From architect to magazine designer to educator to curator – Atim Annette Oton

In his latest Four Corners column, Jon Daniel talks to multidisciplinary designer Atim Annette Oton.

Small Business Tuesday Tidbits: the September Series

Some days, posting what I think is hard but I know it is important. Three Lessons today to read:

Time, Lists and Numbers

Time waits for no man/woman. That sure is the statement of the century. I have been at Calabar imports for 10-1/2 years, December will make it 11, and one thing I have observed is that time flies fast, so I have been working with speed to do all the things that I have on my list – yes, that master list. I keep one. This year, the list included adding more locations – the result is 2 more. I keep that list around so I can see what I plan – and the list is a 6 year plan not a 5 year one, as it is in-tuned with my rhythm and life. 2018 is the next big shift but 2016 – as it will be 12 years at Calabar Imports. I take note that the number 6 is key to my life – my birthday is on the 6th, my home number has a 6, I watch it as a sign to note. ‪#‎powerfulstuff‬

Stop Talking, Plan and take Action

I am a talker so when I tell anyone to stop talking – folks look back at me. But, when it comes to business, I stop talking and listen, then, I plan and take action. In order to stop talking, you have to have a Sustainable PLAN. Most people tell me that they have a plan but most plans I hear about are not innovative or realistic. The typical ones I hear are repeating the same actions – for example – selling at events as a vendor – nothing wrong with that option but after a year – what’s next? Why do I say that? It’s a maximum income of $25,000 a year – or at best $30,000. That’s a part-time job and not all that work it takes to vend. So I ask, what’s your next plan. When I suggest selling wholesale or doing a store, most vendors look at me like I am crazy, which makes me wonder – I am just suggesting options to grow your business. What it actually reveals to me is something most people do not realize – they have no plan beyond the vending process. It’s a choice to stay with the familiar and not take risk. So if there is no plan, there is no action.

Patience, Perseverance and Strategy

I am not a patient person, but running a business teaches you patience. So many folks around me are in a rush to make lots of money and be famous, I am the opposite – I take the slow road of consistency, grit and hard work. Some say it builds character but it really builds a strong foundation. I know this road well – in 2006 when the economy began to shift, I took note and shifted things – so I survived 2008. Then, a fire in 2011 not 2012 reinforced opportunity to grow and expand and I took the growth road. So 2015 will end with 2016 plans intact – a goal to increase the business by 2 times our size, fine tune it and increase revenue in particular areas and dominate in others. It take Perseverance to do this but not without a clear strategy. While others focused on the spotlight, I take the background and steer my business along – it is the way of the risk taker – and my strategies are not to do the expected – but to do what I know best – build a solid business. So many when I started our no longer here even with all the press and the bright lights. I learnt that lesson when I was at Parsons – the C students ran the companies while the A students worked for the companies. The C Strategy was to have fun, party and network. The A student followed the rules. Risk and Strategy beats the rules sometimes.

Each week on my facebook page, I post these tidbits. Join me there.

Johanna Flores, Christine Facella and Andrea Miranda Salas: 9 Designers and Artists I Know

9 Designers and Artists I Know is a 2014 series of stories of nine designers and artists I know and admire as they navigate their world and produce art and design projects that make me want to work even harder. I repeat, I admire their talent, work and spirit.

by Atim Annette Oton

In my first blog about the 9 Designers and Artists I know on Hollis King, I hinted that the next generation was still trying to sort it out. Indeed, it made me think of three young product designers who were students at Parsons when I was there. They entered my life in ways that I think most of them did. Young, Quiet and ready to learn design. Each of these young women are individual, independent and at the cusp of sheer spectacular beauty in the work I see them produce now and there is in me the need to say, “take the leap”, your soul will thank you.

