The idea that artists should fall into a conventional box is a bit of an oxymoron. As American painter, Scott Kahn, phrased it, “preconceived notions and rules are the antithetical to the creative process.” Often, great art is achieved when the individual is open to the process. Like Alice in wonderland, they’re willing to follow the mad hatter down the rabbit hole and let the process unfold organically. Or as Pablo Picasso put it, “I begin with an idea and it becomes something else.” So if Julia Cameron – author, artist, poet, and playwright – is correct, that “The creative process is a process of surrender, not control”, what could you achieve? A question that introduces us to Moran Munyuthe. Through a series of events, this architect that graduated in 2015 from Central Saint Martins in London released his first furniture collection this year:
How did you end up branching into furniture design?
You could say the furniture was something that happened as a consequence of an architectural project. After my undergrad in architecture, I had work experience with a small design studio called Sartogo Architetti Associatti in Rome, Italy for about six months. While I was still in Rome, my mum acquired a plot of land in Lamu and I had the idea of basically constructing a house for her. As I was designing, I began to think about the furniture that I could place within the project. I started to really enjoy the process of furniture design and looking at how I could incorporate building elements into domestic objects. Luckily for me, Lamu has really good carpenters and craftsmen who were able to interpret my drawings, designs and visions and we’re able to bring them into reality.
“Preconceived notions and rules are the antithetical to the creative process.” ~ Scott Kahn
When did you officially start Saba studio and why?
When I moved back to Kenya, I was also thinking about setting up shop here because I really like the obscurity, the clarity and the sense of detachment Lamu offers. You really develop the ability to focus in an environment like this. It sparked the idea of having a studio that was close to the craftsmanship, the culture and close to a lot of the things that inspire me and things that I am curious about in terms of Swahili architecture, and mythology.
I think you need a healthy balance of reality and imagination if you’re going to design.
Mythology you say?
Yes, I named the studio Saba (which means seven) because of my interest in mythology and numerology. The mythical nature of the number 7 and the fortune it brings makes it an auspicious number. Then there are a lot of things that happen almost coincidentally that are connected to a certain period of my life and a specific period in time. The studio began in 2017, I happen to be turning 27 this year and hopefully I’ll be finished with construction in July; which is the seventh month.
Does that mean a lot of your design is influenced by factors such as Feng shui?
I wouldn’t call it Feng shui, rather, a healthy dose of reality and imagination. I think you need a balance of the two if you’re going to design. If you’re too pragmatic your designs can end up being a little predictable or forced. You need a good sense of reality and an understanding of the implications of your decisions i.e. the cost, time and labour involved. Nonetheless, you also have to have a good sense of imagination; which allows you to introduce quirky elements that are also really well-rooted in the reality of how things work and are put together to create a certain product, atmosphere or environment.
It’s that sense of establishing certain parameters that are real but then using those to suggest something that doesn’t exist. Something that, if the right conditions are met, could exist.
And how have you managed to capture this theory in your design?
The Mashirbirya furniture is a bit odd because the wood lattice screen that is used to create the furniture base and back rest is a building element. In Arabic-Bantu architecture, it’s often is used to shade the interior of buildings and decorate the exterior. That in itself has never been used in the way I’ve proposed and implemented it. The idea of a screen that’s used for shading in pieces in furniture is an entirely new thing in Lamu but it’s still based in Swahili architecture and design.
Another way is through the Saba Studio, which will also incorporate an art residency and my mother’s home at the same time. These are three very ambitious things to be taking on at the same time and figuring out how they can work in one space. It’s that sense of establishing certain parameters that are real but then using those to suggest something that doesn’t exist. Something that, if the right conditions are met, could exist.
Why add the element of an art residency?
To create a place for conversation, a place where any kind of artist can come, work and exchange ideas. The idea is to invite artists to experience what the space has to offer and draw on the ambience. Over time, we would be able to build an artist archive that can be accessed by different artists, designers and curators.
The Mashirbirya furniture features a chair and table… why did you narrow it down to those items?
I believe those are two most common-place domestic objects. Someone once mentioned to me that it’s really hard to find well-made and designed furniture in Nairobi for affordable prices. That is something that we want to offer. Not everything that is well made has to be unattainable. We keep affordability in mind with everything that we’ve priced so that we have scenarios where it’s a win-win situation for the consumer and producer. Considering everything we do is made by hand, the chair goes for Ksh15,000 and the side-table is Ksh9,000.
Not everything that is well made has to be unattainable.
How big is this collection?
For now, we are only doing a limited run of about 100 pieces. Because it’s handmade and the fact that quality takes time, making any more than that wouldn’t be physically possible. For example, it can take a day or two to pick the right pieces of timber used to create a new order for chairs. An order of seven chairs and tables would take about three months. We want to maintain the quality and craftsmanship in production. Mass producing would only compromise the process and the pieces would no longer be honest or true to its sense of design.
Speaking of craftsmanship, there’s concern that Lamu’s level of ornate skill is disappearing
The watering down of the craft is true. A lot of the people still carving are much older and mature. The youth are opting out of traditional crafts and moving to the city to pursue different opportunities. By staying true to the bones of craftsmanship and manufacturing, we hope to salvage the skill. It’s a concerning thing but hopefully we can show that people buy and consume these products. It’ll show them that it’s a viable craft worth preserving.
Planning to add any other pieces?
At the moment, we don’t have any more pieces under the current collections. Instead, we want to see how the chairs and side tables will do in current market. We’re really trying to have the product go into the market and having people ask us questions such as how it’s made, what materials, etc. I think these questions are important because they highlight the work that was been done and aspects of culture involved.
Once we’re done, we’ll start designing a different collection. Right now we’re sketching a day bed that functions as a futon couch come bed. It’s a reinterpretation of the Swahili day bed with a few modern twists and turns.
Anyone who is in the design field has to be ready to put themselves out there… there’s value in letting people know what you’re doing.
Why did you decide to do a pop up shop in Nairobi last month?
We collaborated with the Cave Bureau for the location to have a product launch to see how the market would receive it. The biggest lesson I learnt from doing the pop up was that people are more open to new things, designs and locally made items. It was a confirmation that anyone who is in the design field has to be ready to put themselves out there. I learnt the value of actually letting people know what you’re doing; despite not knowing if people will like it or not.
One thing from your Rome-experience you wish was implemented here?
The fact that they take pride in the craftsmanship and pass it down through generations. But what I really admired was the sense of pride they take in their work. It’s admirable.
By following the natural flow of design, Munyuthe has been able to discover new talents and exiting artistic paths to pursue. A process he shares on his website on his ‘Thresh Hold’ blog. A diary, if you will, of his day to day activities which serves as a reminder that we constantly have to “change our way of thinking and how we approach problems”. But it’s also about ensuring you don’t compromise the quality or purpose of your art; however dramatic or minimalistic it may be.