Naeem Biviji: The importance of sourcing materials locally

Sourcing local materials allows Studio Propolis to define a regional form of architecture and product that has it’s own character says co-founder Naeem Biviji.

Husband and wife Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji, both architects by training, set up the Nairobi-based Studio Propolis in 2005. The couple makes handcrafted, designed-to-order products and in this interview Biviji talks about their diverse projects such as the design and prototyping of furniture, small buildings, and on-going collection of pieces. 

A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Biviji doesn’t see working in Kenya as a disadvantage: “It’s a challenging place to be in work and it’s really forced us to redefine a way of working that we might not have done elsewhere.”

The studio is one-of-a-kind in Kenya, which exposes Rayner and Biviji to a lot of work and allows the studio to practice their craft often.

With products in Africa being second and third-hand imports that are often made in China, Biviji says, “we have to come up with our terms and our own products using what we have.”

Studio Propolis does this through negotiating an agreement between their designs and materials that are readily available in Kenya – this informs their practice of making and designing, grounding Studio Propolis within the challenging context of Nairobi.

“Locally sourced materials are very important to me,” says Biviji. “Because it’s one of the few ways we can actually define a local or a regional form or architecture or product that has its own character.” The studio makes their pieces from cyrus, one of the only sustainble timbers in Kenya. There are many preconcieved notions surounding this timber because it is badly machined and primarily used in the construction industry but Rayner and Biviji have learnt to coax this wood to create their distinct pieces. 

Materials aren’t the only aspect of the design process and product which give Studio Propolis their distinctive character, over the last decade, Biviji and Rayner have learnt to take the imperfections of handmaking (“we were fighting imperfection for a long time”) as part of their creative character and believe that it adds a new dimension to their work.