Design Guru Jenna Fletcher: ‘I look for people I don’t see in the Conran Shop’

 

Like many others, I spent much of the first Covid-19 lockdown scrolling through the Instagram feed of Jenna Fletcher, the London-based design consultant, and vintage furniture archivist. It was an addictive space, the brightly colored architectural plastic furniture and 1970s housewares interspersed with photographs of “rappers with obscure design pieces” like Kanye West posing behind a table by 1970s Maurice Calka Boomerang or Frank Ocean regally seated atop a Tom Sachs Chair. This eclectic mix put Fletcher’s brand of Oswald on the map.

Oswald’s selection of 1970s furniture managed to be both timeless and modern: Joe Colombo’s Boby strollers in red, green, and cream next to a blue Yves Klein Gae Aulenti armchair. At a time when everyone was stuck indoors and preoccupied with making their homes more inviting and cozy, Fletcher offered escape and inspiration. And it got more interesting because of its subversive representation of blackness in relation to design.

We meet for coffee in Dalston, east London, in the height of summer, between two heat waves. For Fletcher, it’s the end of a busy day of city-wide meetings, although you don’t know it. Friendly and engaging, she is also full of enthusiasm. It is clear that every detail of Oswald is intentional. She says that cultivating the right mood, the perfect look and that studied but the easy way is something she comes naturally, the result of an obsession with aesthetics and a childhood immersed in design.

Fletcher, 30, was born in northwest London to an English father and a British-Barbadian mother. His father worked in construction and his mother made sure that Fletcher and his brothers visited Barbados often to spend time with the family and maintain a connection to their roots. During one of these trips, his parents built a house on the island. “I was like 10 or 12,” she recalls, “and I started hanging out with the carpenter and picking out wood for the stairs, me and my dad, and I was like, ‘This is so cool.’ They were explaining indigenous woods and all the different woods for different uses, and all the hardwoods. When I look back, I was so involved in this design process. Learning about wood at age of 10 in Barbados is an amazing thing to do. And now I’m trying [re-]educate me about what woods are like.”

Orange modular shelf (1969-75) by Olaf von Bohr for Kartell, via @oswalde.shop on Instagram
Joe Colombo's Boby Cart online education online learning distance learning be online academy online learning platforms online study online classes for adults online learning harvard online teaching platforms distance learning centre shaw academy courses learning online distance learning
Boby trolley by Joe Colombo, via @oswalde.shop on Instagram

This early interest in design was also nurtured by an aunt “who is this iconic person in my family,” says Fletcher. “She was the first queer generation. And she was the first queer person in my mom’s family. She kind of did all of this before me. And she was very much in the design world, she always had amazing pieces in her house. [in London]. I was exposed to it through her. . . so I have this kind of understanding, this cultural capital, from day one without even realizing it.”

Her aunt worked as a sound engineer but was always surrounded by fashion designers and boys from the Soho club. She often took Fletcher shopping with her. And when she traveled, she came back with the most interesting and eclectic pieces she could find.


The circles in which Fletcher now moves echo those of her aunt. Through her work with Oswald, she stands firmly at the intersection of design, fashion, queer, and blackness. But it was a tortuous journey, starting in 2012 at the London College of Communication, where she studied advertising. The course was short-lived and experimental, says Fletcher, but it provided students with an “incredible” amount of freedom and resources. That’s where she learned about branding, retail, and art direction – all of which she would put to practice with Oswald.

After graduating, she dabbled in retail, then moved on to managing YouTubers, whom she was “assigned to be cool and get into fashion shows.” She was good at it, but it wasn’t her calling. Then she worked as a freelancer in event production and creative consulting.

Just before the pandemic, Fletcher landed his first major design show: a 13,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Los Angeles that was being turned into a workspace, library, and studio for a company he worked with in London. But faced with the possibility of being locked up in LA indefinitely, she left the project and returned home to London. “I spent my days buying a bunch of furniture [mostly from auctions and dealers] and filled an entire room in my house, and then started selling it. But I was already negotiating informally,” says Fletcher. “My friends would send me pictures of Mario Bellini sofas saying, ‘What is this? Like, where, where do I get one?’ But I’m like, ‘You can’t.’ Or [them] being like, ‘I need to get two Wassily chairs, like, I want them now.’ So I was kind of that person. . . constantly identifying furniture for people. That’s what I’m the reference for.”

