From Malawi With Love: Local Artist Designs Custom Furniture That Gives Back
By Susie Tommaney
People come into our lives for a reason. Sometimes they’re just agents of change, reminding us of dormant potential; others keep us focused on our path and goals; some will guide and teach; and then there are those difference-makers who share our mission and remain in our hearts and lives forever.
Call it what you want — networking, divine intervention, spirituality or the thread of human connectedness — Jamar Simien is experiencing all of the above, and more, at a rapid-fire pace.
A journey to visit his best friend in Malawi last July was a wake up call for Simien, who lives in Richmond. “It was a culture shock on every possible level. Houston is flat as a pancake and going from no real landscape to being immersed in a mountainous terrain. There was so much to see, so much to experience,” says Simien.
With a background as an artist, landscape architect, designer, and educator, Simien also was attracted to the work of local artisans. “[My partner and I] actually had a small business in Houston before I went to Malawi. I got a chance to witness locals handcrafting these mahogany bowls. I thought, you know what, there’s got to be a way to collaborate. I talked to my best friend and we formed the extension,” says Simien.
Less than a year later, Simien has founded Contour Functional Art along with business partners Brandon Destouet (technology and marketing) and Ike Igbo (logistics and shipping). And their very first container of one-of-a-kind furnishings is making its way by sea and is expected to arrive in June. Other than that bit of dodginess going through Mozambique during Tropical Cyclone Idai in March, it’s been smooth sailing.
“Basically we’re prepared to receive 200 pieces of handcrafted pieces of furniture in Cypress. We will have the staff to move them all around town, all over the world,” says Simien, who tells us that local architects and interior designers are very interested. “I want them to see it, to touch it, to really understand how exclusive this is. You would be hard pressed to find this type of art in America, the scale, the style, the quantity.”
Simien says small wooden trinkets can be found here, but it’s rare to find large pieces of East African mahogany (khaya anthotheca), East African blackwood (dalbergia melanoxylon), or East African sycamore fig (ficus sycomorus). He also uses African teak, African acacia, jacaranda, malina, Mtangatanga and Chitembe.
The Seeds of Discontent
From a young age Simien had always been interested in nature and drawing, passions that led him to a career in landscape architecture. He landed a job with The Office of James Burnett, an award-winning urban design, planning and landscape architecture firm with offices in Houston, Boston and San Diego. But he soon realized that modern-day architecture was less about the things he loved and more about AutoCad and logging time on the computer. Toward the end of his time with OJB, Simien found himself daydreaming as he watched the squirrels romp and play on the big oak tree outside his office window, having way more fun than he was. Soon the loudest voice in his head was the need to draw, and Simien resolved to become an art teacher.
Education is the Key
“I taught art for nine years, eight of them in the public school system. My final year, 2017-2018, I taught at a small private school in Houston. I resigned in 2018 and booked the flight to Malawi,” says Simien.
Malawi is one of the least developed and most impoverished countries on earth, with almost 53 percent of its 15 million inhabitants living below the poverty line. “Half of the country lives on 90 cents a day. That’s about 300 to 400 dollars a year. You would be homeless in Houston.
“I got a chance to travel down to southern Malawi and I went to the Jacaranda School for Orphans. My friend said, ‘They don’t have a permanent art teacher at the school; it would be nice if you could take the five hour road trip and experience it for yourself,'” recounts Simien.
“As an artist, as a 2D artist, I specialize in realistic portraiture. I showed them my website and pictures on my phone,” says Simien. He asked the 11 children what they wanted to learn most, and each and every one of them said they wanted to draw the human face, so Simien spent the next three days sharing those technical skills.
Fulfilling a Legacy
Every decision we make in life is informed by what has gone before and, in collaborating with the artisans of Malawi, Simien is intent on creating a cycle of success that can be passed down for generations to come. “I lost my father in January 2016 and that was the first time I was confronted with my own legacy. When that happened the wheels started to turn, [I thought] there has to be something bigger for me. Success is determined by your impact, we want to have a positive effect,” says Simien.
“He was only 66, it was a big surprise. I feel as though there were so many things my dad tried to do that he was unable to finish, unable to complete. So legacy is really everything to me, because legacy has a lot to do with the idea of completion. I really want to finish whatever I start.”
(L) Simien milling an African mahogany tree with Malawian workers, (top right) the Jacaranda School for Orphans, and (bottom right) a Chitembe handcrafted bowl.(L) Photo by Ike Igbo, (top right) photo by Jamar Simien, (bottom right) photo by Bado Bahaji
Timing is Everything
“My best friend [Igbo] was originally from Nigeria before he moved to America. He went to Stephen F. Austin and then went to LSU; that’s where we met,” says Simien. Igbo’s wife gets posted to new locations every two years; it just so happens they were in Malawi when Simien’s life journey took its next turn.
