All Natalie Anderson wanted to do as a child was to design. ‘I was always on the computer. Microsoft Paint was my Facebook of the day and I was always drawing things on it,” she enthuses.
As she grew up Anderson’s ‘big thing’ became cars. She was influenced by her father’s passion for professional motor racing and time spent at the defunct La Formula One Raceway in Accra, which her father developed. After designing a car for a school project, Anderson set her heart on studying vehicle design at university.
Her high school counsellor tried to persuade Anderson – the class valedictorian – to consider a more ‘conventional’ degree program, as Ghana had no car industry and therefore no jobs for car designers. But Anderson would not budge.
Her love affair with design has continued since – with a few bumps along the way. After high school, she attempted mechanical engineering at a Canadian university, but left after a year.
“Mechanical engineering was not what I had in mind when I was thinking of designing cars and Montreal was too cold”, Anderson recalls.
She headed for Marbella, Spain, to study interior architecture. It was close, but still not quite what she wanted. And yet her studies on the Costa Del Sol led her to discover industrial design, which turned out to be a much better fit for the young would-be entrepreneur.
Anderson moved back to Africa and enrolled in an industrial design degree program at Cape Tech (Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa) where she spent the next four years studying the fundamentals of design of everyday things, such as shoes, aeroplanes, engines and furniture.
In her final year at Cape Tech she won a design competition which took her to Sweden as an exchange student. Inspired by the design conscious society she saw around her and by the story of Ikea the Swedish furniture maker, she declared that she wasn’t coming back.
“I felt I was done with Ghana,” she confesses, and decided to go and work for Ikea. But before the exchange program had ended, with a little soul searching, she knew her destiny awaited her back home. She took the first flight to Ghana as soon as she completed her studies and didn’t even wait for her graduation ceremony.
Her original plan was to “reclaim” some of her family’s ancestral land at Axim, in the Western Region, on which she would grow bamboo to make contemporary sustainable furniture.
But when she heard that that Kimo Homes – the tiles and sanitary ware giant – was looking to refurbish its showroom in Accra’s South Industrial Area, she decided to put in a pitch. Although at the time, she had never done anything like that and didn’t even have a proper set up, she was undeterred. She’d seen her father design and build many projects including each of the homes her family had lived in so she was confident she could get it done.
She won the Kimo Homes contract and approached a graphic designer she knew from Spain to join her in setting up Design Express. “In three days we hired a lawyer, registered the company and created the name,” she explains.
“Hence Design Express – not very creative, I admit.”
After the Kimo job the work tailed off for a while. But then her big break came when she was approached by the management of Vodafone Ghana to design the interiors of their new corporate headquarters at Airport City. It was a dream contract not just because of the profile of the client and the visibility of the project – but also because ‘there was no budget’.
Since Kimo and Vodafone, many more Ghanaian corporates looking for authentic Ghanaian products and interior designs have turned to Anderson and her team at Design Express. Using predominantly locally-sourced materials, Design Express provides turnkey solutions in the commercial interior space with an authentic Ghanaian twist.
Finding locally inspired solutions is core to Anderson’s philosophy and as a result, she travels the length and breadth of the country meeting artisans and sourcing the finest products and services for her projects.
For Surfline’s flagship store in Osu for example, the only thing Anderson imported was the luxury vinyl flooring and Herman Miller chairs. Everything else was produced in Ghana and most of them under the supervision and direction of Anderson.
“One of the things we try to do, is define what contemporary Ghanaian design is. Because there are no visual tell-tale signs of what Ghanaian design is: you can’t tell from the architecture or from the landscape,” she says.
Taking a business of this kind to such heights in such a tough environment – Ghana – is as hard as anybody’s guess. You’d think Natalie would bash in a bit of the praise. She’s quick to deflect it and make it known immediately that “the success of Design Express can be attributed to the Lord’s counselling, guidance, favour and protection. It’s so important to me that the glory is given to Him.
Although thankful for the growth and opportunity Design Express has seen, Anderson’s regret is that she has not been able to make time to have a holiday with her daughter. But, based on Anderson’s growing stellar reputation, my guess is it might be many more years before she is able to manage a break.
The writer is author of Kuenyehia On Entrepreneurship, Chairman of ENSAfrica│Ghana and Corporate Executive in Residence at the University of Ghana Business School. Follow him on twitter @elikemkuenyehia