Launching Oswald was the next logical step. She named the business after her maternal grandfather. “It’s a kind of homage to him,” she says. Instagram felt like a natural home for the fun and approachable brand. It remains her only home: no website, no physical location. (Unless you count Oswald’s stay, an inn on the East Sussex coast where if you like the look of the furniture and design objects scattered around, you can buy them. It’s bookable, in true Oswald style, only on Instagram.) “I could have a website,” says Fletcher. “I should, maybe.” But “I wanted to be one of those pages where people save posts and send them to their friends,” she says.


Fletcher is eager to do good more affordable design. Its inventory ranges in price ranges, from smaller, more affordable items like Rino Pirovano turntable organizers to striking pieces like Vico Magistretti’s Maralunga sofa. Occasionally, she’ll even hold a product for a customer who can’t make the purchase right away. “I just think good design is for everyone,” she says. “If you can have just one small item that brings you joy and brings [an] energy that you feel happy within your space, I think this is very important.”

In the two years since Oswalde’s inception, department stores and fashion and hospitality brands have tried to woo her with offers of pop-up spaces, collaborations, and design work. She’s been working with Nike, but she’s being selective, and interested in keeping the company agile. She is also focused on building a place at the table for other black designers and creatives.

Candlestick by Andu Masebo, both via @oswalde.shop on Instagram online education online learning distance learning be online academy online learning platforms online study online classes for adults online learning harvard online
Candlestick by Andu Masebo, via @oswalde.shop on Instagram
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‘I’m a real product person’ says Fletcher © Sirui Ma

Fletcher was an early advocate of the work of Nigerian designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello, whom she describes as “an incredible visionary”. Oswald was the first European stocker of his Selah light fixture intended to be a cult classic and LM stool – clean architectural figures, the first a three-in-one piece that is lighting, a stool, and a bookshelf. “I look for people I don’t see in the Conran Shop and I don’t see in publications and I don’t see in panels and other people who are underrepresented,” she says. “I can’t look at another photo of a year of graduation at a design university without black faces. I can not do it. There are black designers out there. We’re all out there.” She interrupts to ask why a Castiglioni lamp shouldn’t be next to Andu Masebo’s candlesticks. “In my world, both are just as important as the other. We fetishize these design classics a lot. And I’m like, well, where are the new design classics? Who is making the new design classics?”

Researching these new classics has recently become a bigger part of Fletcher’s work. The complications of sourcing parts from mainland Europe post-Brexit – it has become “faster for me to ship from Japan than from Italy”, she says – plus the offers for bigger and more ambitious projects mean that Oswald is increasingly leaving being a design dealership to an interior design consultancy. A designer Fletcher seeks out is her friend Masebo. Oswald stocks his work, and the duo collaborated on one of Fletcher’s most recent commercial projects, a boutique in Brighton for sustainable clothing brand Story mfg.

“I’m constantly drawing Andu into projects. I just asked him to make a coat rack for someone,” she says. “Our symbiotic relationship is so amazing because he trusts me and he trusts my taste and I trust his skill as a product designer. He’s brilliant.” She’s quick to point out other colleagues, color designers like Kusheda Mensah of Modular by Mensah; Mac Collins, who she says is developing some interesting ideas about dominoes and domino tables; and Lichen, “who are rocking the New York scene.”

When I ask her about navigating the design industry as a young queer black woman, Fletcher is candid and concise. “I think people really question me. I think you have to be really hot at your job. . . We need these people like me who are tearing down that invisible cellophane screen that exists, against which we are always at war every day.”

and Fletcher It is “hot fuck” at his job. She has shown a prescient ability to identify what has staying power and what will become relevant. She has already begun to shun the 1970s aesthetic for which Oswald was originally known. “Times have changed, this pop furniture from the 70s, you know, it’s a lot of time. . . That kind of trend has passed, in my opinion. So I think as a company, we are. . . find out what comes next. How does it taste? What does it look like?”

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‘I think you must be great at your job © Sirui Ma

Oswald is destined to grow. There will soon be a limited run of Oswald extra virgin olive oil from an Italian mountain village. Further down the line, more Oswald is in hiding. And eventually, maybe, even the perfect sock. “I’m a real product person,” says Fletcher. “In my head, I have the ideal sock. It does not exist in the world.”

@oswalde.shop, @oswalde.stay

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