The New Orleans designer recalls a Caribbean childhood and world travels in her work.
By Loré Yessuff
New Orleans-based furniture designer BOA grew up on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands regularly admiring the ocean that surrounded her homeland. During her childhood, she’d spend time attempting to form the shapes of the water. This daily artistic study acted as a foundation for the practice she has today. BOA creates minimalist and imaginative furniture that proves the possibilities of eco-conscious design, under her label OI Studio. In addition to being sustainable, her pieces completely reject the colonial gaze and uplift authentic definitions of Caribbean visual culture. We talked to Boa to learn more about her thoughtful approach to designing long-lasting, gorgeous furniture.
What was the first thing that drew you to design? Can you share a memory?
My initial interest in design had nothing to do with career possibilities. When I was young, I didn’t know about furniture design, interior design, architecture. I didn’t know about any of that. But my father used to bring home Architectural Digest magazines. We would sit and dream about the kind of house I’d design for him when I grew up. Architectural digest was different then. There weren't any products to look at, very few interiors. It was architecturally focused and none of the houses I was seeing in the magazine looked anything like I had ever seen on my small island. This opened my eyes.
I really love that you have this vivid memory of your father coming home with these magazines and opening your world to what things could look like. I read that your upbringing and Caribbean heritage influences your work. Can you talk about that?
My heritage does influence my work. However, I will say that most people don't see the connection because they're looking for stereotypical representations. Because of colonialism, there's this perception that Caribbean design is just about stately houses and caned chairs. That's not Caribbean design, that's European influence on Caribbean design. For me, Caribbean design is about being innovative and minimalist. It's more about an approach to being resourceful with what you have to work with.
Also, Caribbean design is adapted to the climate. So there's a lot of materials that we can't use, even if we had them, because it wouldn't survive in the humid, salty air. When I design now, I always think about where the piece is going and the kind of climate it is going to be in. It's more about an approach than a style.
I think what specifically influences me is the beach and the horizon. Every day, looking at the Caribbean sea, I would paint and sketch and draw over and over again. This view from my porch, the water meeting the landmass. It's just a big, clean, horizontal plane which led to my love of clean shapes and lines in my design.
Green materials like bamboo plywood and kirei board not only minimize environmental impact but make BOA's furniture adaptable to humid climates.
That approach is very deep and rooted. It's really marvelous that you’re not interested in those stereotypes or the ways that people try to imitate Caribbean design without having a deep connection to it. What kind of materials are you most interested in or want to work with the most?
I'm a green designer, so that limits the materials and finishes that are available to me. 90% of the materials that are out there are toxic. They either are off gassing or have formaldehyde in them. They are plastics, solvent, whatever. I never use anything that isn't eco-friendly, so I have a limited palette. I find my materials at trade shows. There wasn’t any in 2020 and I don't think there'll be any in 2021, so I've been using what I've collected over the years. I use things like bamboo plywood. I used to use this material called kirei board. Kirei means beautiful in Japanese. I used it for many, many years until it was discontinued last year. It's made from sorghum stalks.
And then I would mix it in with things like formaldehyde-free MDF, which is a medium density fiberboard for a lot of cabinets and doors. I can use that in a tropical environment. I can use it somewhere where it's extremely cold, like on the East coast. And because it's not a tree sap, it doesn't respond to the environment, meaning it won't shrink and it won't expand. So I use the formaldehyde-free MDF a lot. And I use sustainably harvested wood veneers.
Have you always been a green designer? What was your journey to becoming a green designer like?
I have not. I'm a recovering addict. I love solid wood. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, everything. And when I first started designing, I moved to Bali for a few months and that's where all the Teakwood comes from. Most Teakwood in the world comes from Indonesia. And seeing all these beautiful pieces made of solid wood, I was just completely obsessed. I actually designed and made my first collection in Bali. Around the time I lived in Bali, I visited Brazil for maybe a month.
In Brazil, seeing what was going on there—deforestation, flooding, the erosion, the suffering of indigenous populations, landfills, all that. I also started learning about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which over time are not really good for our health. It was a matter of just observing, doing some research, and just committing myself. I think it was in 2004 when I decided to go as sustainable as possible. Which is not to say that I don't have solid woods in my work, but it tends to be reclaimed or FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified. But it's very hard to find affordable FSC lumber. Finding materials is the hardest part.
How do you navigate the financial stress that comes with being a furniture designer? Are you often commissioned for your pieces? Do you get grants?