Johanna Flores

johanna-picphoto credit: Johanna Flores

Cool, collected and very much the sophisticated Frida Kahlo-like Mexican American designer Johanna Flores was my student assistant at Parsons for 2 years when I was the Associate Chair of Product Design. She was fiery and cool at the same time and it was ceramics that brought out her passions and revealed her intensity to create shear beauty.  Mexican chica, I used to call her silently, and then and now, I expected bursts of brilliance, so as I thought of the next generation, she and 2 others in this blog came to my mind as designers I admire and know. Selecting her and the other two and writing about them as one group was easy because I feel they are standing on the edge of the mountain and need to take that leap to soar.

johanna1 johanna2 johanna6 johanna5 johanna4 johanna3

photo credit: Johanna Flores

When you see Johanna’s work, you first would not get it but if you understood the craft of ceramics and the delicate technique of reviving an old process from Wedgewood of color mixing, then you understand that delicate balance. As she says on her site, “the rich and exquisite colors on the porcelain pieces are achieved by coloring the porcelain clay itself, as opposed to applying a surface glaze. Coloring porcelain is a very labor intensive and a rather costly process. The technique of coloring porcelain was discovered and first used by Wedgewood on their legendary Jasperware during the late 1700’s.”  This coloring technique looks simple, but you would not understand how its simplicity was hard to achieve.

She is re-imaging ceramics through simple vessels and objects. I call it, a mix of Mexico and London, after all, she was raised in Mexico, lived in California, educated in New York and escaped to London to work and live, before returning to work in all things corporate America for the likes of Martha Stewart. Complex, no. It pays the bills and has given her time to return to ceramics again here in Brooklyn.

I thought of her over the years since she left Parsons in 2003 as a graduate and as serendipity would have it, I kept bumping into her after she returned from London, first at the Dumbo Festival, on a train platform and around my neighborhood, now hers. Each time, she walked away, a thought crossed my mind, when would she take it and own it? The stage was hers, she needn’t be shy, she is a diva, the good type. Smart, talented and creative. She was and is her own person and she needs to bring Frida Kahlo out to the design stage. Take it. Chica. Visit her site for more details at

Christine Facella SONY DSC

photo credit: ColourHeelsDiary

Gregarious, cool American Norwegian fiery young designer, ever so quirky, always questioning herself, but daring to take risks and sometimes stopping ever so short of taking the full leap. Like Johanna, she was at Parsons in product design and also found her passion in ceramics. Christine Facella came into the program with questions, good ones too. And I remembered her well. In my 6 years at Parsons. I could almost say I knew 600 students very well who came through the program and like most of them, she arrived quietly, nervous at first and left loudly, confident, sure of herself and ready to take the world on.

Christine has been crossing cultures, her American side was always in conflict or in tune with her Norwegian side so when she left Parsons in 2004, I was unsure what she would do but knew she would go about it in her own way. And a few years later she walked into my store, then, on Washington avenue, accidentally, and informed me that she begun taking classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I recalled then that she was so into ecological issues and it fit her. She was still searching but building her skills and knowledge. She then went on to work as an illustrator and model maker at the Museum of Natural History in 2005 where she found her pace and it helped her work on her extraordinary collection of porcelain animal skulls.


photo credit: Christine Facella

A reviewer of her work wrote, “the accuracy and intricacy of her work result from sculpting up to 20 molds for each piece.” Another writer called her pieces “quirky, decorative pieces, sometimes adorned with gold, are intricately detailed with near anatomical correctness.” Her skulls sells to stores in the Americas, Europe and Australia, and she is represented by Michele Varian in Soho. This impresses me because we have had talks about mass market and commerce and even the very concept of money. Her work reminds me of Georgia O’keefe and she is an artist, after all.

