It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? Perspective gives an experience value and a detail beauty. Perspective determines how we approach life when things don’t go as planned. People who approach life with a dynamic perspective inspire us. And seeing beauty and potential in everything is indeed something we consider a Kenyan way of living life. That’s why we are happy to share this story of such beautiful things as the second life of mango trees and the greatness that lies in a changed plan, told through the words and work of Unity Makers’ founder Eric Engdahl. A truly inspiring conservation about entrepreneurship and creatity. Enjoy!
How would you describe Unity Makers to someone who does not know anything about the brand? And tell us about the history of the company?
EE: We design, make, and sell contemporary furniture. I initially came to Kenya to work in architecture, but noticed a huge gap in the market for good contemporary furniture, so I foolishly decided to start a furniture company. My vision was to match Kenyan materials and craftsmanship with an international design perspective.
What is your role at Unity Makers now that the company has grown?
EE: I call myself Director + Designer. I started the business so naturally I direct it, but my main interest is design.
What are you passionate about?
EE: Creating things. A long time ago I wanted to be a musician, but I realized that what I really liked about making music was the creative process: going from an idea for a song to having a finished recorded track. I get the same satisfaction from design, whether graphic, furniture, or architectural. I love doing what I do because of the act of creation: going from a rough idea to a finished piece. It’s very concrete. I just have to remember to appreciate it.
Is there a typical Unity Makers client? And is it more common that a client buys a ready piece or that they come with a request for something to be made especially for them?
EE: We have a diverse range of clients, but what they have in common is a design consciousness – they care about design and therefore appreciate our work more than the average consumer. Many clients tell us how happy they are to have found us.
Since we make everything to order, we have the ability to customize our standard pieces, which is the most common. For example, if a customer is interested in a certain desk, we are able to offer them a choice of wood, finish, and dimensions.
What is being made in the workshop right now?
EE: Our biggest project at the moment is an office for a local tech startup: team desks, individual desks, conference table, etc. Offices are some of my favourite projects because by creating physical work spaces we can really influence the way people work, which is to say how they spend a lot of their time. For example, instead of traditional cubicles, which can be depressing and isolating, we encourage team desks which put 4 or more staff together.
Is there a specific item in the history of Unity Makers that you are particularly fond of or that was extra special for some reason to make?
EE: There have been so many! Designing and seeing these special pieces executed is the best part of my job.
- The Forest Table is one of my favourites because it extended from an architecture school project where I had to create a structure from paper and toothpicks to support a brick. The Forest Table is the same design, only with steel supporting an offcut wood top.
- The MOFTI Table is a special one because I am part of a design collective called, appropriately enough, MOFTI. This table was designed to be the centrepiece of the MOFTI store in New Muthaiga Mall. It is both an exhibit and a platform for exhibition. It also explores similar structural ideas as the Forest Table, but on different external and internal scales.
- Using a reclaimed dugout canoe (“hori” in Swahili) as a bench is nothing new, but most of the time they are used in very rustic ways. By contrast, for the Boat Bench I combined a canoe with a highly contemporary triangulated raw steel base.
Tell us about the materials. Which ones do you use the most, and where do you get materials? Do you have a favourite material to work with?
EE: Early on in my time in Kenya I fell in love with Distant Relatives, an ecolodge in Kilifi that is like my second home. While at the Coast, I began to discover interesting woods that were rarely seen in Nairobi. Among those, mango has become my favourite for two reasons: its beautiful, wild grain and color, and sustainability. Old mango trees, which no longer produce good fruit, are felled to make way for young trees, yielding great timber. It is commonly used on the coast, but rarely treated as a valuable wood and finished properly. It is more difficult to procure and work with than the commonly used mvuli and mahogany, but well worth the effort.
The reclaimed dugout canoes (hori) are also brought from Kilifi county. After long years of use by fishermen they are eventually no longer seaworthy, so the owners are eager to sell them. They work very well as benches and chairs!
What kind of advice can you give to a person looking for furniture and products like yours? How should we go about choosing? And how can we see that something is of high quality?
EE: What distinguishes our furniture is design, which is evident to the naked eye. And you can tell if joints are tight and the finishing looks good. But what is difficult to tell just by looking is the quality of materials used. Jua kali fundis often use wet wood that will warp and crack as it dries, or they use low quality finishing materials that look good at first, but degrade over time. If you’re not an expert, then you have to rely on reputation.
How do you choose your team, what are the criteria and success factors?
EE: For our carpenters (fundis), we test them by having them produce a sample piece. Sometimes their skills are not up to our standards. One fundi left after the test piece, saying our work is too hard. The ones who pass stay on.
Tell us a bit more about your collaboration with CAP?
