We look to Ajiri Aki as much for romantic table settings as we do a kind of design wisdom. Through her one-woman vintage tableware shop and rental company, Madame de la Maison, there are subtle lessons to be learned: Objects have histories and meaning. Invest in what lasts (and rent one-time-use goods). Always, always use the good china.
Born in Nigeria and raised in Austin, Texas, Ajiri earned her Masters in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture at The Bard Graduate Center and worked as a stylist in the fashion industry in New York and in The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. She lives now in her adoptive city of Paris with her Swiss-German husband, Thomas Buchwalder, and their two kids, Noomi (7) and Baz (4), where she scours flea markets with a stylist’s eye and a scholar’s appreciation of the material goods left over from generations past.
This week, we asked Ajiri to write on elements of her own design story, from the table as “a place where all are welcome” to what future antiquarians might make of our current moment.
Houses with stories:
“I moved to Austin when I was 5 years old, but oddly I remember my grandmother’s pink stucco house where we lived in Nigeria. It’s bizarre the things I remember about that house: the long dining table, the walls covered with family photos, objects scattered around that she had collected from her home in Jamaica and her adopted home in Nigeria, and a garden with fruit trees and flowers she cared for religiously. It was a space we children felt free in.
“Our home in Austin, where we lived from when I was 5 until my mother passed when I was 12, felt the same way to me. It was a place we felt comfortable and happy. Nothing was so precious that we weren’t allowed to be free. It was a very lived-in space, layered with photos and lots of objects. Looking back, without having had specific conversations about design with my mother, her étagère full of ceramics she made and objects from Nigeria had an impression on me. I am drawn to spaces imbued with memories and past and present lives.”
Saturday morning design lessons:
“Every Saturday, starting from when I was 6 years old, my mother dragged me to garage sales early in the morning. I would climb into her red Nissan pickup truck, and we’d drive around the neighborhood looking for makeshift brown cardboard signs with arrows pointing to a yard or garage sale. I dreaded it in the beginning. It was embarrassing digging through other people’s castoffs. Even worse if we happened to pull up to the house of someone in my class—I didn’t want to be the Black kid in class wearing a classmate’s old stuff. It didn’t help that there were zero other Africans in our community and only five other African-American families. Racism was subtle yet rampant where I lived in the early ’80s.
“I don’t know why she chose me to drag along on these trips considering all the complaining I did, but looking back, I see this as a primer for my fondness for flea markets and antiques. One day I asked her why we had to go to these garage sales. She simply responded: ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ I must have been about 8 years old, and I remember thinking about what she said and turning it around in my brain. Slowly I started to see these moments with my mother as a privileged time to spend with her, but also as a treasure hunt to find beauty and purpose in something that was no longer wanted. We weren’t exactly plucking out antiques in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, but I think this trained my eyes early.”