Studio Propolis on beautiful designs produced under tough constraints

Naeem Biviji of Studio Propolis talks us through designing in the difficult Kenyan context to yield products that are not just good enough for Africa.

Ten years ago after graduating with masters degrees in architecture from the University of Edinburgh, husband-and-wife team Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji took a big leap and set up the Nairobi-based Studio Propolis.

“We soon realised that to work in Nairobi we had to develop a very different form of practice to our more conventional training as architects,” says Biviji. Both Rayner and Biviji work across disciplines: they combine their formal education as architects with an informal training as furniture designers and makers.

“We were faced and confronted with a lack of resources, craftsmanship, tools and when you compound that with the crippling traffic, power cuts, the hassles from city council and all the problems we faced, Nairobi can seem like an impossible place to get anything made,” he says. But Biviji and Rayner are by no means afropessimists; the couple took this situation of lack and difficulty and turned it into an opportunity.

“We increasingly rely more and more on what we can source locally rather than what is imported,” says Biviji. “And using what we can find, we slowly learn how to coax these humble materials into something well-made and beautiful.”

Located in the heart of industrial Nairobi, where an “incredible world of manufacturing and industry” lies, Studio Propolis is able to handcraft designed-to-order products, small runs of furniture that make up part of an on-going collection of pieces and buildings and spaces such as a commission for the Rift Valley Cathedral.

Their skill set as furniture designers and architects cross-fertilise in the cathedral project and Biviji believes that the commission captures the spirit of Studio Propolis: “It is the beautiful alchemy of making a product in a difficult context.” For the Rift Valley cathedral the couple are among others making pews, which follow the arches and cantilevers of the church and a once-off bishops chair, which follows the characteristic curve and form of Studio Propolis seating.

Through a series of design hacks, creating through compromise and a tolerance for different ways of making, Biviji says that himself and Rayner have learnt to take a deficit and turn it into an opportunity. This ability to create product in their characteristic style while functioning under various constraints underpins the Studio Propolis methodology. It has given them space to innovate, experiment and gain an intimate knowledge of how to make and build in their local context.

And after ten years in Nairobi, largely outside of the global design discourse, Studio Propolis is in no way out-of-date or behind the curve. They have learnt to bridge the gap between the perfectly machined goods and less perfect handcrafted ones. “That has provided us with a real opportunity to make new designs that are more socially engaged,” says Biviji.


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