As befits the penchant of a maverick, Jonathan Baker, the founder of furniture brand Rusty Fundi, operates from a distinctly unremarkable tin workshop at Karen Village, Nairobi.
Its exterior may be unremarkable, but its interior is the hub of innovative and eccentric furniture designs and other fittings for the venturesome homeowner. Other than homes, Rusty Fundi fabricates bespoke furniture for restaurants.
Inside is a dissonance of noises: a grinder grating steel, a sledgehammer pounding iron into submission, and American singer Post Malone’s ‘Circles’ yelling from the speakers. One has to shout to be heard by someone within an earshot.
At the centre of the room is the newest entry into the company’s creative inventory: a portable woodstove.
It’s in this chaos that Jonathan and his team flourish. Five men are at work while an assistant is on phone with a client. Jonathan is working on his rather dusty laptop where various furniture designs are falling into shape.
He is in a pair of brown contractor boots that look like they could do with a thorough wash. But clean shoes are hardly any of his preoccupations. “I like my boots dusty. If I could, I’d wear flip flops to work,” he jokes.
Jonathan is forthright, shrewd, and disarmingly witty. One necklace, one copper band around his wrist and a casual dress code is as far as his style goes.
But it is the story of how he came and settled in Kenya that reads like an excerpt off the script of a fantasy movie. He arrived here in 2006 as a backpacker and decided to stay put, enchanted by the geography, warm weather, and the people.
Without prior knowledge of life in Kenya, it was a high-wire decision to make. The very thought of it baffles him to date. “It worked out nonetheless,” he says.
In 2014, he set up Rusty Fundi hoping to make a fortune off custom-made furniture.
“I started by making my furniture,” he says. “Whenever people came to my house, they’d compliment me, and often asked if I’d make some for them.”
From his living room, his love affair with bespoke furniture started. Six years on, his love for the peculiar has blossomed into a multi-million business with a diverse clientele.
He has furnished several establishments in Nairobi including Kengeles, Bo Ho Eatery, Bosch, and several properties in Maasai Mara and multiple homes in Nairobi. Others include UAP and Gems Cambridge International School.
So, what does his furniture say about his character? Jonathan lets out a bashful laugh.
“I wanted it to be fun, free and durable and ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing. That’s who I am.”
He loves “organic texture of rust” which is what inspired his brand name. “I wanted a fun name that combined a bit of Kiswahili and English. It captures an element of metal which is what we use predominantly.”
While most people love a finely polished surface, he says “there’s beauty in how materials exist naturally.”
“We use metal that’s weathered over time by the environment and recycled wood, both of which have a lot of character.”
These are also hard to replicate, he explains. What are the take-homes about Kenyans’ furniture habits? Jonathan singles out our propensity for imported designs.
“Kenya boasted quality craftsmanship with strong materials before imports came into the picture. Imported designs often don’t stand the test of time because they use veneer materials.”
He admits, however, that Kenyans have come a full circle and are now appreciating local products. By venturing into furniture, Jonathan wanted to demonstrate “that we can fabricate our furniture here.”
He says that when a country cannot import products, as has been the case with Covid-19, people look closer home.
“There’s so much creativity and ingenuity here. Why not work with that?” he poses.
The growing popularity of bespoke furniture is driven by Kenyans’ expanded horizon of preferences, stemming from adventure.
Rusty Fundi navigates the fine line between function and form. Before he fabricates a piece, he must inspect the space for which it is intended. “This way, we’re able to make pieces that complement the space. A table, for instance, is unique when used in a certain space.”
Most of the enquiries and orders come off the back of work they’ve done in public places, he says. “Eateries are a great platform to show to a larger audience what we can do.”
Jonathan brought on board a marketer recently with the hope of reaching a broader audience. Even so, he is wary lest quality, which is sacred to him, drops. “I like to push the boundaries of creativity so that we (artists) all aren’t doing the same thing but complementing each other.”
The latest addition to the company’s product portfolio is a woodstove. He says the stove is efficient in fuel consumption, radiates heat faster, and is eco-friendly—it burns eco-briquettes and charcoal dust with minimal emissions.
“Being a dense mass of material, it generates enough heat to cook a meal from its surface,” he explains.
Jonathan grew up in the village in the South West English town of Bristol, UK, where a fireplace was a natural feature at homes. His professional background is in stove design.
Before he came to Kenya, he was working for a company that made energy-saving stoves to replace traditional fireplaces in rural UK. He always desired to have a workshop. Except it never occurred to him that he’d have to travel 5,000 miles southwards to tick off that box.
“I’m proud to be able to make these stoves for urban homes in Kenya,” he says, brushing the overgrown mane of his dog, a Collie crossbreed named Samburu.
Jonathan has a core team of nine, all who are on permanent contracts even though the number bulges to more than 30 when working on big projects. “Every year, we have at least one major project that we stick our teeth into for about six months. Then there are the one-off projects that keep us going.”
As the company’s creative lead, he is continually handling “a lot of design work which we must get right” for every project, sometimes working late into the night.
“I’m teaching my team how to use the design software package,” he says, noting that this eventually makes his work easier.
At the start of Covid-19 pandemic, he watched as orders were cancelled in quick succession as eateries closed down. “Projects that were lined up stopped. Some restaurants that had made orders couldn’t pay us which hit us pretty hard.”
When one avenue of income was lost, another emerged. “People were stuck at home and needed study-like desks to work from. This was a good opportunity for us,” he says.
With few imports coming in, some businesses contracted Rusty Fundi to deliver their furniture needs. Gig after gig, an opportunity here and another there is how the company is managing to ride the storm of the pandemic.
Jonathan loves the outdoors, and biking, attending concerts and racing is how he spends his time away from work. He goes camping in Timau or Naivasha at least once every month. His favourite local band is Tetu Shani.
His harshest lessons in Kenya? Patience and compassion, he says hastily. “Nairobi especially is a good teacher. If you can survive here, you can survive anywhere.” But there’s a rule: don’t lose your mind over things that don’t work the way you wanted, he warns.
How do Bristol and Nairobi compare? “Bristol is small and life is more restricted. The weather sucks,” he says, noting that Nairobi is magical and life here is more vibrant.
Fourteen years later, Jonathan feels more at home here than he has ever felt elsewhere.
“Kenya is absolutely stunning. It’s also very dynamic. I’ve seen incredible change in the years I’ve been here. I’ve had a great opportunity and space to create what I love. I’m grateful.”
On venturing into uncharted waters, he advises: “The start isn’t always easy. But if you love what you do, it becomes easier.”
I ask him where he would start life if he had to. The thought of leaving behind all he has built seems to jolt him. After hesitating, he says, “Maybe become a musician. I’d travel with the guitar and play until I’m good at it.”
Otherwise, he would take his backpack and travel the world until he finds something exciting to do.