Made in Taiwan: Curated by Ben Chiu Design Notes from Nature
by Jincy IypeOct 12, 2020
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jincy IypePublished on : Aug 10, 2020
What new approaches and materials offer better substitutes for a world that has been reeling under greed, excessive consumption and utter disregard to the environment? This chapter of our multipart series, Made In:, delves into this discussion by looking inward and celebrating native Kenyan design; design that proudly reveals environmentally conscious narratives.
Adrian Jankowiak, founder of Nairobi Design Week, curates the selection this time, carefully gathering conscientious Kenyan designers and their purposeful works. “We have a lot to learn from Africa, its cultures and people, beyond drum beats and colourful fabric patterns. Now is the perfect time to acknowledge that, learn from it, lean into it and be inspired,” says Jankowiak. “I realised how knowledgeable and skilled the creative community here was, and founded Nairobi Design Week to help people connect, share ideas, and support the rapidly growing design industry,” adds the Polish-British industrial designer.
Collaboration and prototyping is how Jankowiak approaches problem solving at any scale, working closely with NGOs, startups and corporates. His works comprise products, services and creative campaigns spanning new technologies, events and experiences, all led by his down-to-earth creative process - Eat, Sleep, Design, Repeat. ‘Paint the Court’ is Nairobi Design Week's latest initiative, and their first case study that showcases how design can bring together communities, with a focus on resource and sustainability, impact and heritage, and interaction and relevance.
According to him, the role of design is more about creative problem-solving through empathy and collaboration than mere production. “The world doesn’t need more skyscrapers or diamond encrusted watches. We need to really listen to each other, have honest conversations about things, and empathise. This should lead to creating inclusive products, services and ecosystems that serve the people and planet. Design plays a pivotal role to support those in society who need it the most, financially. Creative industries are already a significant contributor to GDP, and face pressure to deliver for a society that functions on consumption. Kenyan creatives just want to be treated equally with other professions, and paid with cash not ‘exposure’…”
Kenyan design offers raw, encouraging and conscious approaches to uncover real world problems and find solutions that leave many marvelling. – Adrian Jankowiak
All of Jankowiak’s picks for Made in Kenya nurture a profound respect for the country’s heritage and a collective need to preserve natural resources. “From turning aquatic weed into a concrete alternative, to transforming trash into unpredictable, flashy eyewear designs, all of these designers are very inspiring. These are works and designs we should be celebrating and putting on the global map to learn from,” he asserts.
In no particular order, here are the selections of designers and their works representing the product design industry in Kenya, works that are a subtle balance between art and functional design – works that are a ray of hope in reviving a post-pandemic economy.
Owner and director Roky Gambo derives joy and inspiration from the enchanting Swahili coast of Eastern Africa, and traditions of Swahili craftsmanship that he continues in his works, working alongside talented, local artisans to create rustic home décor and made-to-order furniture pieces. The pieces employ hardwood - primarily mahogany and mvule (also known as African teak or iroko), along with sourced brass fixtures from Old Town, Mombasa. “We fuse traditional carving styles with bright colours, interpreting century-old Swahili motifs and carvings in a modern way in our pieces, respecting the integrity and authenticity of the original,” says Gambo.
“Swahili design reflects the tumultuous and complex history of the Kenyan coastline - Bantu designs mixed with Omani, Indian, Zanzibari and Portuguese influences – it’s an exotic yet familiar hotpot of history, art and workmanship.”
Swahili Chic’s Maridadi series comprises a massive mahogany four-poster bed with an intricately hand carved headboard and a full length mirror with Lamu style carvings on its muted teal frame. The hand-painted glass doors of the Tausi Cupboard features a peacock that represents good luck, found frequently in traditional Swahili furniture, while its borders are carved in Bajuni style, known for its geometric chip carving, one of the oldest Swahili carving styles. The Kibokoni Bench is finished in distressed white to give an airy feel, and features hand-painted tiles of flowers and peacocks, a space to sit, relax and host conversations.
Self-taught artist and sculptor, Kabiru converts discarded electronic waste into intriguing pieces often inspired by colours and elements of the outdoors. Kabiru turns trash into treasure pieces and is best known for his artistic eyewear series called C-Stunners (that look more like elaborate masks worn by residents of the Capitol in Hunger Games). His junk artwork has travelled worldwide with solo and group exhibitions such as the C-Stunners & Black Mamba at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town (2015), the Kunstpodium T Gallery in Tilburg, the Netherlands (2011) and at the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India (2018).
“I collect trash when I work around the streets of Nairobi. This trash challenges me to re-contextualise it into something interesting and wild.”
Made with foraged toothpicks and tiny metal scraps of an old radio, the radial spokes of Sun City look toward a future where nature reclaims the planet, and the ecosystem gets back to normal, healed and whole, shining like the rays of the sun. Looking almost like a giant housefly, Kabiru photographs himself wearing Na Bado glasses, fashioned out of sieves, wires and decorative, painted wood sections framing it. Kabiru places an old transistor radio’s outer face in the centre of the Indigenous art piece that references countries that still celebrate indigenous people, plants, and animals, with beaded wires extending up and down, like steely bird wings.
Architect Munyuthe started Saba Studios three years ago, aiming to promote and support local culture through contemporary heirloom furniture pieces inspired by vernacular Swahili carving and carpentry techniques. “Materials and craftsmanship of vernacular Kenya fascinate me and I seek to scale these down and simplify these,” says Munyuthe. “In regard to craftsmanship, I find myself looking both into the past and the future. Studying the old ways of creating enriches my understanding of materials, while modern techniques helps lend an awareness of future possibilities. My pieces are a simple assortment of both – the vernacular and the contemporary; the old and the new.” he adds.
The Mashirbirya chair and side table was born of a collaboration with Swahili carpenters on Lamu Island, inspired by centuries old mashirbirya patterns observed in Arabic-Bantu architecture. Made from local mvule wood, the minimal form of the triangular side table and straight-backed chair incorporate said pattern, reinterpreting the wooden lattice screen from a building element to an object. The backrest of the handmade Pembe Chair, for instance, is inspired by the longhorn ankole cattle, borrowing shapes from an ancient time and bringing them into the present. A Swahili proverb, Kenge ni Kenge hawi mamba (It’s impossible for one to change their character) inspired the Kenge Chair, as a minimal re-imagination of the plantation chair with long armrests, its cotton string fibre woven seat leaning far back. “I describe this piece as taking agency over an old design narrative - not discarding good design but elevating it in new light,” explains Munyuthe.
Oyugi Allela is a designer and material researcher with interests in circular systems and their implication to sustainable futures. She is an alumni of University of Edinburgh (Masters) and the University of Nairobi (Bachelors) where she specialised in Product Design. Allela believes in functionality and has always been inclined toward versatile experiments. “Tinkering around Mother Nature’s plant resources, studying and learning about these and co-creating with my local community,” is how Allela describes her creative design process.
“I often use plants or waste ranging from plastic to fabric scraps. The common factor that lies within the final output and in the making is that I put the material at the foreground of the making. It’s like DIY, where you learn and explore side by side. I follow the Material Driven Design Methodology where excessive tinkering is encouraged. It’s inquisitive at every stage,” Allela shares.
“The output from Hyacinth Futures is a 100 per cent plant-based MDF and concrete like-alternative material that embodies the restorative richness of nature, is chemical free and is entirely decomposable.”
Her latest project Hyacinth Futures focusses on using a ‘material out of place’ - the water hyacinth, an alien perennial aquatic weed that carpets Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater body (a threat to local biodiversity, hub for plastic pollutants on the lake and an inhibitor of socio-economic activities such as irrigation and fishing) - towards the development of a material intervention that contributes to a cleaner environment. The project also highlights a designer’s role in generating meaningful products with zero environmental footprints through the exploration of the potential of a plant as a material resource for product design.
Ocean Sole is a social enterprise that upcycles flip-flops that wash up along Kenyan beaches and waterways into colourful art pieces, giving their team of artists a platform to practise and exhibit their creativity. “Inspired by the toys that children were making out of the flip-flop debris, Julie Church, the Ocean Sole Founder, encouraged their mothers to collect, wash, and cut the discarded flip-flops into products to sell at local Kenyan Markets as another means of income for their families,” informs their official website.
Tens of thousands of pounds of rubber slippers are hand-carved and processed into colourful, larger-than-life statues of safari animals annually, such as camels, bears and elephants. The Ocean Sole artists collect, clean, compress and carve these rubber flip flops into sculptures, wall art and toys, using recycled styrofoam and wire for the bigger pieces, held together with adhesive glue, which otherwise would aimlessly contribute to aquatic pollution.
Their exhibition, Waste to Wonder at Grand Court of Metropolis at Metrotown, Vancouver, Canada (2019), showcased the transformation of more than 6,580 flip-flops into six life-size animal sculptures of Canadian wildlife at risk - the narwhal, orca, bison, grizzly, beaver and caribou. The McKee Botanical Garden is presently hosting its Ocean Sole Africa Exhibition that features 40 brightly coloured, whimsical, hand-crafted marine sculptures of species such as dolphins, turtles and crabs, in an attempt to explore and truly understand creatures that live underwater, and the many ways we can help conserve them and their habitats. Taji the green lion is a life-size sculpture commissioned by the Irish Embassy in Nairobi, in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Tourism Board and Ocean Sole, to bring more attention to the continued decline of lion populations in Africa. Completed over three weeks, Taji was fashioned out of 1,204 recycled flip-flops and 20 kg of Styrofoam recycled from old shipping containers.
The Ocean Sole team recycled over half a million flip-flops in 2017, and aim to hit a million this year. They also contribute over 10-15 per cent of revenue to beach cleanups, vocational and educational programmes as well as conservation efforts. Equally important is the environmental awareness that the artworks seek to bring about.
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