Back in Spring 2020, as the world was collectively getting to grips with the realisation that we were in the midst of a pandemic, 28-year old craftsman and designer Paboy Bojang began sewing cushion covers to pass the time. He had recently lost his job at one of Naples' historic Majolica tile workshops and was staying with a friend who happened to have a neglected Singer machine and some fabric scraps. A year later, his homeware social enterprise In Casa By Paboy is recognised worldwide and has been featured in international media titles including Vogue and House & Garden. In this conversation, contributor Eva Ramirez discusses his introduction to textiles, the inspiration behind his optimistic, vibrant designs and what sparks joy in his life.
Bojang, originally from the Gambia, had been seeking asylum in Italy since 2015 however due to a slow immigration system, the renewal of paperwork that would allow him to continue on a fixed work contract was halted. Fuelled by his frustration and love of textiles, he began sewing his jewel-coloured cushion covers and posting them on Instagram. As is the nature of the internet and the virality of beautiful images, his eye-catching designs garnered the interest of many and Paboy began receiving an influx of orders. Since then, his business has been on a steadily upward trajectory.
Discrimination within the interior design industry is an institutional problem. Those from black, Asian, ethnic minority and low socio-economic communities are systematically discriminated against facing lower pay, fewer benefits and fewer job opportunities. Last year the BIID launched the UK interior design industry’s first-ever Diversity In Interior Design Survey and found that of the 363 designers who took part in the study, only 6% of those in senior roles were black.
Paboy has experienced first-hand the exploitation which many migrant and immigrant workers face and with his homeware social enterprise In Casa By Paboy, hopes to employ other migrants settled in Naples while nurturing their talents so that they too can be self-sufficient business owners. Paboy’s story is one of resilience, hope, innate talent and unwavering passion.
You were trained in a very traditional way, at your uncle’s tailoring shop. Does the concept of tradition infuse your work with In Casa by Paboy and if so, how so?
I first learnt to sew at age 13 at my uncle’s tailoring shop. As the eldest son and head of my family, I decided to go there to begin sewing for work. When I started out I was mostly making lots of traditional African dresses, many with lots of ruffles to look super impressive. So when I started cushions, I thought these same ruffles would work and it really did.
You previously worked at Antica Manifattura di Stingo, a majolica workshop crafting tiles and vases - how does working with ceramics differ from textiles?
It’s totally different from working with textiles, but you do still use your hands for everything. Seeing people painting the tiles with so many different beautiful colour combinations was amazing and it definitely inspired me quite a lot. It was totally different to what I’m doing now, except for the fact that everything is done by hand.
Did you have a set plan when starting out and have things gone the way you had envisioned?
Honestly, when I first started (In Casa By Paboy) I really didn’t expect things to go the way they have. All of a sudden, people started reacting to my designs, sharing them and sending me requests, it was such a surprise. I initially said to my housemate “I don’t think this is going to be such a good idea, I think I’m going to need to find a full-time job and maybe just do some sewing on the side.” Then as soon as I felt the interest from so many people, I knew it was really going to happen and that I would have to put 100% effort into it. My first interview with Vogue was so, so exciting - I’d never imagined in my life that something like that could ever happen.
Making The Most Of Local Suppliers
Your cushions are crafted from 100% Italian cotton, which you source from local suppliers - what importance do you place on the fabrications you use?
At the beginning when I first started, it was a case of just using my housemate’s mum’s unwanted fabrics that were under her bed. I didn’t want to waste them, and there was a lot to choose from, so I used up all of those initially until they ran out. I was used to using traditional African fabrics which I loved working with and I initially thought about using these for the cushions. However, I came across the 100% Italian cotton which I now use and it instantly attracted me, I knew it was what I needed. I love that it’s a cool fabric with a great texture and it also comes in lots of different colours.
All of your cushions are handmade and often have long waiting lists due to their popularity - what is your favourite part of the process from design through to completion?
I started out only doing bespoke, made-to-order designs. But my favourite part of the process is working with colours and choosing the combinations. Now that I have such a high volume of orders it’s not possible for me to create bespoke designs, rather, I make them all by hand and sell them ready-to-go.
Do you have a go-to method for developing your colour combinations?
I see colour combinations everywhere. Naples is full of colourful buildings which inspire me a lot. Also, my work at the ceramic factory opened my eyes to experimenting with colour. Just walking around town I’m inspired. I’d say at the moment my favourite combination is red and pink, it’s bold, fun, romantic and can work in lots of ways.
Your home country of Gambia is well-known for its incredible textiles, particularly brightly coloured wax and damask cloths and bold tie-dye and batik patterns. Do you draw on any of these techniques for your own creations?
My culture has definitely inspired and maybe in the future I will look at working with patterned fabrics, but for now I’m sticking to plain-coloured fabrics with decoration coming from the sewing techniques or trimmings such as pom-poms, quilting or ruffles.
Do you have future plans to expand into other homeware products?
Definitely. I have quite a lot of ideas for the future in terms of homewares, mainly soft furnishings such as tablecloths, bedsheets, curtains and blankets - all of them! I need to redecorate my room so I’ll probably be trying some things out very soon!
Would you ever consider collaborating with other brands or designers?
Yes, for sure. I have had several requests so far but for now, I don’t think I’m quite ready yet. In Casa By Paboy is still a very young business, I only started a year ago. I’m waiting patiently for the right moment and the right opportunity.
Providing Support For Immigrant Workers & Future Generations
We're excited to hear that you have plans to employ other immigrants as well as supporting them to sell their own crafts. Can you tell us a bit about this?
I really want to help immigrants like me who are living in cities like Naples but still going through difficulties. There are so many people with no financial support and that are not able to work. Life for them is a nightmare. I think helping other people in this way will hopefully inspire others in the design industry to do the same, and hopefully work together towards a better, fairer future for everyone.
Do you feel there is adequate support and resources currently out there?
Sadly, I’ve not come close to experiencing support in this way. It’s not easy for those who come to European countries to start a new life and have to leave their livelihoods behind. It’s not just the design industries or creatives either - a good friend of mine was an accountant back in Gambia but when he came here his life went from 100 to 0 and it was very frustrating for him as he’s had no help to build up his career here. It’s almost luck to be able to come here and continue on the career path which you may have started back at home.
Have you connected with other designers since launching your own home textile business In Casa By Paboy?
I’ve had lots of lovely interactions with designers, especially in Milan. Lots of them were interested in my work and seeing what I do. It’s all been positive in that sense, but it’s all been online. Hopefully post-Covid we will be able to meet in real life!
Your rainbow-coloured cushions have brought much-needed joy to many people during what’s been a difficult year - what brings you the most joy?
Right now, exactly what I am doing makes me happy. Having all of the multicoloured cushions around my room as I sew brings me joy. And seeing all of my creations around the world in other people’s rooms makes me so, so happy. I always wanted to be a footballer - I never thought I’d be making cushions! I just never expected this, which makes it all the more special.
Designed by Woulfe has invited travel and lifestyle journalist Eva Ramirez to curate our Emerging Talent Series for the Design Journal. Having lent her voice to publications including Robb Report, Conde Nast Traveller and British Vogue, she has documented her travels and the people she has met along the way in the form of long-form features, city guides, in-depth interviews and personal accounts. Through a sensibility towards conscious travel, Eva shares insight into what’s worth seeing - in between the typical hotels, restaurants or boutiques - and in the process, has honed her discerning eye for the fresh talent that are shaking things up in their respective industries. In this collection of interviews, Eva discusses creativity, craft and inspiration with some of the design world's most exciting and inspiring trailblazers.