Rustic Furniture from Africa at it's best.

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Travel News and Lifestyle......July 2003


It's all in the twists and knots!

By Pippa Keith

Funzi Furniture Factory


I don't think there is anything more beautiful or appealing than seeing and running your hand over an extraordinarily beautiful piece of knarled and knotted hand-carved wood. I love the minimalist look, but not the stark sharpness of steel: it is the beautifully natural curves and shapes of wood, complimented with the free flowing lightness of the barest linen that is my dream home. And hopefully one day it will ring true… but more to the point where does one find such unique and personal wooden furniture?

I don't really want to tell for it would let my future furniture be open for negotiation, but at the same time I just can't help but want to shout out about how this special little place, on the shoes of the Indian Ocean, not so far from many of our back gardens took off with one man's creativity and ingenuity. It can only be The Funzi Furniture Factory.

Established in Kenya in 1991 by Michael J. Calnan , otherwise known to many as 'Aussiemike', Funzi Furniture began from a need to find furniture for the new house he had just acquired on the palm fringed Tiwi Beach. Having tried to find local supplies, with little joy, he, with what he calls, "necessity being the mother of invention" decided to "recruit (his) own 'specialists' from the bush" and within the next month " I had my first room full of indigenous furniture". What he didn't realize was how popular his work was to become and soon he had friends hanging at the door wanting a 'rustic', boriti (mangrove) pole four-poster bed.

Aussiemike arrived in Kenya after his first overland journey across the Sahara desert in 1972. "After some ten months on the road I arrived at the beach in East Africa and decided to stay… it was then I recognized in the local traditional craftsmen a wealth of talent laying mainly dormant". As I toured the workshops and saw what magical pieces could be created from something most people see as mundane and inconsequential, it made me realize what talent Kenya has to offer and that with a little guidance what can be created out of really very little.

It becomes evident very quickly that Aussiemike sticks to his philosophy of 'trade and not aid' and as he said, "All the local people ever needed was a market to exhibit their wares… they certainly had access to some of the finest woods I have ever seen… they have an amazing eye for form. They do not, and need not obey the rules of the European philosophy of the straight line. A geometric shape that does not even occur in nature." As he says, "… everywhere one looks in Africa, on the beach, or in the bush, there are fascinating pieces of root or driftwood harbouring natures own design, just waiting to be released through a skillfully wielded chisel of an African craftsman and a mountain of sandpaper."

Today, there is a workforce of between 20 and 30 and they certainly work for themselves, for in every piece you can see the pride and joy that went into making your mirror, bed, table or whatever may become of that piece of twisted, broken and otherwise useless piece of wood.

Looking at the sumptuous curves of a new mahogany desk and the fine carving of a gecko on the frame of a bed you wouldn't believe that this was all hand done and that the craftsmen use no more than one chisel or an adze. No, and I mean no electricity is used in the process, no nuts, bolts or screws are to be found, or even a hammer for that matter. What you see is nature in its purest form - from the wood itself and the vision that makes it such a special piece to the tools and processes that brings it alive. The wood may be anything from driftwood, found washed up in the shores, to a root embedded in the hillside of the Shimba Hills and varies from mangrove poles, mahogany to Iroko, otherwise known as Mvule or African Teak. Once sanded the piece is finally brought alive with linseed oil, which gives it that 'touchy-feel' look and luxurious finish.

Initially Aussiemike's furniture was very much of the bucolic nature, simple but functional, but with that he feels is a "timeless beauty". I couldn't agree more. Today, Aussiemike has moved on into the buzzing world of cyber dreams and the Internet frenzy, although to look at him you really wouldn't quite believe it! His partner in crime, and highly talented she is too, is Sabine who has taken on the visionary task and who now motivates the craftsmen to do their best. Surrounded by her palm nursery Sabine, with what Aussiemike calls, "typical German efficiency", develops and canoodles the craftsmen into creating some really stunning furniture. As you look at the table, intricately carved with elephants, that took nearly two years to make, you will understand that nothing is made to order as Aussiemike says, "if you like it you buy it", if not then someone else will love it.

While I was there they had picked up a pieceof badly holed and knarled trunk and from this seemingly unexciting piece Sabine envisions it as the pillar of a bar. Standing tall and proud on one side of the bar, this piece will have, no doubt, an equally fascinating top protruding from its side, whilst from the depths of the holes will shine little pockets of light making it quite a spectacular piece. In another corner of the 'factory', for it is really only an old chicken shed - minus chickens - that she shows me what must be the most outrageous and sublime bed I have ever seen - it could only be destined for America! This gigantic four- poster bed will weigh in at nearly a tonne when it is finished and will, at it's head, be embellished with two kneeling, big breasted, big bummed ladies carrying water jugs on their heads, while the bottom end will be hundreds of carved elephants making their way up the pillars. As I said - totally outrageous, but my what a piece it's going to be! Stay posted by visiting for the final outcome.

My words cannot really do justice to the work of such talented people and so I leave you to admire and hopefully eventually buy one of these bravura pieces.


Funzi Furniture FactoryOn route to Zanzibar. Boarding the "Royal Star"Sabine stealing palm seeds outside the Sultans palace in Zanzibar.

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