Life & Business

Boldly Tackling the Unknown with Gbenga Akinnagbe

by Garrett Fleming

Before I began contributing to Design*Sponge, I was looking for a change. Working as an art director for five years had gotten a bit stale, and I wanted to explore my passion for interiors. The problem? I had zero experience. I didn’t go to school for interior design and had few contacts in the field. Nevertheless, when I saw that Design*Sponge was hiring I threw caution to the wind. *Eureka!* I stayed up into the wee hours of the night finessing my application to be a home tour contributor, and luckily the rest is history. Looking back, it was the inspiring creatives that came before me that pushed me to pave this new road for myself. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to take the risk if it weren’t for others having shown me that it can be done.

One such inspiring creative is actor turned furniture designer Gbenga Akinnagbe, who took a leap of faith recently by starting vintage furniture brand ENITAN. Before its launch, he had about as much formal training on interiors and decor as I did. In fact, it was his lack of knowledge that set him on the path to launch the line. As the story goes, while renovating his Brooklyn apartment he chatted up designer friends in search of help decorating the space. While researching different looks, Gbenga stumbled upon a wild-and-colorful chair. Its eye-catching pattern and shape were so unique, the fire that sparked ENITAN was lit. Since then he’s traipsed around Brooklyn, collecting soon-to-be-tossed chairs and pairing them with colorful fabrics from Africa. It seems fitting that the pieces are decked out in such bold designs. Their patterns serve to honor not only Gbenga’s African heritage, but the boldness it took to bring a brand to life from scratch. After the jump, you’ll hear more about how Gbenga took a leap of faith and bravely tackled the unknown. Enjoy! —Garrett

Photography by Chinasa Cooper for AphroChic

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

As an actor, I work for myself like any other contractor. Working for myself allows me to learn and create at my discretion while taking advantage of the fact that acting takes me all over the world where I can discover antique/vintage pieces and beautiful cloth. I suppose the biggest reason I decided to start ENITAN is because I knew nothing about this world, and it fascinated me. I love vintage furniture and all things African. That was as good a place [as any] to start my education.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do? 

Sometime last year while looking to upgrade my home, I reached out to a number of people with far more developed senses of style than my own. During this time I came across a photo of an arm chair with wild colors on it. I’d never seen something like that, and started doing research to find more pieces upholstered in fabrics and colors from outside the box. A passion was lit.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

The best piece of advice I’ve received so far has been to not be afraid of collaboration. This advice spoke to me as there are so many talented folks making and creating for spaces big and small, and I’m surrounded by inspiration and potential partners from all over the world.

Boldly Tackling the Unknown with Gbenga Akinnagbe, Design*Sponge

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult thing about starting ENITAN is figuring out the best strategies to bring the work out to folks. It’s new territory, but [it’s] exciting!

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

The biggest lesson on a long list of lessons so far is to pace myself. I have [to] resist the urge to have the company produce more and more work and save more and more pieces from being lost to time and dank basements.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

A moment of failure in the business came when I realized that I didn’t have the space I thought I would to hold and show my pieces. Before I knew it, [I was] trying to store one piece in one part of [Brooklyn], another with my upholsterers, [and] others in my basement.

Boldly Tackling the Unknown with Gbenga Akinnagbe, Design*Sponge

If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would find more gorgeous pieces for ENITAN in the first hour and a half [and] conduct interviews to expand the team with the other 90 minutes. One of the biggest things I’ve learned… is that it’s incredibly important to find good people to build a company with. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

Our biggest success at this point [has been being] lucky enough to be featured on a huge site like Design*Sponge. It’s really more than I imagined.

What business books/resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I read a book many years ago that influenced me and the way I go about business and life: Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice by Dennis Kimbro. It changed how I saw resources in my life. The premise is basic: what if you already had everything you needed or thought you wanted? What if the real journey was about discovering the gifts you [already] have and [learning to] bring them forward?

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

When I first started ENITAN, I brought on a curator to help as I was too unsure to trust myself creatively in this new space. Though the relationship was fruitful for the most part, it ended abruptly, and I was forced to stand on my own creatively while continuing to grow the company. It was a tough but beautiful lesson. No one will believe in your dream or work as hard for it as you will, and that’s okay.

Boldly Tackling the Unknown with Gbenga Akinnagbe, Design*Sponge

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Every morning the first site I go to is NPR, like clockwork.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious? 

The hardest thing about about being my own boss is time management. When I’m on a set, I’m part of an ecosystem that helps to dictate my actions and my schedule. With ENITAN, the ecosystem is mine to create. There’s both good and bad in that, and there’s no one to be accountable but me.

How did you finance your business in the beginning?

I’ve had a very fortunate career. This summer I was shooting Independence Day 2. From my wages, I started ENITAN.

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  • Thank you for this article. I’m ripping a page from Gbenga’s playbook. I feel he’s my kindred spirit in a way. I started an upholstery apprenticeship over 18-months ago as a second (ok maybe third) career change. Instead of pairing soon-to-be-tossed chairs with colorful African fabrics, I use scrap full-grain leather and hair-on hide pieces which are available in abundance from the workshop I apprentice at. I do have plans on working with Malian Bògòlanfini fabric and I’m very excited about that. All the challenges that he’s going through…I’m glad to see that I’m right on track. Good luck Gbenga!

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. I loved the furniture and beautiful fabric. I wish you much success!

  • Gbenga you are an inspiration and you make beautiful pieces of art. Old bodies with new souls. Keep shining your light with a beautiful African filter. X

  • Do “..not be afraid of collaboration.”

    I love that!

    Attractive works Gbenga.

    I love this site. I will keep coming back.

    Thanks Garret Fleming for this piece.