Naeem Biviji and his wife Bethan Rayner came to Kenya in 2005 to do some architecture work, but the projects were a bit slow. This began the couple’s journey in furniture making at their Studio Propolis workshop.
Their work, which combines a formal education as architects with an informal training as furniture makers, has seen them create furniture inspired by their everyday lives on projects both locally and internationally, including a collaboration with European multinational IKEA.
Beth and Naeem’s hand in the group’s ÖVERALLT collection saw them collaborate with other designers from Africa, something they say meant a lot to them.
The couple also contributed to the VÄRMER collection, whose other part was made by Swedish designer couple Sarah and Jens Fager.
The project was all about making it easier and more fun to get together. The products – a games table, a flexible candle holder, stackable jugs, and much more – are inspired by their own families’ different ways of celebrating the holidays, and by the Kenyan traditions.
Naeem takes BDLife writer Karen Muriuki through their journey.
“We are passionate about making things and we work with different materials across disciplines and scales. Our strength lies in our ability to oscillate comfortably between designing and making.
Beth and I came to Kenya in 2005 to do some architecture work, but the projects were a bit slow. We started making some furniture instead, and one project led to another. It was an amazing way of bridging architecture and our design work.
The relationship between locally available materials and our own craft culture informs how we make and how we design. Our workshop forms the core of our studio practice. The ability to continually test ideas through prototyping and production underpins our methodology. It has given us space to innovate and experiment, building an intimate knowledge of how things are made and how to build locally.
Over the years, people have become more interested in contemporary design. But I’ve seen a drastic destruction of natural resources and the lack of good and quality materials. It’s sad to see the mismanagement of the timber industry. The quality of plywood has also gone down.
However, these challenges present an opportunity to design differently and come up with solutions to the problems, which for us forced us to think of using alternative material.
At Studio Propolis, we work with soft wood, mainly because of its sustainability. We also use more metal now, having had to learn the welding process.
We source our materials locally. Only then can we come up with an expression of design that’s truly Kenyan. It’s all about using whatever levels of materials and skills available.
Our commissions have been diverse and projects range from design and build architecture projects to prototyping and manufacturing custom furniture and joinery that make up an on-going collection of pieces.
It’s been one of the greatest privileges to work with my partner. There are not many female carpenters in the country who can work to such a high level. There’s no discrimination with the roles we have in the workshop.
There’s three core aspects of how we work: designing for our making, designing for other people to make, for example, our collaboration with IKEA.
Lastly, there’s the aspect of designing to make with other people, who are mostly around Industrial Area. There’s such an amazing resource of people who can machine things. Tapping into other existing industries and being able to make products together is an incredible thing.
Our inspiration comes from our everyday lives: how we cook, eat together, look. We have two children, and we see the world differently because of them. We view spaces differently.
The other aspect of inspiration is that we live in a country with such great craftsmanship on one side, and ingenuity in the way things are done on the other. There’s a way in making things perfect from how we describe perfection in the Western kind of frame.
We love the process of being involved in all scales of work related to building, and maintain client relationships. Moreover, being just me and Beth, the size of the team does not matter. It’s about being able to work with other people on their own terms.
Keeping the team small allows us the flexibility we need. We don’t have to be a huge production setup trying to chase orders and numbers to keep the workshop running. We can use the space for design, which is the most important thing for us as designers.
The IKEA ÖVERALLT collection, which was a submission of some of our designs, was a collaboration with 10 other African designers. We were looking to celebrate the everyday life, rituals and living.”
One of the main pieces, which is a table, was inspired by the fact that as Kenyans, a table is where we get to slow down, sit and eat together at the end of the day. Another design we sent in was of a pot, which was a contemporary interpretation of how we do korogas or go for nyama choma.
We sourced for all the raw materials locally. In the end, all the pieces had natural finishes. The irons were cast and the ceramics were unglazed, meaning they are bound to get marks over time. This helps them age beautifully, and invite to be touched or held. We’re not interested in designing disposable things.
Despite the IKEA collaboration being a big deal for us, every single project, no matter how big or small, has been an interesting challenge for us. We’re always trying different things with different materials.
Case in point; we designed furniture for a school in Kangemi and this was such an influential project for us in terms of what we make. On the other extreme, the project we worked on for Kericho Sacred Cathedral had a lot of pieces being one-off and crafted. It had a lot of engagement.
As I said, the most important thing for us is having a genuine engagement with the person we are designing for, rather than the lifestyle aspiration people might have of us.
Moving forward, we want to expand how we work by including more people in our design-thinking, which is how we use our workshop.
Beth and I are currently relocating to the UK, but we’re trying to work out how the studio can take on a different life.
For now, however, we’re mostly keen and interested in completing pending projects and doing more architecture work. There are a lot of people doing great furniture design, but we need more architects as well.”