Isatu Funna: Dar Leone designer

Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 21 seconds

Everyone has a story. Former corporate lawyer Isatu Funna explains how childhood memories of her grandmother and Sierra Leone beaches led her to open Dar Leone, in Angel, selling a globally inspired range of interior and lifestyle products. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill

Isatu Funna at her shop, Dar Leone on Chadwell Street near Angel. “Dar – means house in Arabic. Tonnes of houses in Morocco have this word Dar as their address, and I have a good friend from Dar es Salasm, Tanzania. Leone is for myself as I grew up in Sierra Leone and went to school there until I was 15.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

“Dar Leone is inspired by memories of a tremendously happy childhood. For me the highlight was Lumley beach and the Atlantic ocean,” says Isatu Funna leaning on the shop counter. That seaside memory is why her shop has the carefree feel of holidays with its starfish logo and brightly-coloured fishing rope window display. For fun Isatu has hung up signs measuring the distance to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and the Banana Islands (3,124 miles) – again offering clues about her colour-infused West African design influences.

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Isatu was born in the States, grew up in Sierra Leone where she went to high school until she was 15 years old. “Then my family moved to the US so I did college in Maine, at Bowdoin.” This was followed by law school in Louisiana.” Although she longs to go and visit Sierra Leone, most big family gatherings are held in the southern part of the US.

“My Freetown sign gets a lot of attention,” says Isatu looking around this unique Islington design emporium. By the entrance there’s a wooden marquetry cabinet filled with sparkling Vive l’Afrique slogan cosmetic bags and African-inspired jewellery. On top of the cabinet stand glistening glass vases from Mexico, while on the velvet covered chairs (her design, known as Cirque Musa after the 14thcentury Sultan of Mali, Mansa Musi, famed for being the richest person in history) are a pile of bright Tunisian foots (sarongs). The walls are papered in custom-made wallpaper inspired by traditional Sierra Leone country cloth patterns and then hung with raffia decorated mirrors. The whole is a riot of colour – wash bags named after tropical fruit (think coconut brown, soursop lime or jackfruit green), a beaded stool from the Cameroon that took three months to make and a shelf of giant, brightly-coloured cushions.

It’s truly a taste of traditional West African pattern with unexpected dashes of colour, but with a look and feel which Isatu explains just didn’t exist anywhere else. “I looked around when shopping for décor for my own home [she’d just moved from Berlin with her husband, who is German, and had just got a job in London]. We’d moved to Hampstead and I wanted something that reflected a more heritage view of west African textiles with a contemporary twist in terms of colour and methods of production.”

“You see a lot of Dutch wax prints everywhere, it’s what’s thought of as African fabric, but it’s never been my favourite. I wanted to harken back to my grandmother’s time who lived in one of the furthest villages, close to the Liberian border, and would have known and worn geometric textiles, often quite simple stripes, woven and hand-dyed, which we call country cloth.”

Isatu’s grandmother, Manua, was born in the 1900s but died in the 1980s. Talking about her, Isatu’s face clouds as she adds, “the sad thing is that we don’t know how she died as the war had just started in that area. After the civil war a lot of the artisan crafts people and skills were lost. At first my goal was to represent new African designs. When I first started I ordered quite a few current types of country cloth but what is currently made is not the same quality as you can see if you compare to the traditional textiles from Sierra Leone in the British Museum,” says Isatu adding that, “there are charities which are trying to revive the skills, but we’re not quite there yet. So, my aim has evolved and now my stock is a contemporary reimagining of west African textiles.”

Despite her confident design flair, opening this shop in November 2015 was a huge career change for Isatu, who’d spent her career in the US working as a lawyer in corporate securities, a profession her parents approved of.

“I thought my skills lay in analysing and business or law, I never thought I had any creative spark. Perhaps it’s because I came from a very traditional African family? The idea was I’d go on to do something in business or law and the idea of this would not have been considered so worthy by my father. I’m a late starter to this wonderful job! But I’ve no regrets about leaving law, and no regrets about going to law school as it develops your critical thinking skills which you can use is so many other avenues,” says Isatu.

Isatu Funna: “I am creative director of Dar Leone. For textile design I do work with illustrators who render my ideas for graphics which then go to a design agency, to be worked up on Photoshop and then a digital print is test printed. We may or not tweak it further.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

At this point she lifts on to the counter a 30cm high wooden carving of a man-at-work from the Ivory Coast which from the end of the colonial era were passed from father to child as a very clear sign about what career they expect their offspring to follow – soldier, judge, doctor, cook. Symbolically Isatu has stocked these figures since day one and this one is extra quirky, it looks as if he is a photographer.

“Angel is the right location in terms of where I thought our products would be of interest. We wouldn’t work everywhere but I really like the mix of people based in Islington.  It seems to attract a really diverse, and quite young population. I like the proximity to Angel Central and this Angel building on St John Street which has a lot of companies and young creatives working there. We also get people from the neighbourhood and long-time residents of the squares around here too and we are close to Amwell Street which has always been a favourite spot for independent shops.”

Isatu Funna: “We opened Dar Leone three years ago (November 2015). It’s gone stunningly fast: it feels like we opened yesterday. We have this beaded stool from Cameroon that take three months to make. And there are Tunisian foutar towels which featured in the Independent as some of the 12 best hammam towels. They sell really well in the shop and on line. You can go to the beach with them, they are lightweight and dry easily in the sun so you don’t have to wait for ages. Also, they can be used for tablecloths and as a throw on the bed and picnic with the kids and as a papoose to carry your baby. It’s suitable for everything in life, really, really useful.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

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Places Isatu Funna likes in Islington

  • Exmouth market – I like the mix of restaurants. cuisine and the street food market. Pizza Pilgrims has good eats.
  • I go to Upper Street quite a bit.
  • The butcher next door, Turner and George, at 399 St John Street is fantastic. I really lucked out with them as my retail neighbours. The last thing I bought there was Pluma-Iberico rare breed pork. It was delicious.
  • For lunch I tend to pop next door to Abokado on 398 St John Street – I can’t really leave the shop for too long. But if I’m feeling adventurous I go to the Lebanese canteen, Hummus Brothers, at 62 Exmouth Market for a humus bowl with chicken.

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As a newby to business only three years ago Isatu now has plenty of tips for anyone wanting to open a shop. She says: “Try and speak to other people in your industry as much as possible. People can be quite cadgy, but I wish I had known many, many things. I started with no idea of retail as I had no experience of working in a shop or even how to decorate a shop and design your windows. I just thought you open it and they will come,” she says with a laugh but, “you really have to learn how to convert passing trade into actual trade. In the beginning we didn’t really focus on the window, but you need to have people be able to see it from where the Prêt on St John Street is, displaying things that are saturated in colour.”

Already Dar Leone has been featured in a host of design mags and “many sales were generated from our Senegal baskets being mentioned in the Guardian. You just never know what’s going to catch the public’s imagination,” says Isatu happily.

  • Dar Leone, 1 Chadwell Street, EC1R 1UX
  • @darleone info@dar-leone.com 07889 389670
  • For products on sale online (and info, eg, July and August opening times: 12 noon – 5pm Tuesday – Saturday), see https://www.dar-leone.com

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola