On Sunday 2 October, 2016 Craft Afrika opened the third installation of the Afrika Handmade Gallery to exhibit work from regional artisans and designers. The two-week event at Alliance Française, Nairobi, presented designs from home décor and textile companies; a prefabricated living pod from Two by Four; and a selection of artwork from the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery.
It took architecture and design studio Two by Four exactly 15 days to transform this shipping container into a self-contained living pod. The ‘Moja Pod’ was then transported on the back of a flatbed truck from the plot in Kileleshwa where it was assembled, lifted by crane over the wall of Alliance Française and carefully placed in the garden.
This highly efficient process was the result of two years of planning by studio founders Kwekwe Kivutha and Jeremy Moses. Although, Kwekwe tells me, the idea had been “marinating” for much longer.
Launched in 2012, Two by Four have worked on a range of projects from a budget-boutique hotel to the interior and exterior renovations of an office space and a pool house. The studio has also developed a line of minimalist, modular office furniture.
Two by Four had initially planned to present their office furniture at Afrika Handmade 2016 but decided to make the most of the opportunity and showcase their first living pod, which has potential for commercial, retail or residential applications. The pod can also be customised for urban or rural environments with options to connect to the utilities grid, or use solar and a bio box (for water and waste recycling and treatment).
For the Afrika Handmade exhibition Two by Four displayed a 20-foot container, which has a bathroom with a shower, cooking space and seating area, but a larger 40-foot version is also an option. It has the same elements as the 20-footer but includes a separate bedroom with a wardrobe and a slighter larger seating area.
Kwekwe says that it was very important for them to create a neutral space that can be customised by the user. To make the Moja Living Pod “come alive” for the Afrika Handmade exhibition, the studio commissioned several pieces of artwork from Kenyan artists, which were displayed throughout the pod.
There were two chairs in this design by Espirit Ethnique at Afrika Handmade 2016—one upholstered with a predominantly green print, and the other mostly orange. The material was purchased from the Masaai Market at Yaya Centre and a special brush technique was employed to create the unique effects on the metal frame.
A few years ago, French-born Viviane Clero (the designer) co-founded Espirit Ethnique with her friend and business partner Saida O’Neill.
A journalist by training, Viviane has only spent four years in the country of her birth, having lived in Germany, the South Pacific and Tanzania. When Viviane moved to Kenya 14 years ago she found Nairobi “too stressful” and settled in Machakos because it met her requirements of a quieter, “small town, near Nairobi.” Viviane’s designs are inspired by both her current home and her transient background.
All of Espirit Ethnique’s designs are made in their workshop in Machakos, where they employ ten craftspeople from Ukambani. You can see more of the brand’s designs in their gallery on Nandi Road, Karen.
On the opening day of Afrika Handmade 2016, Fabiana Alcojor and Roberto Gerosa of Seedling Kenya gladly did TV interviews under their baobab tree installation. And when I spoke to Fabiana about their designs, not only was her pride and passion palpable, it was contagious.
With a background in architecture, Fabiana and Roberto try to find innovative ways to use the available resources in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. Based in Kilifi, they create beautiful light installations from baobab pods and other sustainable, natural materials such as palm leaves.
When I complimented Fabiana on the designs she was quick to point out, “it is not my work, it is nature.” A similar sentiment was quoted in the Afrika Handmade catalogue: “Everything in nature is a result of millions of years of evolution, which shaped its forms in a perfect balance of functional and aesthetic values”.
The Seedling Kenya founders work with, and are training, a team of four women and in their workshop, they endeavour to make the most of what baobab pods have to offer. Once the baobab flesh—rich in antioxidants and vitamin C—is removed, some is used to make their daily tea and the rest preserved to make juice or marmalade.
The empty baobab pod is then smoothed down with a bicycle wheel-powered sanding machine, decorated by hand, and painted with environmentally friendly, water-based paints.
During the 2016 Afrika Handmade exhibition, baobab pods with a more traditional look were hung around the ‘baobab tree’ and a little way off, this contemporary chandelier design was displayed.
Interior architect Michèle Comissot founded Concept & Details Factory about a year ago. The name, she says, is illustrative of projects having “one concept and many, many details”.
The company has already worked on large-scale developments and renovations; interior design projects; and the conceptualisation and development of three furniture collections.
The designs featured here are from the Filagree Collection, which was presented for the first time at Afrika Handmade 2016. This collection juxtaposes minimalist white lacquered MDF with Meru Oak, exquisitely carved in the Swahili style.
The storage cabinet and coffee table pictured here, are just two examples of how this line can be executed. “It can be anything. From a headboard to a side table,” Michèle tells me.
A few years ago, in a bid to create eco-conscious furniture and lighting, the product design and development team at Decor Interiors Limited started to work with sisal. “Sisal’s almost hostile profile as a plant does not set off images of comfort and enduring elegance. We chose to adopt it as a medium for beautiful designs with a contemporary earth styling,” Kamni Mehta, the CEO and founder, explained in the Afrika Handmade exhibition catalogue.
Decor Interiors source sisal from communities of women, supporting between 65 and 80 at any time. The brand’s designs are expertly handcrafted and in the last few years, the company has been commissioned to fit out numerous interiors in the hospitality, commercial and residential sectors. From the incredibly beautiful array of designs at Afrika Handmade 2016, we completely understand why.
The Nia Lounger above was designed with the ergonomics of rest in mind, with a footrest that can be adjusted for maximum comfort.
The Pod Light, above, can be placed on the floor or mounted on a table depending on where you would like its ambient glow. And the Solo Seater, below, is part of a set that includes a three-seater, coffee table and side tables.
You can see more of Decor Interiors’ designs in their showroom on the 1st floor of Tsavo Block, Eldama Park, which is located at the junction of Eldama Ravine and Peponi Roads, Westlands.
Born in Kitale, Carlos Nathwani was an oilman before he started Quinn Peaks Furniture with his wife Minal. When Carlos moved to Nairobi 16 years ago, he wasn’t keen on continuing to work in this field so when he saw an advert in the newspaper—woodworking machinery for sale—he bought the machinery, rented a godown on Mombasa Road and got to work.
When I asked Carlos whether he had any furniture-making experience he answered in the negative and shrugged off this seemingly rash decision with a laugh, and stated simply: "I am very innovative”. And evidently so, because fast forward to 2016, not only is Quinn Peaks still in business, it is flourishing. The company's showroom in Viking House, Westlands is well worth a visit.
In the intervening years Quinn Peaks has worked on large-scale projects, conceptualising and developing custom furniture for several lodges in the Maasai Mara and Amboseli as well as holiday homes on the Kenyan coast.
For Afrika Handmade 2016, Carlos designed a high table with options for completely wooden high stools or height-adjustable stools with a wooden top and metal base. The rationale for this design, Carlos says, is that his customers increasingly find it more comfortable to sit on high tables. And not just in restaurants, as you would imagine, but also in their own homes. This trend was reinforced by the multiple enquiries Quinn Peaks received about this design during Afrika Handmade 2016.
On the ground floor of the 2016 Afrika Handmade exhibition, the high table from Quinn Peaks was set with plates, bowls, salt and pepper shakers and candle holders from the Ugandan company Byentaro Ceramics. On the wall behind the table five large plates were arranged in a line. And just off to the left were these clay ‘boats’.
At once decorative and functional, these designs perfectly illustrate what was described in Afrika Handmade’s catalogue as Byentaro Ceramics’ distinct monochromatic aesthetic. “The black, dark colours are as a result of second firing, which is a special technique to my products,” Moses Byentaro explains over WhatsApp.
Moses has a diploma in Ceramics Engineering from the Uganda Technical College Bushenyi and for several years he taught at Uganda Ceramics before opening his own studio in Mukono, a town in central Uganda, earlier this year.
Photographs by Brian Siambi.