In 2007, when she opened her design company, Beetle & Flor, she had a clear mission: putting her design services to good use: offering design assistance to under-served communities who depend on making crafts as a living. It made me proud as she was one of the students who took on Tony Whitfield’s (the chair of Product Design) mission of design for social good which we ran as part of the product program from 2000 – 2008. My six years at Parsons was just that. Her mission has taken her to India where she has been working with NGOs. This is again how we began our talks last year. I reached out to explore making clothes in India with some of the NGOs she worked with as I realized, it was time to work with new groups. We also have been talking about her trying to figure out what next. Yes, she, like Johanna is at that place too. To jump ahead and to soar, or to stand and wonder. Visit her site and read more about Christine here: or see her discussing her work at

Andrea Miranda Salas

Solo Exhibit at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery with ELEMENTS OF PROTECTION new work from artist Andrea Miranda Salas July 2012

photo credit: courtesy of ©Brooklyn Workshop Gallery

Andrea Miranda Salas is the most complicated of the three designers, she’s taking longer to brew her mix and her work like Christine’s is breathtaking. She is delightful but intense. Happy but complex. Her work is her signature, the spirit of an artist, The delicacy of the pieces, the sheer honesty of her soul in her work, and the craft astounds me. I am humbled by its beauty. Andrea is from Costa Rica and life should not be complicated but she meanders through the mode of what’s next. I want to yell, dive in. Just leap ahead. I am cheering for you. Your soul will soar higher.

Dumbo brought us back together again after she left Parsons in 2004, she was there freelancing at West Elm, what most designers do. I could tell immediately it was a job and not her passion so like I did back at Parsons, I asked if she was doing her work. She responded, “you know, I am starting to go back into the ceramics studio”. And her face lit up. I was pleased to see this excitement. She was there in Dumbo for a while before she disappeared again into another freelance gig. Almost a year later, I got an invitation to an exhibition of her work. I realized that since I left Parsons, I had taken a hiatus from going to any of the students shows  so I decided to turn at the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery run by Martine Bisagni in Carroll Gardens. I was not disappointed. I was blown away. Andrea has always been complicated yet inwardly delicate. The exhibition was entitled: Andrea Miranda Salas ELEMENTS OF PROTECTION in July 2012.

Solo Exhibit at Brooklyn Workshop Gallery with ELEMENTS OF PROTECTION new work from artist Andrea Miranda Salas July 2012

photo credit: courtesy of ©Brooklyn Workshop Gallery

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photo credit: Clay Space


photo credit: Clam Lab Blog

Her work is always challenging her assumed versions of herself, so to see her resolve it in her work was powerful. She had accomplished what it took most of us a life time to achieve.  Andrea focused on the idea of protection of one’s self, through delicate armor, she has created the poetry of her soul. And ironically, she is still on the cusp in her mind. She is still searching. So, I want to say, you’ve got it. Damn, you really got it. Own it. Own it. Simply, soar like an eagle. See more of Andrea’s work at her website:

As a designer and educator, now, an entrepreneur and story teller, I am fortunate and  privileged to see these three designer blossom from “the kids” to full womanhood and most importantly, to be the deep, passionate, and rich spirited artists that they are now. Not rich in money, but in their souls. They have affected my life deeply like the other 597 product students. I honor and respect them, even their choices and paths they take. I learnt from them to take the leap, and banish caution. Six years of holding their hands as the tried and failed, tried and succeeded as students is enough to make you do what you plan.

This next generation trio have the passion, talent and creativity to do anything and from far and close, I see that they are holding back. To sell their work as mass market objects or spectacular one of a kind pieces is the struggle, to be the true artist which is in their nature, their DNA, or to “sell” out and be the designer of their ceramic journeys of mass market objects. I am torn for them, my soul says artist but my brain says designer. And the truth as I write this, I want both for them, just do it. Take the leap, stop being apprehensive and cautious. Commit, because life is too short.

Story Telling as African Artists and Designers

by Atim Annette Oton

As a child of a writer and journalist and an African woman, I realized very early that I was and am a story teller. I come from a country of very powerful story tellers: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and their stories take you on a journey that inspires you to learn about yourself and the world around you. Imagine that? Most importantly, I do believe in the concept that “African storytellers are performers who entertain, inspire, and educate their audience.” So, are artists and designers using story telling as a key tool in their work?

