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TRADITION AND INNOVATION

Fort Greene biz couple imports decor from their Ghanian factory

for The Brooklyn Paper
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If you take a walk down Fulton Street until you reach Lafayette Avenue, you’ll see on that corner a window filled with elegant, beautifully designed furniture and decorative objects. The store is Ashanti Origins, the U.S. arm of Image Afrika Ltd., based in Accra, Ghana.

Ashanti Origins is owned by entrepreneurial couple Linda Howard Smith and her husband, Kwa bena Smith of Ghana, who are experienced in the design, manufacture and sale of African-made furniture.

"We named the store Ashanti Origins after that ethnic group in Ghana," said Linda. "The Ashanti culture is known for its fine craftsmanship."

Image Afrika began 10 years ago as a handicraft company trading with such retailers as Pier 1, Bloomingdales and Habitat. The company’s product line evolved over the years to a distinctive furniture line in 1995, at first selling primarily in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

Today the company ships furniture to 20 different countries worldwide and has a Web site, www.ashantiorigins.com. It has also exhibited at the Chicago Design Show, as well as trade and consumer shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington.

"We have the largest range in the city of African-inspired home furnishings," Linda told GO Brooklyn. Decorative items inspired by African motifs include dishes, flatware, glasses, cutlery, table runners, napkin rings, door pulls, light switch plates, scented candles, ceramic vases and coasters.

The Smiths also sell a wide range of furniture, all handcrafted and custom-made in their factory in Ghana.

"One thing that makes these pieces unique is our use of mixed media, and artistic and unique combinations of different materials like wood and brass, and iron and upholstery," Linda said.

Their fabrics are hand-woven; their leather is hand-stitched and the wood is hand-carved.

Linda, who was born in New York City, met Kwabena on a trip to Ghana. She eventually joined him in marriage and in his furniture business. Then, in 1996, the couple moved to South Africa, where for two years they sold their furniture.

In 1998, the Smiths came to America, a move that Linda described as "coming home."

At first they opened shop in New Jersey, but they soon came to Fort Greene, because "we thought it would be an area where we could reach a cross-section of people," Smith said. "A lot of people from Brooklyn were on our list [of customers]. There are also several African restaurants in the neighborhood. We thought we could help each others’ markets grow."

Although most people come to Ashanti Origins from the tri-state area, Smith said they have customers from all over the country. When the Smiths were still in New Jersey, they realized their pieces had a global appeal.

"The African-American community connects to the pieces for spiritual reasons. These pieces reflect their culture and origins," said Smith. "But other people with eclectic tastes, people who are well-traveled and have been exposed to different cultures, are also attracted to our pieces. They appreciate the craftsmanship."

Smith describes her typical customer as someone 30 to 45 years old, who has developed a mature taste and now wants to "graduate to more quality."

"These people are thinking more permanently," she says. "They want pieces that can last a lifetime and become a family heirloom."

Although Ashanti Origins incorporates traditional African motifs, the pieces also feature contemporary design.

"A lot of people don’t picture African design as contemporary," Linda notes. "Once people are familiar with our design, they recognize it."

From a sleek, gently curved Kumasi stool with hand-carved geometric details on all sides, to a Kalao wing chair, made of wrought iron and inspired by the traditional West African Faso butterfly wing mask (it looks like a museum-quality sculpture), to a Balangi CD rack, inspired by the ubiquitous Djembe drum found throughout West Africa - Ashanti Origins offers an exquisite blend of the old and new, form and function, tradition and innovation.

 

Ashanti Origins, 59 Lafayette Ave. at Fulton Street in Fort Greene, accepts American Express, Discover, Visa and MasterCard, and is open Monday through Wednesday, noon to 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday, noon to 8 pm; and Sunday, noon to 6 pm. For more information, call (718) 855-1006 or visit www.ashantiorigins.com.

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