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Jean Servais Somian turned to art in times of hardship — and now he’s thriving.
FOR JEAN SERVAIS Somian, the path to fulfillment has been winding. The renowned designer is famous for transforming wood and everyday African objects into highly original furniture pieces, like his “library trees” made of coconut and his daybeds made of canoes. But he took a number of professional detours before returning to design for good. It’s a fate shaped by his country’s history, his passion for creating domestic objects, and in serendipitous opportunities. Somian was born 50 years ago near Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, West Africa. At 16, he didn’t want to attend school, so he was asked to pick up a trade instead. He chose woodwork since he was living in Grand-Bassam, a city of artisans. After two years, he decided to learn sculpture and found tremendous freedom. “Ebénisterie [woodwork] felt too occidental to me, with a lot of rules and constraints,” Somian recalls. “But sculpture! That was a direct, unfiltered relationship with the material. This practice felt more African to me.”
The young Somian had to leave his country at 19 years old. He made it to Paris, where he found himself with no papers and no job. Hustling his way through, he knocked on the door of a Parisian atelier in the quartier Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a woodworking mecca for over 400 years. He started to work, but the pay was too low. So Somian took other jobs, as a model, boxer, waiter, and security agent. He began to make a good living as a boxer and trained and competed on the French circuit for five years. Interior design and woodwork were the least of his priorities at that point.
His inspiration lies in nature and in the things that people overlook, like the fisherman’s pirogue — a long, narrow canoe carved in a tree trunk — that he has upcycled into a piece of furniture.
At 26, Somian returned to Abidjan to open a nightclub with some friends. Meanwhile, he took classes in interior design. But history catches up, and in the year 2000, the coup d’état in Ivory Coast put an end to his ambitions. He left for France once more, and this time, he finally decided to embrace his passion for wood carving and designing. “This is it, I thought. Now is the time to go all the way, because life — it’s no joke,” he says. “And things started to work out nicely. Life’s a mystery: Without the coup d'état, I probably wouldn’t be a designer today.”
Eventually, Somian founded his own atelier in Paris, selecting wood and producing distinctive art pieces. Soon enough, he presented his first solo exhibition, and his design career quickly took off. He was passionate and particular about specific wood essences and found out that nobody works with the coconut tree like he does. “Nobody — and I’ve been to many places around the world — really uses the coconut tree in furniture or sculpture like I do. It’s a shame, because it grows fast — it takes only eight years to grow, whereas other trees might need 30–40 years. But it takes six months to dry,” he says. “It requires patience. Usually, for wood, I draw what I have in mind prior to carving, but not for the coconut. I have a special relationship with it: From the get-go, I know precisely what object I want to make. It’s almost like the coco knows what it wants to be and whispers it to me. It’s strange. I love it.”
Somian now goes back and forth between France and Ivory Coast. At 50, he’s become one of West Africa’s most acclaimed designers, working with all types of wood, metal, leather, plastic, and fabric, offering a large variety of pieces with strong personalities, often repurposing discarded objects. His inspiration lies in nature and in the things that people overlook, like the fisherman’s pirogue — a long, narrow canoe carved in a tree trunk — that he has upcycled into a piece of furniture. “This old fisherman left his pirogue for good because he was too tired to go fishing. It was just lying there and rotting,” he says. “I wanted to add a new chapter to its journey, so I used it as a chassis for a daybed.”
Today, Somian’s mission has a broader dimension: He wants to educate future generations of designers. He created a workshop in Grand-Bassam to teach students the design process, from idea to finished product. He is also planning a design fair that will gather together the industry’s various fields: furniture, fashion, graphic design, and art direction, because “design works holistically. We don’t have a designer fair in West Africa. It’s time to have one!” he says. “I want to teach the younger generations so we can exchange and nurture each other.” If he once rejected the school system, maybe, in the end, it was only so that he could create his own.
Alexandre Stipanovich is a researcher, writer, curator, and producer. He has a Ph.D. in neuropharmacology, is a contributing editor at Flash Art International, and contributes to Interview magazine. He has curated art exhibitions in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles and has written and produced a podcast series about the history of beauty for LVMH, out this September. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.
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