The financial stress is real. Being an independent furniture designer is not a lucrative career. Custom work is what I do, so most of my projects are commissions. Occasionally, I've designed collections that have not been commissioned and exhibited them at places like the Brooklyn Designs Tradeshow. I don't often design that way because then if there's not a customer paying for the materials, then it costs me thousands of dollars. For one show, I spent almost $15,000 just making four pieces in the show.
An OI Studio console designed by BOA, with bamboo cabinet doors.
“For me, Caribbean design is about being innovative and minimalist. It's more about an approach to being resourceful with what you have to work with. ”
You mentioned how making money can fluctuate. I'm a writer, so I totally understand. I'm not writing to make money *laughs*. I write because there are many emotional and spiritual and creative rewards that come with it. That being said, I’m wondering what the rewards of your creative practice are?
I would say that the most important reward... it feels like… I don't want to say therapy, because that's not accurate. When you're an artist, there’s something buried inside of you and when you get it out there, then you're a better person. I live in my head a lot and design pieces in my head, but it doesn't help me if I don't show those pieces to the public. Making art just makes me feel as if I'm alive. Like I'm contributing and expressing myself.
Can you give any advice for people who are interested in buying eco-friendly furniture? What ways can they make sure that what they're buying is good for the earth?
Do your research. If that's something that's important to you. Follow people online that promote green designers or green design in general. It might be challenging, but you're going to have to do research.
But the research is worth it, right? The hard work is always worth the cost of doing something that's better for the earth long term.
To me, it is. Some people don't think about the responsibility that we all have as consumers. We live in a capitalist society where consumerism is reinforced every single second. We are taught to want and to consume. We buy and throw away instead of buying things that are gonna last a lifetime. And we don't think about where those products go after we stop using them.
I think that's such a good challenge—to be more thoughtful about the way we consume furniture. A lot of people are starting to get the sustainability message in regards to clothing and food. More people are making the move to secondhand clothing and/or sustainable clothing lines. But we’re still behind in regards to furniture. I’m speaking for myself too.
America is still young when it comes to design education for the masses. I remember one time I was getting my car detailed. In the waiting room, there was a guy who asked me about my job. I told him that I’m a furniture designer. And he was like, “I don't know what that is.” And I told him, “Well, you’re sitting on a chair right now. Someone designed that chair.” He was like “Really? I thought a machine made this.” I said “Well, whether a machine manufactured it or not, it has to be thought up. It has to be figured out.” It looked like a light bulb went on in his head. He had no idea! And he's representative of a lot people.
BOA's clean design aesthetic draws inspiration from her obsession with the straight horizon of the island she grew up with.
How would you suggest that people who don't have a very robust design education venture into learning more?
- Go to your local bookstore and find the magazines in the home & garden section. Even if you don't have the money to buy some or you're not sure which magazine to read. Just start thumbing through some magazines like Domino, Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, Wallpaper any of those.
- If you're on Instagram, then you follow a specific hashtag like design, modern design, architecture. And if you follow those hashtags, then those things will start popping up in your feed. You’ll find people to follow as you see more and more of these posts showing up.
- Watch design shows. HGTV is a good start. Netflix has some shows too.
What advice would you give to people, especially black people or people of color who are eager to get into the design industry?
Try to take as many art classes. Do your research and look for black designers whose work you admire, don't feel shy to reach out to them. I think all of us older designers want to see more diversity in every way, so we would be more than willing to talk.
Is there anything else you're eager to let people know or anything you want to plug?
I'm part of this really amazing project called Obsidian. It's a concept house that is set five years into the future. For the very first time, black designers, architects, and artists are designing a house for black people and the way we live. Concepts of sustainability, futurism, technology and innovation are the drivers of the design. I’m one of the 23 contributing designers and my space is “Suspended Lanai”. I’m happy to have been a part of that, I’m really proud of it. I’m also working on a new furniture collection called “Drop” in hopes to release it in late Spring or early Summer.
Shop OI Studio. Images by Melissa Townsend and BOA.
Loré Yessuff writes poems and essays about the intersection of intimacy and identity. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Man Repeller, Vox, Voicemail Poems, and elsewhere. In addition to writing, she facilitates a monthly workshop called Poembutter which is aimed at making poetry fun and accessible. Currently, she’s obsessed with sleeping in, making lavender syrup, and Jamaica Kincaid's body of work.