Kenya: Furniture Designer Makes Impossible Dreams Come Alive in Wood
Painted and gleaming wood surfaces might have been all the rage in the past, but natural wood pieces are slowly taking over. And nowhere does this come to life more than at Rampel Designs furniture production studio.
At the company's workshops in two adjacent buildings at the back of the vast JCB Ganatara GoDowns on Baba Dogo Road in Nairobi, one is welcomed by the din of planes, cutters and sanders against wood.
But it is in studio upstairs where the pieces from the workshops are displayed that one gets to appreciate the natural-look furniture, which is becoming increasingly popular. Here one finds a display of solid wood pieces au naturel - as simple as the lumber they came from.
The enormous showroom opens up to unveil an unconventional line of artistic furniture. Sculptural, curvy-wavy seem to aptly describe the Rampel Design style. Almost all the pieces have curves and waves, giving an unexpected quality to the furniture, and which is hard to believe came from simple planks of wood.
Marc Van Rampelberg's designs unveil an unconventional line of artistic furniture. Sculptural, curvy-wavy seem to aptly describe the Rampel Design style. Almost all the pieces have curves and waves, giving an unexpected quality to the furniture, and which is hard to believe came from simple planks of wood. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL
The tables, chairs and chests of drawers are carved into billowing swirls.
They encapsulate the work of natural art in everyday functional household fixtures. Like the lounge chair made of mvule that has a depression for the bottom and rises with the thighs and then arches at the knee before drooping with the legs. The owner of the workshop, Marc Van Rampelberg, says it is one of his biggest achievements yet.
To Rampelberg, the natural hazel colours, golden browns, chocolates and cherries, the veneers of strips, burls, mottles, crotches, curls and butts of wood are so beautiful that there is no reason to cover them or try to make them look like something they are not.
He says that apart from fashioning the wood the way he does and treating them with beeswax or linseed oil -- to keep the furniture clean and protect it as well as bring out the grain's natural richness -- only minimal processing is done on the surfaces of the wood.
The idea is to maintain "a sense of purity, substance and authenticity straight from the wood".
Rampelberg is among a growing number of designers and woodworkers who are using the natural aesthetics of bare wood.
What is different about his work, however, is the contemporary twist he gives his creations - shapes that make the furniture edgy rather than commonplace. Rampelberg's strong liking for curves is clearly evident in his pieces.
The collection might be modern and its curves complex and pared down, but his ethos is fascinatingly old school.
"Everything stems from the shape of the body," he says, "what happens is that we curve it in the three dimensions that mould to your body to support the whole body as much as possible."
"The chairs emulate the nature of our bodies, hence my seats' curvilinear, flowing forms. More harmonious to people," he explains as he invites us to test the seats.
Marc Van Rampelberg's trademark curves can be seen in the dining table and chairs. The neutrality of the bare wood, too, creates what he calls "a relaxed energy". He describes them as "neither loud or quiet nor a blatant distraction, but an illuminating elegance". PHOTO | EVANS HABIL
Then in jest he says that most of the shapes that come to his mind come from the curvaceous female body.
He begins his work with sketches on paper before transferring them to the full-size plywood models that his carpenters use for production.
The neutrality of the bare wood, too, creates what he calls "a relaxed energy". He describes them as "neither loud or quiet nor a blatant distraction, but an illuminating elegance".
Every piece seems to have its own individual touch, its own little story, which Rampelberg is particularly eager to tell.
Rampelberg's works range from the small, like the traditional concave African-like pygmy stool to the gigantic dining table with huge curvy benches, to fantasy ornate chairs, to an office set. Among his works are designs that would not look out of place in an art gallery.
Looking at his work, it is unbelievable that his parents didn't want him to become an artist!
"I always wanted to be an artist but my parents didn't agree to it. So I ended up becoming a teacher," he says.
But it is not just the curves that are appealing; some of the pieces have mosaic-type parquetry.
Also notable is that Rampel Designs has been producing furniture made from palm trees for the last 20 years.
"Palm has always been thought of as very poor wood and the truth is that it is extremely difficult to work with," he says, "it is so hard, so heavy, but so beautiful."
Apparently, only a few furniture makers around the world use the pin-pricked hardwood to make furniture.
Rampelberg says he had never imagined that palm wood could be used to make furniture, until the farmer father of a student of his who was just starting a plantation in Tanzania offered to bring him the wood.
"And back then I thought, palm trees? No carpenter even thinks of palm trees as a source of wood. And cutting it was a big problem," he says, adding that he had to read up on the use of palm wood in carpentry.
He says the first time he worked with palm wood, it blunted his blades so much that it rendered them almost useless.
But that is exactly the type of challenge Rampelberg enjoys. "I try to deal with what would ordinarily seem impossible. If people think it is impossible, I want to do it. There are no difficulties that can't be overcome," he says.
This is how two out-of-place upholstered settees ended up here, among all the unadorned wood.
He says he really does not care much for upholstered furniture, and he made the two pieces just because some people challenged him to.
