Around a century ago, a Sikh called Kundan Singh Panesar, born in a long line of craftsmen, was making bull-carts using steel and wood in India. In 1942, he got into a ship and sailed to Kenya to pursue his passion for carpentry. In 1948, he started Panesar Furniture. One of his eight children, Moni Panesar, joined him as an apprentice at the age of six. The plan? To build an exquisite bespoke furniture brand that services East Africa elites’ homes, offices and boardrooms. In 2011, Moni’s only child, Vir Panesar, joined the company, to make it the third generation local business.
JACKSON BIKO found Moni and Vir in their plush office overlooking a busy workshop separated by a glass window blocking the incessant din of sawing, shaving and the bonhomie of the carpenters.
Moni, you’ve done good here, haven’t you?
I think so. It’s been a journey that started in Eastleigh where we lived and had a workshop. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of bad times and a lot of good times. It’s also about leadership and values. We have always looked at the business from the bottom up, if your weakest link isn’t part of your team then you are in fairly safe grounds.
Vir, your grandfather started this business, your father built on it and has taken it to the brand it is now, how will you take it to the next level and is there fear that you might just be the one to cock this up?
(Laughs) Of course! Everybody is looking at me like ‘what is he going to do?’ People assume there is less pressure, that it’s automatic and assured. But this is all I have known growing up, I have lived around furniture all my life. My grandfather is the founder, my father scaled up the manufacturing without losing the artistic elements of it, and having done this for decades, he obviously knows everything about wood.
I come in at a different era; a digital era. Obviously, I won’t lie that I’m a craftsman like the men before me but my job is to answer the question; How do we remove it from being a manufacturing powerhouse into a strong brand? How do we compete in the international pool? How do I continue the Panesar's legacy? How do I build these people who have been with my father since?
Moni, to do this for so long you must have a deep connection with trees and wood and nature. Are you the type that runs his palms on the grain of furniture and with eyes closed mumble, “this was a happy wood”?
(Chuckle) Wood is amazing and I see it as a diamond in the rough. My job is to bring out that diamond. But what needs to be understood is that because time has changed, the wood has also changed. The environment plays a big deal in business corporates nowadays. You’re cutting a tree, what does that do to the environment? But also how does that affect the furniture?
Nowadays the quality of wood that we are getting isn’t the same as what we were getting 15 years ago. And so we have to figure out how to care for the our environment and our trees. We are part sponsors of the Nairobi Greenline, we have planted over 1,000 trees so far.
What did you learn from your father, Moni?
For 25 years my father made me work in the spray booth, because a furniture is about finishing. I was always high because of all the chemicals in there and perhaps that’s why I look young because I was always happy from the chemicals. (Laughs). I learnt perfection from it.
He would not accept work that was sub-standard. Each piece had to be inspected by him and he was thorough. You were not finished with a piece until he was finished.
Which stage do you enjoy the most in the process of making furniture, are you artistically inclined?
I love designing furniture. For very many years, I designed the everything but now we have five in-house designers. But I love making furniture and our goal is to make furniture that creates a memory. But this requires the right wood, the right eye, the right attitude and the right values.
If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?
A console table. It uplifts a whole room, it gives a distinction to a place.
Are there pieces of furniture that you made and got so attached to and sometimes sit and wonder how they are holding up and if the owners are treating them with the respect you made them with?
That’s an interesting one. (Pause) I have made thousands of furniture that I loved. We have some of our furniture in State House, going back to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s time, we have some distinct ones in major hotels like Serena Kampala. The Queen of England has one of our head stands that landed to her as a gift by sheer luck.
Vir, what have you learnt watching your father do this?
Perfection. And that you absolutely have to enjoy what you do. My dad wants everything at 100 per cent. He doesn’t accept 96 per cent.
Moni, because you demand perfection, what do you find to be imperfect in your life?
(Pause) I’m more peaceful here at work than I would be at home or on a beach or on holiday. I’m at peace here, just looking at my furniture being perfected. Maybe that’s my imperfection, that my life is here.
If you were to come back in the after-life, what profession would you take up?
Carpenter. It gives me more satisfaction than anything else. Some of the best carpenters today are in Japan. They have a thing called Japanology. They don’t use glue or nails to hold furniture together. They make such beautiful joints that are as strong. Their art is out of this reach. Their tools are amazing.
Their technique is profound. For instance, here, we push tools away from us for safety reasons, like we plane away from us, but in Japan they do everything in reverse, they pull it towards themselves — cutting and sawing. They say pulling is easier than pushing. If you pull something towards you, you become closer to it than when you push it away. Take a hug for instance, you pull towards you, to belong, to connect.
That’s the most profound thing I have heard today. How old is your beard, Moni and do people treat you different because of it? And is it religious?
(Laughs) My beard is exactly as old as Vir who is 30- years -old. I get a lot of respect and I’m treated differently where I go, but I have also been treated like a terrorist in airports because of it. (Laughs) But generally people think I’m wiser because of it, they talk to me differently and treat me delicately.
My dad had his special chair at home. Nobody dared sit on it. Do you have your own special chair at home?
What’s your extravagance? What do you spoil yourself with?
(Long pause) Nothing really. This is my happy place, being here, making furniture. This is my work but it’s also my beach, my holiday.
What is the secret of happiness according to you?
Doing what you are passionate about. Like I mentioned I’m happiest here, not going for a movie or listening to music or playing golf.
Did you enjoy marriage being here all the time and what’s the secret of a happy marriage?
Giving people space to do what they want and be who they are. I was given my total space.
My wife has never asked me, why are you late? Or where are you? Never. Because my wife always knew where I was. I was here. I have always been here.
Vir, are you going to grow a long beard like you dad?
(Laughs) I don’t know.