To celebrate the launch of the Motley x Lola Fenhirst collection, we sat down for a conversation with our newest Motley designer: Lola Oladunjoye. Founder of Lola Fenhirst and former Silicon Valley lawyer, Lola’s work blends traditional African motifs with European fine jewellery design.
Read on for a conversation on cultural influences, contrasts and the inspiration behind the ‘Mosaic of Self’ collection.
So, let’s start from the beginning: your pre-jewellery design days. Previously, you worked in Silicon Valley as a lawyer. What sparked that shift into something creative – and specifically, into jewellery?
I was 8 years into my legal career when I felt as though I had overdeveloped my faculties and completely neglected the creative side of my personality. I started looking for ways to develop that balance. I started taking creative classes – textiles, photography – and then, I happened to take a class in metalsmithing. I completely fell in love. That alchemy that’s involved in changing the shape and patina of the metal really intrigued me. Immediately after taking the class, I realised: this is going to be my creative output.
You’ve moved around a fair bit – from London to Nigeria to the States and now, Paris. Tell me more about that journey.
My parents moved to London from Nigeria just before Nigerian Independence in 1960. They moved – as did thousands of others – as part of this sort of move to the motherland. So, I was born here and grew up mostly in West London. I felt really connected to London, but there was always this awareness that my parents wanted me to be connected to my roots. They decided it would be a good idea for me to move back for university. So, when I was 18, I moved there and that’s where I did all of my university education. I did a degree in African Literature first and then went to law school.
I think, being born in a place that was my home, but not necessarily my ancestral home, I’ve always had this ability to not be overly-rooted – and to have a little bit of wanderlust set in. I feel comfortable in many different environments.
Do you feel like navigating that sense of multiple homelands is a source of inspiration for your work?
Yes, I think that it’s intrinsic in the work I do. What I do tends to be about exploring identity and looking at heritage and ethnicity – and what it’s like to have a dual ethnicity and a dual sense of heritage, which so many people have these days. My designs have a Western jewellery aesthetic and they’re crafted in the European fine jewellery tradition.
But there’s also a little bit of boldness and starkness – design that isn’t necessarily European. That comes from my West African Yoruba heritage, where things are large and colourful and unrestrained. They’re quite joyful. Fusing those two influences together is what led to the collections of work I’ve created.
How has your Yoruba heritage influenced the naming of pieces in your new collection?
So, all of the pieces in this collection are gender-neutral and in Yoruba culture, names aren’t expressly feminine or masculine. All names – whether they’re for a boy or a girl – are considered to be a prayer. Names are an invocation and deeply meaningful.
I thought there was an interesting way to tie this to the pieces that I create. I think jewellery is aspirational; you put on jewellery to express who you are – but also to express who you would like to be or who you want the world to see you as. With those aspects in mind, I thought it was a good idea to use names to describe the pieces. Each name is steeped in meaning and represents the influence of cultural heritage; I’m very attached to them.
Your collection for Motley is called ‘A Mosaic of Self’. How do you feel like this collection represents you – or a mosaic of yourself?
My Motley collection is a little bit of a rendition of one of my first works, the Sybil Collection. That work represents the intersection of Western and African cultures; with round, curved, beaded elements for a full and joyful feel. There’s also very structured, architectural lines in the same pieces. I wanted to do something very similar for Motley, but in a more playful way. I wanted the Motley pieces to fold in more colour than you would typically find in a fine jewellery collection. That’s where we got to experiment with the cobalt and some of the other colours.
On a wider note, all of my work is a direct reflection of my heritage, my culture and the path I’ve travelled. Even in my career as a lawyer and still practising today – all of those aspects are additive to the final pieces. My collection is unique to me because it brings in all of those parts of my persona and my journey – it marries those contrasts.
How has your inspiration process changed over the years? What gets you thinking?
Well, I don’t have formal training in design. I didn’t go to art school, which is a bit of a chagrin for me. Growing up, I always wanted to be that girl – you know: the girl who went to art school or joined a band, or designed clothes. This wasn’t necessarily the path that I was encouraged to follow.
I think my process is a little haphazard. I’m not that good at sketching, but I do have a sketchbook that I take with me everywhere I go. I find that I’m inspired by architecture. I’m always inspired by metals and ironwork and I think architecture is a really good way to understand the times and culture. Here in Paris, you’ll see lots of irons and railings. In West Africa, you’ll see much more organic materials in architecture. That always inspires me because it’s a form of art; it’s people taking the materials they have around them and using them to create structures which reflect culture and life.
So, I’m always looking at buildings and doorways and different frameworks. I think those are then reflected in what I sketch. I take a lot of photographs and I read a lot, and it’s hard to explain how it all comes together. But reading gives me words and ideas for an overall collection and then environmental shapes inspire the structure of my pieces. It’s a rather organic process.
That sounds like a very holistically creative process. Is there anything that you’re currently reading that’s inspiring you?
I have this habit – I think it comes from being a lawyer – of reading about three or four books at a time. I’m currently reading a lot of French literature: a lot of Émile Zola, who, to me, is like the French Charles Dickens. I love Dickens. There’s something wonderful about reading and walking around a city and seeing the historical streets in a book come to life, whether it’s the 9th arrondissement or Central London.
Do you think your collection is a way to do that – immortalising your journey as part of history?
I think jewellery in general is as important as fine art because it reflects history. I love going to exhibitions and seeing how jewellery evolved in different cultures and across different societies. To me, jewellery reflects the times; if I’m able to do something that reflects the times we’re in right now, I’m happy and honoured.
What would you like Motley customers to take away from your collection?
A sense of celebration, a sense of using adornment as a way…not to necessarily reflect the times, but almost to deflect the times. There’s a lot of angst and uncertainty at the moment, so the idea of putting together an accessible, joyful, colourful collection to contrast that.
Sustainability is an integral part of your ethos; can you tell me more about that?
Well, sustainability is definitely a core value of mine and of Lola Fenhirst as a brand. Now, more than ever, I think people realise that sustainability is a non-negotiable part of being creative – if we want to still have a planet 10,000 years from now. I came of age at a time when this was a no-brainer.
It’s incredibly important to me and it’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t in a hurry to collaborate with another company. I was only going to do it when I was comfortable with the fact that whoever I was collaborating with had a strong sustainability imprimatur as part of their business model. And I found that with Motley.
If you had to describe your collection in three words, what would they be?
Joyful, playful and rich.
Finally: what is next in your design journey?
I have plans for my next work: a stone-driven collection that pays homage to West African tribal art and sources stones from Africa. It’s going to take a certain amount of time to do. In the meantime, I’m trying to put something I read recently into practice: ‘creative people have to learn to be comfortable with not doing anything’.
Sometimes, I don’t want to do anything for a couple of months – and often, when you think you’re not doing something, you are. It’s not just not a physical thing; you’re thinking and preparing and resting and restoring, and that’s sort of what I’m doing right now. I know that the collection is going to come about in its own good time, when it’s ready.
The Motley x Lola Fenhirst collection is available for pre-order now.