“My best friend is married to a woman that works for UNICEF. Her whole job is to connect children in need with resources in Malawi,” says Simien. During his wife’s assignment to the country, Igbo met other entrepreneurs which allowed him to eventually build connections with the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Malawi is a landlocked country, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, and its landscape is about 34 percent forest land. But those natural resources are in jeopardy due to drought (the dry season is May to November), flooding (the rainy season is November to May), and illegal loggers who are razing trees for construction, woodworking and boat manufacturing.
“The country of Malawi will not let you export forbidden species, you have to get a CITES permit — a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [of Wild Fauna and Flora],” says Simien, adding that they convene annually to update the lists of species that are in the most danger and considered to be threatened with extinction.
Contour Functional Art only uses trees that have fallen due to weather events or age, and is able to document the provenance of the wood.
“We have permits in America and the required permits in Africa. On another level each village has its own government. You have the country of Malawi, it’s a democracy, but then you have villages,” says Simien. “You call the chief, you have to go through the gateperson who allows you to go into the village and connect with officials.
“You have to build relationships. We make sure the tree has fallen naturally — which is the only way we source these trees — and we confirm it with the locals.”
As CEO and creative director for Contour Functional Art, Simien is tasked with finding common ground between thousands of years of Malawi tradition and craftsmanship and the aesthetic needs of first world countries.
“I’m an educator, I spent almost ten years teaching. I tend to approach all of my projects outside of the classroom as I would approach a lesson. What’s important is retaining that skillset that the child walks into the classroom with — their history and memories — the things that develop an imagination.
“[With the artisans,] there’s no difference than what I did as an educator. I approach every situation with an open mind and an open heart; no way am I trying to stifle their creativity. I want to celebrate and uplift and try to push their creativity to higher levels. I collaborate, I sketch, I love to draw. We sit down — some of the artisans their English is limited — but then you pick up a pen and start to draw. I think art is the universal language. When I start to draw you don’t have to talk. They thrive from these one-on-one personal design collaborations. I sketch, they make a comment, they offer advice,” says Simien.
The seed soon becomes the tree and ever since Simien first saw the potential in those handcrafted mahogany bowls, the operation has been growing exponentially. With Igbo based out of Lilongwe, Malawi and Destouet here in Cypress, they’re building an infrastructure with the Malawi community, training and educating on best practices. Feston’s the go-to guy for connecting with individuals and villages; he’s always on the lookout for fallen trees and collects them to be milled. Carlos travels to the capital of Lilongwe to stabilize the wood in kilns and employs 15 men, and Chipa is a general contractor who calls on another 15 men to perform skilled work out of his shop. Hardwick and Mike oversee metal and wood fabrication.
In fact lead woodworker Feston has been so busy that he’s recently finished building out his own shop, one that has electricity and enough studio space to rent out to other entrepreneurs for furthering their own dreams.
Contour also has developed an outreach program with the acronym R.O.S.E., one that helps craftsmen create positive change through the principles of reinvest, outreach, sustain and empower. “Having access to more capital gives them opportunities to create jobs, purchase electricity and acquire work vehicles to improve business operations. They can invest in real estate, build a facility and lease out the facility for other small business owners in the community to use,” says Simien.
No Plan is Perfect
With the exception of Igbo’s wife, Celine, no part of this story relies on the expertise and skills of women. “It’s culturally difficult. There is a cultural limitation, a cultural disparity, and it’s something that we want to make a difference in.”
Simien says half of the students he worked with at the orphanage were girls, and he knows they’re just as capable as the boys. “They have fine motor skills, which is pivotal in art, they have the intellectual capacity. But when you get into the workforce the system won’t allow it,” says Simien. “In the culture it’s not sustainable.”
Coming Full Circle
Contour Functional Art has entered into a partnership with Root to Fruit Ltd., a nonprofit that helps businesses and individuals become carbon neutral. According to the Malawi-based organization, each set of 100 trees can offset 20 metric tons of CO2 over ten years, storing it in the roots, trunk, branches and leaves.
“We have set up a minimum donation with Root to Fruit where we donate ten trees minimum per month. It doesn’t matter if we sell one table or 50 tables. We always will donate ten trees in perpetuity,” says Simien.
He and his partners are also connecting the end user with the source, a concept reflected in the company’s icosahedron logo. Simien says they’ve set up a category system for end tables, bowls, coffee tables, etc., whereby each purchase results in the planting of five, ten or 15 trees on behalf of the client.
“The points [on the logo] represent people. The lines represent the relationships that people share: the artists, the owners of Contour, the client, typically in America,” says Simien. “When those relationships are formed they connect the dots that represent the people. This company is all about relationships and we want to try to connect the many people in America who want to help people in Africa.
Each tree planted by Root to Fruit comes with a certificate of authenticity and the GPS coordinates for that tree, so that those who purchase the furniture will always feel connected to its source.
To learn more about Contour Functional Art, visitcontourfunctionalart.com.