing editor to Metropolitan Home.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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