Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cribs: Kisumu

Probably only my family will care about this post.  Maybe no one will.  Because it’s going to be about my furniture, and I’m not exactly Karl Farbman (You're welcome Sienfeld fans). But try to stop me from writing it.  You can’t.  So I win, person reading this post.  Where are you going?? 

Don’t worry, it’s mostly going to be pictures.

So, let's get to it.  I have either baby-induced nesting impulses or a particularly egregious TLC home make-over bender in ‘09 to blame for my current obsession in making my house, well..., cute. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’ve moved five times in as many years, and I’m trying to finally get it right. Who knows, but I am putting forth not a little effort to sit on my couch and look around my environs with satisfaction.

But a have a few handicaps:

Other than a brief stint knitting too many illshapen scarves, I don’t have a crafting bone in my body.  And there are no craft supply stores to run to anyway.  There are no real furniture stores either.  What we have is furniture “sections” of Walmart-type superstores chalk full of the kind of furniture favored by the newly rich and casino interior designers – overstuffed velvet couches and glass and gold coffee tables – with the added bonus of being twice as expensive as you’d find in the US.

You can't see it in the pic, but this little gem has actual rhinestones embedded in the wood veneer.
And it can be yours for $2000.

Look closely: behind this ugly but surprisingly functional coffee table (those are stools tucked underneath) is a chaise lounge to match the sofa above, which is obviously crying out for a matching chaise.

You're probably wondering, so I'll tell you:  it's a chair.

Since my tastes lean more towards Craftsman than Bordello, I’m not so interested in this stuff, which I couldn't afford anyway.  But as luck would have it, Western Kenya is chalk full of fundis (workmen) who make the most amazing furniture working in roadside shacks using mainly, hammers, nails, saws and brute strength.  They often work with no electricity and because it's mainly outdoors work slows down in the rainy season.  These guys are truly incredible.

But they generally still cater to new rich sensibilities and make versions of the above - overstuffed sofas and chairs in wild patterns that make anyone sitting on them look like confused children.  I guess when you finally have money to afford a big sofa, you run the opposite direction of the wood bench you sat on at your grandmother's shamba. (You know, the same wood bench that Pier One sells to yuppies wistful for "tribal" craftsmanship.  So many ironies...)

Since I couldn't find a sofa that wouldn't swallow me or make me dizzy, I gave a fundi a pic of these Crate and Barrel sofa and chairs:
I bought some material and he made me these For $200.

Not a bad likeness for 1/10 of the cost!

I showed another fundi this picture of a canopy bed:

And he made me this.  It’s solid wood and custom made and I paid $120.

I know the mozzy net should technically be haning from the frame. I'll ask you not to mention it.

For another $70, he made me this:
The sides on this toddler bed actually go up and down.
And this:

Our house is full of hand-crafted wares that cost a fraction of imported synthetic and plastic stuff.  You probably want to see, right?  Here's a sample

Brought left over material from the couch to a wicker fundi and we got these comfy chairs and foot rest. ($60)
Eat your heart out World Market.

And the pics I took are of Lake Victoria and an area shamba.  A fundi custom made wood frames for each for $3.

Our fundi, realizing this was for our kid's room, asked what color he should paint it.
I hadn't even thought about painting it, but it ended up looking great. Cost us  $18

I basically just described a toy chest (no picture, just hand motions) and  got this awesomeness.  The metal was welded by one fundi and another wove the wicker.  We got the baskets at a village market for $1 each.

And all of the above was made in workshops that look like this:

This is the where we bought the wicker furniture
Fundi workshop that made all three beds

All of which makes me feel a bit ridiculous about my obsession to cute-ify the house. At the same time, I'm happy to throw these talented and hardworking men all the business I can, even at a Mzungu premium.


  1. I am so jealous, Kim! Though I do pride myself on the provocative film negatives I found in the dresser liner of Leo's new dresser from a local thrift store.


  2. Eat your heart out World Market indeed! Is it wrong I'm jealous of your couch & chair?

  3. NICE work, Kim. You're inspiring me....just when Miles thought we were done decorating... :)

  4. I love it! We are moving from the UK to Nairobi in a couple of months. We were there a fortnight ago for a quick trip and one of my favourite parts of the trip was our journey along the Ngong Road when we saw so many of these workshops and furniture 'stores' with everything just laid out at the side of the street. I can't wait to order some furniture from those places.
    Love your blog and looking forward to moving to Kenya. You have been very helpful!

  5. Wow! Beautiful! I've long thought custom made is the way to go, but your prices can't be beat.

  6. Will you ever come home now with all this wonderful furniture you have acquired-:) P.S. You do have a crafty bone in your body -- remember the A & W rootbeer costume and the strawberry shortcake pillow?



    1. Mom, you must know I wanted to be an A&W rootbeer for halloween because we were on near sugarfree diets and that choice got me a can of soda to use as a model. ; ) Marni got the crafting gene for sure!

  7. I like the stuff you bought, the stuff in the shops was F U G L Y!!

  8. Nicely done! Over the years, I have become spoiled by the tailors and woodworkers who craft things from a photo... I am envious of the prices you pa. Bali is NOT inexpensive, though probably still less than the states.

  9. who knew that Kenya and Abu Dhabi were supplied by the same furniture warehouses! AD tends a bit more towards the gilt and red velvet, which I like to describe as Carmella Soprano's castoffs, but it's the same idea. And people BUY the stuff. Anyway. I love your fundi furniture - it's beautiful. We're going to be in Kenya in July but alas treading the tourist trail, which means no small village fundi finds for me. Wow. 'salot of alliteration already. i'm stopping now.

    1. Ha! Yeah, I think it's a nouveau riche kind of thing to cram in the most sparkle on the largest piece of furniture you can.

      You're going to love Kenya! I can't wait to hear your impressions. Any chance you'll be passing through Kisumu?

  10. I am in love with all of your furniture! Even in Canada, a lot of the furniture is just too much. Too much decoration and too much stuffing and too much pattern.

  11. Hello, I got to your blog by chance. I am originally from Kisumu/local. But now leave "abroad". I need to buy furniture but I can not bring myself to paying for those over priced settees in Superstores.
    I have tried to see if I can recognise the street where that fundi's rack but to no avail. Do you mind telling me where he is please. I would glad add my name to his customers' list. Thanks for helping the local economy. I too would love to help improve the income of informal business people.

    Good evening mama Caleb/Mzungu

    1. Hi Anon.

      I just discovered this comment, so sorry for the delay! the fundi's name is victor and he's right off the main road in nyalenda. It's about a 5 minute walk from Tom Mboya towards Nairobi rd. Sorry, i don't have any better markers than that...

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