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A multicultural seat at the design table

Jess Kilubu is a man on a mission. He breathes a second life into old chairs by recycling them and reupholstering them with African wax fabric through his brand Kilubukila. His adventure started as a side project aimed at quenching his thirst for creativity and keeping him busy. Two years on, the personal project has become a young startup thanks to a growing demand for his bistro chairs with a maximum of cool factor.

Don’t call him a founder, as most creators of startups put on their profiles. He says he is first and foremost a maker, on a fun learning journey.  We met him at Africa on the Square in London where he was exhibiting his first collection of chairs and a range of new, recycled tables.

Jess and his chairs


How did your adventure in furniture upcycling start?

It started two years ago, mainly out of boredom. Having an office job, not doing anything in the evenings, I wanted to use my hands and have something I would be proud of. More deeply, I think it started as an identity project. So finishing university, I started to furnish my house, and looking for some furniture that could be a bit more interesting than just Ikea but not Habitat yet, something that is a bit more multicultural. So I started to use African prints on furniture and thought, wow. It looks like me. I am of African descent; I grew up in Europe so let’s have a piece of furniture that incorporates both and that looks a bit more like me.  So it is very much an identity project.

Do you make all this furniture by yourself?  

The structure of the bistro chair is made in Central Europe. For the rest, I do it myself. For the time being, we have only the bistro chairs because we wanted a unified theme. I made the table and some collages for this exhibition.

So talk to me about the lifecycle of your chairs.

The good thing is I don’t know where they start their life. Because I like to use things that have a second life, that have had a life before, so it’s about reclaimed wood, it’s all about upcycling, recycling. The whole philosophy is that it had a life before and I am helping it have a second life now, and maybe it will have a life in the future.

It started as a personal project; at what point did you decide that it was time to outgrow the personal project?

I started to have a really good reception from the project. People were saying “wow, I like your pieces.” “Can I buy one?” “I would love to have this in my house.” It was when people started validating my creativity. It was good from a commercial perspective, to make money. It was at that time, probably a year and a half ago that I started the company and I started to attend fairs and markets.


So how is the commercial side going?

It’s going on ok. It’s typical of a startup lifecycle you have ups and downs. Sometimes it’s nice and then not so nice. You kind of want to quit, but then you have big things. It’s good, it’s exciting, but I think we are still on the up curve. I feel confident actually for the future. We will see.

Jess K in his atelier


Can you share some of the challenges you face?

Time is definitely a challenge. I have got another day activity, and I am also trying something else. So time would definitely be something. Focus. Try not to do too much, understand that things sometimes cannot roll and be a bit more patient. Also, what do I really want to do? Do I want to move into something else? Does that keep interesting me? Trying to keep the project like it was, a real identity thing that is almost a bit more political?  What being African is to me? Who do I talk to? Who is my customer base? What do I want to tell them?


How do you strike that balance between a contemporary feel and the identity and cultural side?

I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I think diffusing my culture in a design way is actually what I want to aim for. It might be about time we move from craftwork to more design work, more modern. I think that’s what I am trying to do really. Having a culture-based design work and seeing how it develops. It’s trial, it’s error, and it’s fun. That’s the really fun part, and it feels like it’s really going the right way.


I saw your design with the floating chairs on Monet’s Water Lilies, how did that come about?

It came about when you start to have a different reading about African prints and understand sometimes it’s not only a pattern, but it can also tell stories. A lot of these prints have been around for 60 years. Our mothers wore them. They have meanings. They have been worn for weddings, funerals for many events even sometimes in a political way. So it’s about getting the meanings. It’s not just saying they have cool aesthetics, they have nice colors, they have nice patterns but getting the meanings. Watching movies, you can understand that fabrics can talk.

How do you pick a print?

 There is something very emotional about choosing the print. It’s only my first collection. So I think I chose very loosely. I went for what I wanted to go for.

It was more of an affectionate thing. But when you think about it deep down, I was raised with some of these prints. Women in my family, people around me, they were all wearing African prints. So I think there is something subconscious about it. When I look at it, I chose very modern prints as if I wanted to actualize the whole thing. I think in the future I want to move away from the Dutch prints – by going back to African locally designed prints and see how it goes with those.


chairs by Kilubukila

Are you talking about the woven fabrics?

Maybe some of the woven fabric or Kuba fabrics.  That type of thing. I am going to launch a project working with Kuba fabric and linguists in Kinshasa. I will work on how I can use traditional prints but using more modernized patterns and may be produced in The Congo, which is the aim of the project: locally based, locally produced and locally designed furniture. We will see how it goes, but it’s challenging.  


Looking at all your projects, it appears that you are a socially engaged entrepreneur, what drives you?

I thrive for connection, for human networking. What I exist for is to have a meaning in someone else’s life. Make a connection. Doing things very socially, with a human perspective. Re-using, being conscious of the planet.

Images (c) of Kilubukila.com


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