A shipping container packed with furniture designed by Houston-based Jamar Simien and crafted by hand in Malawi will arrive soon in Houston, after narrowly missing inundation by Cyclone Idai during transit through Mozambique. The pieces are crafted out of rare but sustainably sourced African hardwoods, while the indigenous methods reflect Malawian culture and highlight the trades of the craftsmen who practice there.
Over the course of more than a few conversations with Jamar Simien, it became clear to me that his designs and his countless endeavors are all viewed through the lens of legacy. His multifaceted design studio Contour Functional Art has covered so much ground, literally, in a short period of time. Since the summer of 2018, he’s started Contour, taught art to African school children, planted over 100 African Mahogany trees, began the process of building a design school in Malawi, helped a group of Malawian craftsmen start businesses of their own, and tutored countless people on how to build up their community.
An artist, landscape architect, designer, Jamar is more likely to refer to himself as an educator, perhaps in the tradition of his upbringing. His mother was an elementary school teacher. Jamar recalls her taking him to the school during the summer. From the basketball court he could see that her classroom light was the only light on in the school. “She is the most positive person I have ever met. She tried to share as much insight with me as possible. I loved playing basketball. When I was growing up in the mid nineties, we went through some rough times. And I had two ways to escape. One was art, the other was basketball. My mom encouraged me so much --- if you love art, you need to practice. If you love basketball, you need to practice. She instilled structure and positivity in me, and the importance of not only starting something, but the pertinence of completion. She invested sweat equity in me, and now I’m trying to pay it forward with my collaborators in Malawi.” Originally drawn to landscape architecture at LSU for it’s connections to nature, and his love of drawing, Jamar ended up in Houston when he got a job at the award-winning urban planning firm OJB. “I used to tell my kids this story when I taught art. They enjoyed hearing stories about my life and my job before teaching. At The Office of James Burnett, there was this big beautiful majestic oak tree right outside a window curtain wall. This was the fall of 2008, during the height of the recession, towards the end of my time at OJB. Every single day I’d come into the office, get my coffee, sit down at my desk, check my email and I would see this squirrel going up and down the tree. Chasing birds, chasing little animals, hiding --- all these things. I named the squirrel Charlie, and Charlie looked like he was having so much fun, and I wasn’t. Despite working on huge real estate projects around the world, all I really wanted to do was draw. And you know, you don’t get to do much of that anymore in architecture. You’re going to be in AutoCad, you're going to be in other computer programs all day...I just wanted to pull out a pen and sketch all of the ideas that were running through my head. I felt like I had so much more to offer. That was when I decided I wanted to teach. I told myself, you know what, I’m going to be an art teacher. Sometimes you begin one journey but the path varies. I believed that teaching was going to turn into something greater, I just didn’t know what that would be.”
He left OJB to teach art for several years. Along the way, he mentored at-risk youth after school, established a long-running summer art camp and made school history by leading several art students to the state competition in consecutive years. In July of 2018, Jamar visited his godson and best friend in Malawi, a small country in East Africa. While he was there, he had the opportunity to watch some local craftsmen creating traditional wooden bowls out of African Mahogany. This experience is when the idea for Contour coalesced. “Once you start traveling you quickly realize how small the world really is, and how closely connected we actually are. How we share many of the same values and goals. How if given the opportunity, we can actually positively affect each other through brief or extensive interactions. Contour was created to not only design and build functional art, but to empower artisans globally --- and help them design and build their own future. We’re all connected. In my case, I am connected to so many talented Malawian artisans because we share the same passion for art.” Since that trip, along with his business partners Brandon Destouet and Ike Igbo, Jamar has turned Contour into what it is today. Brandon oversees technology and marketing for the company, while Ike oversees logistics in Africa, including shipping finished furniture to America. What is unique about the work that Contour produces is the journey it takes as it goes through production. Every piece begins with a man named Feston, who has connections with villages and individuals across Malawi. When a tree has been downed through a cataclysmic weather event, or has fallen from age, these individuals will contact him to let him know. He then will travel to the site to confirm the tree fell of natural causes, and collects the wood, milling it at his workshop by hand.
This milled stock then travels to Carlos in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, for kiln drying. This is an important step of the process to ensure the natural product will retain its stability over its long life. Once the stock has been dried, it is transported to Chipa’s shop. Chipa is a general contractor, and employs craftsmen of different trades in his shop. Hardwick oversees all metal fabrication, primarily out of reclaimed rebar (a popular building material in Malawi) while Mike oversees all of the wood fabrication with his team. Throughout this process, Contour works with each of these stakeholders to educate and train them on essential business skills, workflow optimization and financial best practices, teaching and training at every step of the process with the goal of creating and sustaining new businesses owned and operated locally by Malawians. One example of this is the recent expansion Feston has been able to complete at his shop. This added space allows him to rent out spaces to other aspiring entrepreneurs in the community, fostering growth and opportunity outside of the reach of even the work immediately associated with Contour. Another way to look at it is by the numbers alone - 10 employees working under Feston, 15 employees under Carlos, and another 15 employees under Chipa. Jamar says, “A good designer can see the potential in a sketch --- just like a good educator can see the potential in a person.” His work with these men shows that ideological marriage of the designer and the educator, using product and production to bring out the best in the people he works with. Jamar is a man concerned with the idea of legacy. With his own, as well as yours, and mine. He wants to create legacy furniture pieces that last forever, and retain a meaningful footprint on the other side of the earth. Through their partnership with the nonprofit Root to Fruit, with every fallen tree that Contour crafts into one of a kind furniture, they plant up to 20 trees across the country of Malawi. These donated trees help sustain the life of communities by providing food, shade, medicine, firewood for cooking and heating, and so much more. Through Contour’s outreach program called R.O.S.E., he wants to help craftsmen build their own legacy within their community. Reinvest, outreach, sustain and empower are all unwavering values of their vision to create positive change in East Africa.
The furniture that Contour is producing are beautiful, unique pieces --- crafted by hand out of rare materials in a far away place. But they are more than that. The best designs have meaning that goes beyond the object, and with the pieces that Contour is producing there is much more to them. They point a path forward, making a statement that good design is considerate of the people and the place it comes from. They speak to craft, and a nondestructive manufacturing process that does as much to build the product as it does to build up the people behind the product. In the post-globalization world we all currently live in, it is work like that which Jamar is doing through Contour which stands as a potent and evocative counter argument to an ever more international style, pointing a path forward for designers the world over towards products that truly have real impact across their entire lifespan. Products like the furniture Contour produces, what Jamar calls “functional art”, have the power to fundamentally change what our relationships are with the objects with which we surround ourselves. That is a good legacy indeed. M. Lawrence Dillon is an industrial designer, writer, and architecture nerd living in Houston, Texas.