EE: CAP is an NGO that trains disadvantaged youth in a variety of fields, along with life skills training. We first partnered with them in mid-2014, when they had a 3-month training program in carpentry. Once students graduated from the program CAP placed them in paid internships, so we took on some good apprentices from them. They started with us at a basic level doing basic tasks like sanding, but gradually learned higher and higher level skills (and concomitant raises) in the tradition of woodworking. Unfortunately, CAP lost some funding so the woodworking program has been shut down, but we still approach apprenticeship in the same way: we bring on youths with little to no experience and train them up. I am always very happy to see these young guys rising up as their skills improve and they begin wielding new tools, running new machines, playing more important roles in the workshop, and working towards becoming full fundis.
What gives you confidence? And is personal confidence and creative, or entrepreneurial if you want, confidence the same?
EE: The greatest designers and artists tend to be really hard on themselves. Even if on one hand they have big egos, they are also really critical of their own work. My best work tends to come when I impose that kind of criticism on myself. It’s nice when a client says they love the piece we did for them, but what really matters to me and gives me confidence is when a piece can pass the standards I set for myself. It’s probably not healthy to associate my personal confidence so closely with my confidence as a designer and entrepreneur, but when you invest so much in your design work, it’s hard not to.
When do you feel the most excited about your work?
EE: When a project I designed is executed and it looks as good in reality as it did on the computer screen. This means: I guess I did something right.
Where do you personally look for inspiration? Which are your main sources of influence and inspiration?
EE: Contemporary architecture. I am interested in making pieces with structures that are not only not traditional, but that might not even look rational. For example, I don’t want to assume that a table should have 4 legs. Maybe it could have 100 legs at 100 different angles. Maybe the top becomes the side, which acts as the leg. We see a lot of these same themes in architecture.
Would you be surprised is someone told you 10 years ago you would be making wooden furniture? Or did you always feel attracted to working with wood?
EE: Extremely surprised. I have always been interested in designing and building things, but I never expected it to be furniture. When a friend not so long ago suggested I get into furniture instead of architecture I shrugged it off. But now I see that there are some really nice things about designing and making furniture as opposed to architecture. For one, you get really close to the materials. If I come across an extraordinary piece of wood, I can directly put it into a specific piece. For another, the stakes are not nearly as high as architecture – you can afford to fail. If you take risk on a piece and it doesn’t work (which happened with the first version of the Intersect Table), it’s only a piece of furniture – you can try again. But if a building falls down because you took a risk, you’re in big trouble. Finally, the smaller scale allows you to focus on details, and more limited functions allow you to develop a parti (the central design theme of a piece) in a more pure way.
How has it been to start a business in Kenya as a foreigner?
EE: Starting a business anywhere is hard, but I don’t think it has been any harder in Kenya than it would have been in my home country, the US. As a foreigner, there are both advantages and disadvantages. Most people were quite helpful. The glaring exception is some local government officials, who see my business less as building the Kenyan economy and creating jobs in the long-term for the benefit of the country as a whole, and more as an opportunity to extract money in the short-term. The advantages are unfortunately a product of prejudice: some people are automatically more likely to trust a [white] foreigner, so I am quite unfairly privileged in that way. The related disadvantage is that people automatically see you as having a lot of money so are always looking to fleece you.
Kenya doesn’t need people coming with handouts – traditional aid. It also doesn’t need McDonalds – strictly replicating Western models to profit from the growing Kenyan market. I don’t mean to glorify what I’m doing, but I think Kenya needs people, whether local or foreign, to have the gumption to create original, sustainable businesses that empower people, and in so doing create ripple effects.
What is your plan for the future of Unity Makers?
EE: We are planning to expand our space and add a lot more machinery so that we can increase our production capacity. Right now our lead times are quite long so we lose a lot of jobs – we want to change that. We already have great clients, including a lot of innovative startups, and we want to be able to work with more of them. We are also planning to expand into other areas where our design aesthetic would be appreciated. We are on the verge of launching a line of wool carpets in collaboration with local weavers, and in 2016 we plan to start doing sofas with our upholstery partner.
How does being based in Nairobi influence you creatively?
EE: There is a lot of startup activity, a lot of people launching new and exciting things, and that’s inspires me to keep pushing, to keep testing new ideas.
What are you like as a boss and what is your best advice on leadership for a business like yours?
EE: Focus on your strengths. I started this business by myself, but I wish I had a partner whose strengths complemented my own. I am not particularly interested in or good at management, so I wish I’d had a partner with those skills. Time is your most valuable resource, so it’s important to spend it on areas where your skills give you the most leverage.
What is your best general advice?
EE: Validated learning. Being adventurous and taking risks is great, but it’s best to validate those risks by rapid testing, development, and iteration. I had a lot of dumb ideas when I first started this company, but luckily I didn’t raise a lot of money and spend years developing those ideas before launching. I just started making stuff and learning what works and what doesn’t work. In that way, I still took risks with each piece, but I didn’t let the risks accumulate until they built up to a spectacular failure. This is not an original idea – it’s central to the great book The Lean Startup – but I have really taken it to heart, and it applies to much more than business.
Thank you so much Eric for taking the time to share your story in such an inspiring and honest way. For more about Unity Makers go to unitymakers.co.ke or @unitymakers on Instagram.
Thank you also to Joe Were, aka @jaydabliu for the photos from the workshop.