Architect and furniture designer Moran Munyuthe is the founder of the Saba Studios, a studio, workshop and retail outlet based on the island of Lamu where he works in partnership with local craftsmen to create heirloom-quality furniture inspired by local design and motifs. Atelier55design caught up with him to get an insight into furniture design, running a workshop and shop and the journey of working for yourself.
- Tell us a bit about yourself: your background, where you are based, and what led to setting up Saba Studio.
Hmmmm….. My background, I studied architecture at Central Saint Martins in London then worked for an architectural studio in Rome. I moved to Lamu 3 years ago to work on a construction project. During this period, I was exposed to vernacular design and motifs.
- What is the motivation behind working for yourself as opposed to working for someone else? And what have been the biggest challenges of starting your own company, and the greatest rewards?
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 1: the initial sales through friends and family really helped grow the business.
Also, operating from Lamu cuts down the heavy initial costs that come with starting a business: the cost of living and rent is much lower in comparison to bigger cities. 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 to my working life which is very fulfilling.
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- It seems that architects at some point in their career design furniture. Drawing on your own experience why do you think that is?
Personally, I think it comes from a fascination with material 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!
- 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 backwards and presently to where we are right now.
- You work with local craftsmen, why is this important for Saba Studio, 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.
- You exhibited your furniture for the first time at the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair in Johannesburg. What impact did this have on you as a designer and on Saba Studio?
It was a game-changer as it exposed our work to a new and wider audience, and it gave me the financial push to open our first physical location in Lamu’s Old Town.
- Having opened a physical store you have also established an artist residency programme. Why are these important to the development of Saba Studio?
Visual arts have always held special significance for me. I enjoy the intimacy and ambiguity of visual arts, and I believe that art can serve as very meaningful cultural and social commentary.
The residency is intended as an opportunity to offer domestic patronage to artists early in their career.
- 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?