Lamu chests may not be new, but they remain the most captivating furniture. They capture the raw beauty of Swahili artistry and you cannot never fall out of love with them. For vintage lovers looking for a contemporary cool in a home, the chest is the modern day ottoman.
Famously known in East Africa as ‘kasha’ and used to store treasures, chests are now making a comeback as a major furniture detail. Buyers are using them as coffee tables or decorative pieces just to make a statement in the home or as storage units for newspapers, books or throws.
At Old Town in Mombasa, there is a street lined with shops that sell the Lamu chests and other antiques. The chests are mainly sourced from Zanzibar and others from Lamu.
At Safina Craft Shop, Boniface Nyamawe, an attendant says most people who buy the chests, including a president and high-end hotel owners, use them to store expensive jewellery, clothing and personal items.
The undeniably dramatic chests are made out of wood and were traditionally gifted to Swahili brides. Nowadays, Mr Nyamawe says other people use them as coffee tables or storage units. They can also be used as bedroom benches.
On some, nail heads are hammered into various decorative fashion to heighten their visual impact. Some chests are divided inside for extra storage. At one of the shops, they had one with secret drawers. There are some chests decorated using velvet, an influence from the Indian culture.
“Lamu chests have metal sheets but the ones from Zanzibar have carvings,” Mr Nyamawe said.
A four by two foot chest costs Sh75,000 while small ones range from Sh20,000. The tiniest, used to store money, jewellery and other valuables, goes for Sh5,000.
At another shop also in Old Town Mombasa, Jumaan Abdallah, a shop attendant selling the chests, artworks and souvenirs says theirs is a social enterprise. The most expensive chest at the shop is Sh15,000.
The shop was opened to keep the children who are not financially stable in school. They use the money to fund drug addiction programmes, help educate children and keep them off the streets. A carpenter in Mombasa who makes the chests from wood. Buyers can also customise their chests.
Red and Orange Trading is another shop in Old Town that sells the Lamu furniture. Diana Wakio who manages the shop said they only stock antiques.
“Unlike other sellers who have a workshop to make new chests, ours are old and pre-owned. We buy them from people who are relocating or de-cluttering. The most expensive one is about Sh75,000 while most cost Sh30,000,” she said.
Ms Wakio said they try to keep the wood on the chests as natural looking as possible by avoiding applying a lot of vanish.