Studio Propolis: The labourers of love

Inside the Nairobi-based workshop of Naeem Biviji and Bethan Rayner, a husband-and-wife team who make all their own designs by hand.
Posted 30 Oct 14 By Design Indaba Duration: 00:03:53 African DesignArchitecture & InteriorsCraft Interviews / Video Interviews Comments

This video goes behind the scenes at the studio and workshop of architects and furniture designers Naeem Biviji and Bethan Rayner of Studio Propolis. The couple are a rare find: they make everything themselves by hand, from bespoke window- and door-frames for commissioned projects to the plumbing in the home they are building for themselves. We recently profiled Biviji, born in Kenya and based in Nairobi, and showcased the couple’s pared-down, utilitarian furniture, so when we visited the Kenyan capital recently, we knew we had to see their work in person.

Biviji and Rayner, who is English, discuss their hands-on approach and how it has been impacted by working in Kenya.

I think our involvement in making in the very direct way that we are really informs how we design, says Rayner.

“We do some 3D modeling on the computer but it’s very infrequently because to make the physical thing tells us a whole lot more – because we’re going to make it in the end anyway.”

When they arrived in Kenya after finishing their architectural studies in the UK, the country had patchy internet access. Being outside of the global design discourse was not a setback, however, as they have a clear and unwavering dedication to their handmade aesthetic.

Shapes and forms in their work often cross-pollinate, sometimes inspired by the architectural influences of their location. For instance, the church pew they are designing for a cathedral in the Rift Valley of Kenya echoes the lines and proportions of the building it will sit in. The same sinuous curve that originated in the backrest of their mass-produced stacking chair can be seen in their one-off bishop’s throne designed for the cathedral.

Studio Propolis is committed to creating designs that have a human quality, with a sense of scale and tactile appeal.

Biviji explains: “We could spend a lifetime drawing this chair and get no further with it and no computer model would resolve this, but what does is living with it.”