I first met Wangechi Mutu in Tony Whitfield’s office at Parsons School of Design in 2000 when I was his Associate Chair. She came in with Michael Einsminger and spent sometime talking with Tony. She was then a story teller as I listened as she quietly spoke. Today, Mutu’s is on display at the Brooklyn Museum in an exhibition entitled, A Fantastic Journey. And her stories and work as described by the Brooklyn Museum are “spectacular and provocative collages depicting female figures—part human, animal, plant, and machine—in fantastical landscapes that are simultaneously unnerving and alluring, defying easy categorization and identification.” Very definitive and poignant. They are an old and new stories reminding me of African Trickster Tales I grew up with.


Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, b. 1972). The End of eating Everything (still), 2013. Animated video, color, sound, 8 min. Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. © Wangechi Mutu – Source: Brooklyn Museum

The museum is in an African story telling mode, again. It’s last exhibition, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, showcased his story telling through his conversion of “found materials into a new type of media that lies between sculpture and painting, combining aesthetic traditions from his birth country, Ghana; his home in Nsukka, Nigeria; and the global history of abstraction”. The delicacy of the presentation reveals the story telling of El Anatsui. Simply brilliant.


El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b. 1944). Earth’s Skin, 2007. Aluminum and copper wire, 177 x 394 in. (449.6 x 1000.8 cm). Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Source: Brooklyn Museum

I went to architecture school with J. Max Bond, the eloquent African American story teller and social architect who taught me that architecture is revolution. His stories about designing the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture resonate in my mind periodically. Max was an African story teller. He weaved his ideas into his design work like a poet. His words showed up on paper and then in building. His last stories were his last two projects: the museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center and the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington DC with David Adjaye, who Max Bond brought in to work on the project.

Max Bond was the reason I went to City College to study Architecture. I showed up there to decide whether to go there or else where. He was the dean and kept his door open, so I walked in and two hours later with stories of working in Africa and changing the world, I was hooked. After I finished graduate school in London, I returned to New York to work for him on the Audubon Biomedical Science and Technology Park for Columbia University in Upper Manhattan, which included the redevelopment of the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. A mentor, I had then, and I have kept – listening again and again to his words – even though he is no longer here. Max Bond passed away in 2009. He was my design mentor. His name resonates in the center that I worked in as a student; it was named after him: The J. Max Bond Center. It’s mission: “design can have a positive impact on urban reform in our nation’s cities. Founded in 2011, the Bond Center is dedicated to the advancement of design practice, education, research and advocacy in ways that build and sustain resilient and just communities, cities and regions.

Story telling as African Artists and Designers is a powerful way of working. It symbolizes the power of an idea and execution. Stories must be strong and the art or design work even stronger. So many artists and designers have ideas but fail to embody them in their stories and work. These three artists and designers show what they mean in words and work. The power of an idea, a story, an artwork or design work is as powerful as its producer. What kind of artist or designer are you?

Change and Reinvention: The Art of Navigating your Art or Design Career

by Atim Annette Oton


Change is one of the hardest places to get to or to do as an artist or designer, I know. Since graduating from architecture school in 1991, I have been strategic about making change and reinventing myself and career. The 1991 recession made me realize that it would be 10 times harder to get a job and after reading an article in the New York Times about an architect driving a cab because he could not find a job. I sat back and really took stock of reality and decided to go to graduate school.

An ornate clock with the words Time for Change on its face
As I went through the process, I decided not just to focus on architecture but to go into what was going to be vital 10 years down the line: energy and environmental studies. I also decided to re-brand myself by going to one of the best schools in the world – The Architectural Association in London. The re-branding worked, as 2 years later, I returned to New York which was still in a recession and got a ton of interviews. But, I was looking to work in a firm that was a solid brand too, so I did the “relationship connection” thing and reached out to my former undergraduate dean to work in his firm.

