Interior architect Shiro Muchiri has created a gallery and event space in a Marylebone townhouse with a particular mission – to design and show work that melds contemporary design with traditional craft
Design Anthology UK: What made you want to become a gallerist, alongside being an interior architect?
SM: Having done so many contemporary, high-end projects at the beginning of my career, I felt that there wasn’t a learning opportunity any more, which was something I craved. And so with my skillset I tried to match the two: I already knew a network of people who could make, and wondered if there was something I could do with that, but with products that were much more meaningful in terms of storytelling, learning, researching and experimenting.
We travelled the world meeting craftsmen, and I would see the skill of what they were doing, but it wasn’t right for the contemporary market or for the kinds of people I was designing houses for. High-end furniture is homogenous – companies were scared to do anything different, scared the market wouldn’t buy. But I felt we could do something different.
I already knew a network of people who could make, and wondered if there was something I could do with that, but with products that were much more meaningful in terms of storytelling, learning, researching and experimenting
DA: The Ainu collection of furniture, ceramics and textiles incorporates the work of Ainu craftspeople from northern Japan, and in particular award-winning wood sculptor Toru Kaizawa, whose carved kimono also graces the gallery. Can you talk us through the key pieces?
We started with Toru’s representation of the eye of the fish owl, a protective symbol in the Ainu community; we loved that it gave this connection between people, nature and craftsmanship. What also drew us to it was Toru’s fish-scale carving technique, which I think is something that only eight craftsmen are still able to do. Toru would make little trays [with the motif] that you could buy, but we wanted to turn his work into something with more synergy. So we designed a lacquered cabinet with a wooden handle – you can use it for anything you like but we envisaged it for supplements and medications. It’s made in Italy but the lacquer refers back to Japanese culture.
Another piece we’re calling the Herbal Wardrobe. You can store plants in it and wheel it around – in the bedroom, in the living room, by the window so it can get some light when you’re not there. You can create garden without much effort and it’ll look beautiful.
Then there are accessories, all ceramic, including sugar and honey jars, a vase and a matcha bowl. It’s all made in a small workshop in the Nove region of the Veneto, where the heritage is about ceramics.
We also took an embroidery from the same workshop as the woodcarver, with the same sorts of motifs. There’s a runner in three pieces that can be buttoned together, an apron and two napkins, embroidered in 100% silk thread.
DA: You created an initial collection last year, Pok, that combined Italian manufacturing with Kenyan crafts, which are two cultures that you know well, having grown up in Kenya and studied in Milan. So how did you land on Japan as your next source of inspiration?
SM: During our research we came across the Ainu story and the makers’ struggle to be better recognised, and when I read about it I said, “OK, I’m going to go and visit because what they are doing is incredible.” I didn’t go to see Toru specifically, but we locked in on him because he had so much energy for trying to promote a more contemporary version of Ainu. He was someone who had the appetite to see their craft in a very new, dynamic light.
DA: Was was Toru’s reaction to the contemporary way that you incorporated his work?
SM: He loved it. What’s interesting about the Ainu is, they think that if Europeans embrace their culture, then the Japanese will embrace it too. They think that making that effort here will made the Japanese reconsider it.
DA: What do you have planned for London Craft Week (30 September-10 October)?
SM: We’re calling this a cultural space rather than just a gallery, and we want to put people together, so we’re going to have matcha tea and sake tasting. We want to embrace the whole culture so there’s a learning opportunity, a design opportunity and an experience as well. It brings the functionality of the objects to life.
DA: Were you worried about being accused of cultural appropriation, incorporating Ainu crafts into contemporary pieces?
SM: Aesthetics can be dangerous if you don’t understand something very well. Coming from Kenya I’ve seen how misinterpretation has happened, by designers taking something and putting it somewhere else that’s wrong – not that they wanted to make the mistake, but the error occurs anyway. With the Pok collection [which incorporated Kenyan crafts] I just wanted to start with something I understood before we continued.
For the Ainu collection, we worked with Professor Kato of Hokkaido University, who sent us a lot of papers to read and understand. And we also chose an artist from that culture to help us, because there’s only so much you can understand by reading. Toru had an authority over the aesthetic, to make sure that we transposed it in the correct manner.
DA: When you went back to Kenya after years away studying and working in Italy, did you see its craft traditions through new eyes?
SM: It did make me appreciate its unique craft more. I’d seen all of this culture, but I’d never bothered to learn more about it, until, after not seeing it for a while, the thirst for it grew. So when I went back I really engaged with it.
I will never understand the full aesthetic. I know that real, deep meaning takes a long time, and I accept that there is still room to continue learning more.
DA: Where do you want this new direction to take you? Is there a crossover with your career as an interior architect?
SM: I’d be interested in a project that demanded some cultural integration. I always say I’d love to do a hotel that really represents the part of the world that it’s in – you don’t want to wake up in a hotel and not know where you are. For something like that we’d be able to pull on the same resources, research and artists [as for SoShiro].