When it comes to sentimental spaces, Nasozi Kakembo's former Brooklyn brownstone is certainly up there.
"I became a mother there, a small business-owner, I completed grad school there. So many of my adult normative milestones happened there — and the city around me shaped all of that," the textile designer and xN Studio founder muses, sitting crosslegged in the sun inside her Maryland townhome. "Living in a small space taught me so much about what we actually need versus what we think we need."
In the winter of 2017, Kakembo and son Rafa decided to pack up, bid farewell to Brooklyn, and relocate to suburban Maryland, in a bid to be closer to the designer's parents. The goal was simple enough, to find a home that ticks all the boxes, boasts three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and preferably somewhere to park the car — "everything that we didn't have in Brooklyn," the designer laughs. Yet amid a sea of change, one thing that has remained is Kakembo's own global style — a blueprint lifted from her beloved Brooklyn brownstone and simply "scaled up."
"My home absolutely breaks the mold," Kakembo begins. "I now live in a very planned community and neighborhood — quintessential suburbia — situated between Baltimore and Washington. I basically replicated everything I had — or wished I had — in my Brooklyn apartment. I didn't even end up buying much new furniture even though I went from a two-bedroom apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone to a three-bedroom townhouse. I replicated the ceiling medallions here, the dining room wall, and added a classic subway tile in my kitchen. That said, I live in a great area. It's safe, it's clean, and it's diverse. These are all things that I don't take for granted, particularly in this polarizing social climate."
Cross the threshold and step inside Kakembo's 1,300-square-foot home, and it's hard to deny that the designer's layered and tactile style is rooted in the African arts. The by-product of growing up in the African art gallery in Washington D.C. where her mother was curator, Kakembo's approach to interiors is as bold, brave, and lively as the prints and patterns that decorate her line of soft textiles and throw pillows.
African mudcloth ottomans sit within feet of a woven Hans Wegner-style armchair — a serendipitous New York City street find, Kakembo explains — while a vintage Spike Lee poster, woven baskets, and a graphic black and white canvas — inspired by the designer's favorite piece from an episode of HBO's Insecure — dress the dove gray walls. Kakembo studied architecture and demonstrates an understanding of how to treat a space perhaps better than most. Her home serves as both a compilation of favorite pieces from a certain time and place and an exercise in savvy DIY.
"I grew up surrounded by African art and African influences, and I'd always been an artistically creative person, but hadn't expressed it in any real way in my adult life," the designer begins, when pressed about how the formerly Brooklyn-based xN Studio first came to be."At the time, I was working in human rights and was on a work trip to Dakar, Senegal, when all of the puzzle pieces kind of fell in place. I saw the textiles I had grown up with in a very different context and environment, and it allowed me to think about it differently — in a way that actually interested me. At the time, I needed throw pillows for my own home and I couldn't find any in local stores that I liked. So I had the idea of using African textiles for home decor items and I founded my brand in 2011."
"I started out with pillows because that was the first thing I could teach myself to make and I actually needed some," Kakembo continues. "From there, I just kept going. I signed up for a host of street markets and festivals in Brooklyn that summer, opened my own Etsy shop, and eventually started getting wholesale inquiries. Two years in, I quit my day job. Coming from a human rights background, it was also important to me to center my work around a social cause, so I work closely with other independent businesses and women-owned brands in Uganda and Ghana, I also give back to communities in the form of educational scholarships and capital improvement investments. The rest, I suppose, is history."
Sherwin-Williams walls are decorated with painterly canvases and feathered juju hats in different shapes and sizes, while assorted house plants sit baking in the sun. An IKEA cowhide warms up wooden floorboards while an Amazon ceiling medallion and George Oliver pendant light— Kakembo's own handiwork — serve as a subtle nod to the Brooklyn space the designer left behind.
In the neighboring kitchen, Kakembo fully exercises a skillset for balancing color and pattern. Navy blue cabinetry, geometric xN Studio wallpaper, a classic subway brick, and cherry red Overstock counter stools bring a sense of vibrancy and character to an otherwise templated townhouse kitchen. Sheepskin rugs and a vintage runner further add to the look and feel, while an Aalto-style stool — sourced via IKEA— props up a leafy yucca plant.
"The kitchen cabinets and countertops were in excellent condition — they just weren't my style in terms of color and finish," Kakembo explains. "I basically identified all of the things that I could update myself, went down a Pinterest rabbit hole, and accumulated all of the design ideas and inspiration once I was in contract on my place. By the time I moved in a month or later, I already had the plan in place. My son was staying with family in Brooklyn that summer, so I had a very finite timeline to get everything done — otherwise we would have been living in a project zone. I started with painting the cabinets — Oxford Blue by Giani Inc. to be exact — then installed the backsplash, open shelving, and wallpaper. Looking back, I could have avoided some major headaches had I sequenced it all differently — like installing the open shelving after the subway tile and wallpaper. The countertops have seen a few different treatments. Initially, I used marble contact paper which worked well for a while but the seams started lifting. I also love the look of marble but it's just not practical as a countertop surface, especially in a house that consumes a lot of curry and turmeric. So I used a marble-effect paint kit made especially for countertops and I love how it turned out. It took one weekend to complete plus another few days to cure — and it cost me less than $200."
"Another recent update was to swap out the fluorescent light fixture. Again, it was fine, but begging for a style update. I purchased a new fixture from Wayfair and completed the installation myself."
Kakembo's approach to DIY infiltrates throughout her home, from the Benjamin Moore accent wall in the main bedroom to the hand-painted decal in the bathroom space. The designer's favorite room — and "by far the messiest" is her studio, a hub that's offered solace during the chaos of Covid-19, during an exclusively remote work and school schedule.
"This is where my son and I spend most of our most time," Kakembo explains. "In March when the schools shut down, we would sit across from each other and he would be distance learning and I would be working. It's such a cozy space and it also gets great natural light throughout the entire day because it has two exposures — east and south."
The designer decorates studio walls with assorted fabric swatches that inspire and drive her own growing practice, tacked vintage photography, a pegboard of tools, and a felt flag by Rayo & Honey that reads "create and resist." It's a creative space that's paid dividends during months of global unrest and general uncertainty.
"I was traveling internationally basically right up until the pandemic was declared," Kakembo begins, when asked how Covid-19 has impacted business. "I had traveled to Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Kenya, and Uganda in the five months prior — and held a ticket to go back to Berlin in April, and spend this past summer in Uganda. Needless to say, none of that has happened. Travel is a luxury to most, but with family all over the world, it's also a vital lifeline. I am not sure when I'll be able to see my family in so many places again — they're based in Ghana, Germany, Uganda, and the United Kingdom. We'll just have to wait and see. Work wise, like many other industries, I've relied heavily on technology to keep my business running with small businesses and creative partners abroad. Those ties are long-established, so we've made the effort to pivot to slightly different design and logistics models."
As the weirdest of months continue to roll by, Kakembo admits a work-from-home schedule devoid of any travel has only made her more grateful for her own space. Grateful for the surplus of square-footage, for her studio, for the time and energy she's personally poured into every detail from the ceiling medallions to the paint palette, right down to the mudcloth pillows that decorate the leather sofa.
"Like many other people currently stuck at home for the unforeseeable future, I've finally finished half-completed home projects around the house," the designer says. "The work that I have put into my home — both leading up to home ownership and design-wise — and the very fact that I have had shelter and warmth during such a globally unstable time, were two very significant factors. And for the first time, this really feels like my home, not just a house that I've made pretty because that's what I happen to do for a living."