I stayed in architecture for 5 years and started realizing it was changing, not for the good but for the worst. Knowing this, I begun talking with others and took on 2 outside projects that would eventually re-brand me. The first was Blacklines Magazine, my first foray into publishing. The other was the African Burial Ground Interpretive center which my team won and lost after our construction firm partner IDI Construction folded while waiting for the government to move ahead with the project. These two projects were about taking risk in my 20’s and defined my second stage of change and more so, reinvention. Since I knew there was something amiss in architecture, I also began looking to teach and ended getting an adjunct position in New Jersey teaching interior design. I also quit working my full to job and became a full-time instructor. This was the point when I realized that I had enough of traditional architecture practice and had no plans to return to it. My teaching led me to Parsons School of Design and through a contact (who I did not know at all), I sent my resume and in less than a week was hired to be the Associate Chair of Product Design.


Some might say Wow but I say as repeated to me by my former boss, “I was hired because of the magazine and the African Burial Ground project”. He said it showed risk, tenacity and the ability to implement things which is what he needed. I did so at Parsons for 6 years and in the process changed my career track and re-invented me.


The Parsons brand and the title gave me a tool to work on several projects; more importantly, it also gave me time to work on my third shift…the invention of Calabar Imports, my foray into retail and product design, plus Calabar Magazine, my foray into publishing.  My retail reinvention came through travels across the world at Parsons and personally. It was a shift from architecture and academia but it was about a desire to design things, to curate, to share and educate. It was also about becoming independent, a self employed person, whose choices and decisions were not determined by others. That shift in thinking was the point of reinvention. It is the place of radical change, one that creates a road map forward and takes determination to keep, nurture and hold steadfastly to.
After 7 years since leaving Parsons and full self employment, I am at fourth place of change: this time, I would call it global expansion. In this place, it is about working across continents, developing products, teaching design, developing curriculum and expanding my small retail empire. It is also a place of collaboration and partnerships, one that is Brooklyn-centric and Africa focused. In short, I have become my father and mother who went to Nigeria in the 60’s to build it. The pan-African Brooklynite in me sings loudly.


Change is about risk and fortune, it is about doing the work and doing it well. To achieve it, you have to be beyond mediocre and set an exceptional trail. It involves assessment, renewal and more reinvention but it is built on a solid foundation. Change is about recognizing that you have to be ahead of your self and have the right timing, be in the right mindset and space. My real lesson from change is about being open and being prepare to share how to re-invent yourself.

Striving to be Ghana’s Premier Fashion School: Vogue Style School of Fashion and Design



Photo of Joyce Ababio

This is the seventh blog in my series, The Pulse of Africa talking with Global Africans working in Africa and across the Diaspora. It takes an inside view on Africa’s progress, issues on arts and culture, technology and opportunities in this decade. See the series here.

I began this blog on the day Ghanaian president John Atta Mills died. I was shocked by his sudden passing but concerned for the future of the country until I heard that the vice-president as taking over peacefully. Ghana was in my spirit that day, so late night, I wrote the first few paragraphs of this blog and sent off a series of emails to Joyce Ababio, founder of the Vogue Style School of Fashion and Design.

I had heard about Vogue Style from my South African friend, Nii Botchway, who was in Accra two summers ago and got into an interesting bind. Even Africans have issues when there are in another African country. I received an email from my Chicago friend about him and reached out to introduce him to another Ghanaian I knew of – Joe Osae-Addo, an architect who another friend calls “the Mayor of Accra”. Joe is indeed that. He immediately stepped in, talked with Nii and promptly introduced him to Joyce Ababio who got him working to develop her Graphic Design program. Ironically, it was why Nii was in Accra in the first place (he was there for another school) after leaving his life in South Africa. This connecting and reaching out is the Global African way.This is the Africa I know, we collaborate and work together.


See the complete blog at Huffington Post Black Voices: