Designer of the Week – Moran Munyuthe

Architect and Furniture Designer Moran Munyuthe on Design, Inspiration and Working for Yourself.

Architect and furniture designer Moran Munyuthe is the founder of the Saba Furniture Company, based in Lamu, Kenya. Moran Munyuthe works in partnership with local craftsmen to create an heirloom quality furniture, inspired by local designs and motifs. We caught up with him to get an insight into furniture design, running a workshop and retail shop, and the journey of entrepreneurship.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF: YOUR BACKGROUND, WHERE YOU ARE BASED, AND WHAT LED YOU TO SETTING UP THE SABA FURNITURE COMPANY?

Hmm… I studied architecture at Central Saint Martins in London, and then worked for an architectural studio in Rome. I moved to Lamu, Kenya three years ago to work on a construction project. During this period I was exposed to vernacular design and motifs.

Saba Chunguza Cabinet
Saba Chunguza Cabinet
WHAT IS THE MOTIVATION BEHIND WORKING FOR YOURSELF AS OPPOSED TO WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE? WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF STARTING YOUR OWN COMPANY, AND THE GREATEST REWARD?

Being self employed allows you to design your career. When I started working for myself the biggest challenge was capital. I have been very fortunate to have clients from day one: the initial sales through friends and family really helped me grow the business.

Also, operating from Lamu cut down the heavy initial cost that comes with starting a business: the cost of living and rent is much lower here in comparison to bigger cities in Kenya. This, coupled with our clients’ support has allowed me to open our flagship showroom on a shoestring budget early this year.

The biggest reward in being self employed is implementing a very personal process in my working life which is very fulfilling.

Saba - Usitu Day Bed
Saba Usitu Day Bed
IT SEEMS THAT ARCHITECTS AT SOME POINT IN THEIR CAREER DECIDE TO DESIGN FURNITURE. DRAWING ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?

Personally, I think it comes from a fascination with materials and craft, and a longing to scale down and simplify.

Architectural design work is very complex and takes a long time to be realised, if at all. Furniture design in contrast in my experience is very intimate; during the design process, conversations happen between the client, the carpenter and me, that’s it!

Saba - Mashirbirya Chair and Side Table
Saba Mashirbirya Chair and Side Table
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR FURNITURE DESIGNS, AND HOW DO YOU KEEP CHALLENGING YOURSELF TO GROW AND DEVELOP YOUR CRAFT?

My Inspiration comes from a study of the crafts and the past, whilst incorporating contemporary ways of thinking and making. In a way, I am looking both at the past and present day.

YOU WORK WITH LOCAL CRAFTSMEN; WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT FOR THE SABA FURNITURE COMPANY, AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THEM?

My collaboration with local craftsmen began as a matter of resourcefulness, and slowly evolved into an interrogation of design language. Each global region has a specific set of materials that create a vocabulary to work with. How one organises/ uses this material vocabulary is what we call craftsmanship or in the case of language, grammar. So, if one is observant enough, you will notice that within each region in the world, there is a specific design language that is employed, owing to a set of fixed factors such as materials and evolving factors such as culture and technology. My collaboration with local craftsmen in a way, is an interrogation of Lamu’s design language.

Saba - Nyota Desk
Saba Nyota Desk
YOU EXHIBITED YOUR FURNITURE FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE SANLAM HANDMADE CONTEMPORARY FAIR IN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA. WHAT IMPACT DID THIS HAVE ON YOU AS A DESIGNER, AND ON THE SABA FURNITURE COMPANY?

It was a game changer as it exposed our work to a new and wider audience. It gave me the financial push to open our first physical store in Lamu’s Old Town.

HAVING OPENED A PHYSICAL STORE, YOU HAVE ALSO ESTABLISHED AN ARTIST RESIDENCY PROGRAMME. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SABA FURNITURE COMPANY?

Visual arts have always held a special significance to me. I enjoy the intimacy and ambiguity of visual arts, and I believe that art can serve as a meaningful cultural and social commentary. The residency programme  is intended as an opportunity to offer domestic patronage for artists at the early stages of their career.

Saba - Jua Decks
Saba Jua Decks
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU HAVE LEARNED ON YOUR CREATIVE JOURNEY, AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING ARCHITECTS AND FURNITURE DESIGNERS?

Embrace uncertainty.

On that note, we thank Moran for taking the time to chat with us. Find more about the Saba Furniture Company here.

Note: this article first appeared in Shoko Press

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