"They kept pushing me asking, 'Can't you make it with upholstery?' because they couldn't find beautiful designs of what they wanted and I decided, okay, I will, They are not my designs; I just reproduced them."
He says it's important to keep pushing the boundaries.
The designer reveals that he has total control of every project, and that nothing leaves his workshop for a client's home unless it meets his exacting standards.
He regards hand-worked wood almost with a certain reverence.
Marc Van Rampelberg's trademark curves can be seen in the dining table and chairs. The pieces take three to six months to complete, but there is no greater satisfaction for him than sitting back to admire a well-designed creation made from natural wood. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL
"Every piece is different," he says. "I cannot just expand because if I were to churn out hundreds, then quality would be lost. Given the work and detail that go into these pieces, you can't do that. So I am at the maximum. These are individual pieces that need a lot of attention and supervision."
He cannot sacrifice detail, no matter how small, irrespective of the amount of work he has to put in it.
Ranging in price from $400 (Sh40,400) to more than $1,500 (Sh151,500), these pieces are investment furniture.
And that's the point, he says. "It's about longevity as well as the craft. You get an original piece you can use and love every day, then pass it on to the next generation."
The pieces take three to six months to complete, but there is no greater satisfaction for him than sitting back to admire a well-designed creation made from natural wood.
Rampelberg occasionally exhibits his pieces in art galleries in Europe and has done so in Belgium, Denmark and Spain.
He has been commissioned to make furniture for wealthy and famous people all over the world.
LEGACY IN WOOD
His clients include British actor John Hurt, for whose mansion at the foot of Mt Kenya he has made furniture, and Meryl Streep, who took a piece from the set of the movie, Out of Africa, back to the US.
Once he had to unpack a container ready for shipping to clients in Europe after he was called to make furniture for a presidential suite at short notice for former US president Jimmy Carter's visit to the Nairobi Serena Hotel. Carter was so impressed by the furniture that he visited the Rampel Designs workshop.
Rampelberg Designs has made pieces for the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty for 12 years.
It also furnished the Mercury Lounge at the ABC Place Nairobi. Rampelberg, who gets most of his mvule and mahogany from the Democratic Republic of Congo and cedar from Kenya, is trying to make the use of palm wood his legacy.
Uganda and Tanzania are not exporting wood to Kenya and he is concerned about the sustainability of the remaining forest cover.
He says of the palm tree: "The wood has not been much used but in the whole world there are billions of palm trees. The tree is cut and burnt, if not, disease comes and spreads to the other trees."
He adds that he has taken to interesting other carpenters in it. "Because otherwise we'll keep going to our precious rainforests, yet with the planet's resources at an all-time low, palm wood could be part of the solution to saving our rain forest trees," he says.
"Anybody in the country who is in the business of furniture making can do it. You have to have special knives because a normal planer will not cut it," he adds.
He says even though palm wood takes three times the effort to work with than other timber, making its furniture expensive, rich people can afford it.
Rampelberg, 67, is preparing to hand the reins over to his son, who is attending a three-month carpentry course in Canada.
Former teacher more at home in furniture workshop
MARC VAN Rampelberg first came to Africa as a volunteer French teacher in the Congo as a 21-year-old in 1970. He visited Nairobi in 1974 and fell in love with the city. Although he returned to Belgium after seven years, Africa still beckoned.
After returning to Belgium, he joined a group of artists near the capital, Brussels, as an artist's assistant. However, he had ended up an artist himself and participated in an exhibition as a painter and sculptor.
"But I missed Kenya and decided to travel back as a backpacker hippie looking to do the Horn of Africa," he says.
So on January 1, 1980, he landed in Alexandria, Egypt, travelled through Sudan and finally to Kenya in August 1980. He met a Kenyan woman, Cherenget Chelenge who swept him off his feet. With plans to marry and settle down hotting up, he had to make money quickly. He continued teaching at the German school at the UN but at home in Redhill, Nairobi he pursued his hobby.
"I was poor and we had very little so whenever we needed anything, I would go to the back yard and make it. It was then that I developed the knack for designing," he says.
A cradle, bed and bedside tables later, he started turning his hobby into a profession. In 1985 he rented a small room at a big Italian Antique restoration and reproduction workshop on Butere Road in Nairobi's Industrial area and hired one carpenter. "We were allowed to use the heavy machinery whenever we needed to. For two years I designed while he made the furniture. Each time I made something new, I would take it home and hide it," he says.
After two years, Rampelberg had a whole collection. In 1987, he held an exhibition at the Goethe Institute, and his pieces sold out. In addition, he received tens of orders. Yet he had only one carpenter.
"All of a sudden I was doing very well, and from my tiny room of four by four metres," he recalls.
Coincidentally, the Italian's proprietor's business was not doing well. So in 1987, Rampelberg took over the business, complete with its 11 employees and machinery. Now he could start on his orders.
"I resigned from teaching and became a full-time designer and manager at Rampel Designs," he says. "I am extremely happy doing this."
From his initial 12 employees in 1987 he now has a staff or 60, and his furniture graces the homes of the crème de la crème of the international community in the country.