We pay a visit to Kemi Lawson, whose north London home is filled with thoughtful design pieces that speak to her trademark ‘Afro Aristo’ aesthetic
The only thing more welcoming than Kemi Lawson’s north London Georgian worker’s cottage is Kemi herself. A mother of two and passionate advocate for African and Caribbean design, Kemi is the co-founder of cult-favourite lifestyle goods store, The Cornrow, which curates a diverse collection of interiors pieces through the lens of “a modern Black aesthetic.”
Establishing The Cornrow with her sister Lara was a risky move for Kemi, who left a long-standing job in finance in the middle of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown. “It all just crystallised one evening,” she explains, sitting on the sofa in her green-painted living room. “I was literally and metaphorically pulling my hair out; I was very busy at work, but working from home and homeschooling at the same time. My husband just turned around to me and said, ‘you know what, Kemi. I think it’s time for you to leave your job,’ and that was that.”
Three years later, Kemi has built an impressive reputation as a curator of contemporary black design, and her home is filled with precious objects that help to tell her story. On her mantlepiece stand two elegant black-and-white wooden carved dolls, depicting young African women with gold accents. They’re a refined take on the first mass-produced plastic dolls made in West Africa. Kemi has still has the pair she grew up playing with. “Ask anyone of a certain age, and this is probably what they played with,” she says, with a smile.
Kemi’s dark wooden Ayo board is another important piece. “It’s a traditional game that’s great for mental maths. My kids play it with my husband all the time,” she explains. “It’s been played in West Africa since time immemorial, but they also play it in certain parts of the Caribbean – enslaved people took it with them from Africa.” Then, there’s the small carved wooden fertility symbol that sits on the windowsill beside the Ayo set, which is equally special: “It’s quite unusual and I just love to have that kind of energy in our home.”
These few pieces are only a tiny portion of the precious objects in the house, which range from elegant carved wooden vases, to sculptures and a plethora of coffee table books that explore black history and culture. “It’s so important to connect with your cultural heritage,” Kemi continues. “It’s fun, and it grounds you. I have two daughters and they’re the minority in school – I wanted them to be able to come home to a place that would affirm them, represent them and where they would see positive representations of themselves.”
Much African art and design is still influenced by colonial thinking, and Kemi’s signature “Afro-Aristo” aesthetic counteracts these same old cliches beautifully. “When we think of African art in the West, we usually think of a predictable safari or rural scene – but there’s so much more to it than that,” she says. “These kinds of scenes don’t represent me and my contemporaries as black British women.”
“Home is a place of self-expression and self-actualisation, where I can be most myself without thinking of other people,” Kemi concludes. “I always quote Diana Vreeland: ‘there’s no such thing as good or bad taste, it’s no taste I can’t stand.’”