African express: an art collector’s colourful home

Isata Funma sees me eyeing up the beaded West African throne in the double living room of her north London home and I hesitate. The upright armchair is not only decorated with colourful beads, it also looks backbreakingly uncomfortable.

“Try it!” she laughs. “You’ll be surprised.”

Indeed I am, and so I remain seated as Isata explains that it was “an interest in having contemporary African pieces in my home and an inability to find them” that first inspired her to import pieces from her native Sierra Leone in 2015. She now designs fabrics, too, and her pieces and products, including bright geometric cushions, lampshades and ceramics, are sold in Dar Leone, her boutique shop in Islington, north London.


Green velvet chairs in the dining room.

Green accents: velvet chairs in the dining room. Photograph: Beth Evans/The Observer

A stool holds its own beside the throne, a pair of carved figures by the late Makonde artist George Lilanga, from Tanzania, peering out from behind. She and her husband Philipp, an angel investor in start-ups, have twin daughters, aged 17. “I think of them when I look at these,” she smiles. “Their faces are so evocative!”

The stool is covered in one of her newest fabrics, Naima the Teals, a mix of blues and gold, it is a daring positioning beside the throne’s purples and reds; if it clashes, then so be it. “I don’t do matchy-matchy,” says Isata, who moved from Freetown to Maryland, USA, as a young girl. After training as a lawyer, she turned her attention to the collection of contemporary art, first European and now African. Beneath a painting by Israeli artist Yehudit Sasportas, three of Isata’s cushions brighten the old plum sofa from B&B Italia.


The red and blue beaded throne.

‘It look back-breakingly uncomfortable’: the red and blue beaded throne. Photograph: Beth Evans/The Observer

“I’ve rescued a lot of friends’ grey sofas that way,” says Isata, whose fabric, which is printed in Yorkshire, is inspired by Sierra Leone country cloth, also known as kpokpo. It’s woven in strips on looms and then stitched together to form a whole piece. “It’s a very traditional Sierra Leonean craft. I love the idea of celebrating that.”

The formal double living room is divided by glazed bi-folding doors. One corner houses bespoke walnut shelving, designed by interior architect Ramses Frederickx to house mainly Dutch antique books inherited by Philipp. “It’s a mini formal library in a modern setting,” says Isata. The couple lived in Berlin for many years, where they began collecting contemporary European art, before moving to London in 2006.


Bright fabrics and West African art in the sitting room.

Shape shifters: bright fabrics and West African art in the sitting room. Photograph: Beth Evans/The Observer

Their international lifestyle is everywhere in evidence, as is a sense of whimsy. As you walk into the tiled hallway of their Victorian semi-detached home, a hotel sign announcing Motel Yalta welcomes you, by the late Turkish artist Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin. “We love that it reminds us of our travels to various countries,” says Isata, “and the juxtaposition of the excitement of the neon light and the banal reality of the place in the sign.” She loves vintage markets. “I am always pleased to pick up pieces from the past. Old glass vases, doilies, frames for photos or artwork.” Downstairs, an open-plan kitchen and living space overlooks the garden. “It was intensely used during lockdown by the girls – there was a lot of banana bread, and BBQs in the garden. We all converge down here.”

Accents of green, in everything from plants to fabric, bring cohesion to a space filled with more art and curios, and also serve to connect with the garden, which backs on to Hampstead Heath. The Magnificent Dozen, an artwork comprising 12 resin-cast African masks in primary colours by Serbian artists Djordje Ozbolt, sits above a sage-green velvet sofa, a Bamileke beaded stool from Cameroon beside it. Green-velvet dining chairs and bubble-like pendant lights, from Rothschild & Bickers, hanging over a marble-topped dining table by Knoll, from the Conran Shop, also pick up the green.

A well-stocked retro drinks trolley, sitting beneath two oval-framed paintings, by Brazilian artist Luzia Simons, sets the party tone in this room, helped by a dynamic abstract by Ivorian painter Aboudia over the fireplace. “I love a bar cart,” says Isata, “and a sprinkling of kitsch. It brings a sense of the carefree to design.” It’s a reminder, she says, that “we don’t need to take ourselves so earnestly.”

dar-leone.com

The Guardian

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