How Two Italian Designers Are Transforming One Of Kenya's Oldest Slums With Furniture

By Maria Bregman

Dandora is a sprawling slum in the east of Nairobi, Kenya, home to more than 600,000 people. It is also the site of one of Africa’s largest dumpsites, where tons of waste are dumped every day, posing serious health and environmental risks.

But Dandora is not just a place of despair. It is also a place of resilience, creativity, and hope. And that is what two Italian designers, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, wanted to highlight when they embarked on a unique project to bring high-end furniture to one of Kenya’s oldest slums.

Trimarchi and Farresin are the founders of Formafantasma, a studio based in Amsterdam that explores the environmental and social impact of design. They have worked on projects ranging from volcanic glass objects to leather made from fish skin. Their work has been exhibited at museums such as the MoMA in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

In 2022, they were invited by the British Council to participate in a program called Circular Design Lab, which connects designers from Europe and Africa to collaborate on circular economy solutions. They were paired with Dandora Furniture Initiative (DFI), a local organization that trains young people in carpentry and upholstery skills, and provides them with tools and materials to make furniture.

DFI was founded in 2017 by George Kariuki, a former street child who grew up in Dandora and learned carpentry from his uncle. He wanted to give back to his community and create opportunities for the youth, many of whom are unemployed or involved in crime. He started with a small workshop and a few apprentices, and gradually expanded his network and impact.

Trimarchi and Farresin were impressed by the work of DFI and decided to collaborate with them to create a collection of furniture pieces using recycled materials and traditional techniques. They spent two weeks in Dandora, working closely with the DFI team and learning about their culture and challenges.

The result was DFI x Formafantasma, a collection of 15 furniture pieces that combine the aesthetic and functional sensibilities of both parties. The pieces include chairs, stools, tables, lamps, and screens, all made with wood, metal, plastic, and fabric salvaged from the dumpsite or donated by local businesses. The materials were cleaned, cut, bent, woven, and stitched together, creating a contrast between the rough and the refined, the old and the new.

The collection was exhibited at the Nairobi Design Week in March 2023, where it received positive feedback from the public and the media. Some of the pieces were sold to raise funds for DFI, while others were donated to local schools and community centers. The project also generated interest from potential buyers and partners, both locally and internationally.

Trimarchi and Farresin say that the project was not only a design exercise, but also a social and cultural exchange. They say that they learned a lot from the DFI team, who showed them the value of resourcefulness, craftsmanship, and community. They also hope that the project will empower the DFI team, preserve their cultural heritage, and challenge the stereotypes of slums as places of poverty and crime.

They also hope that the project will inspire more collaborations between international and local designers, and showcase the creativity and potential of Dandora. They say that Dandora is not a problem to be solved, but a source of inspiration and innovation.

“We believe that design can be a tool for positive change, and that circular design can be a way to address the environmental and social issues that we face today,” they say. “We hope that our project will contribute to this vision, and that it will spark more conversations and actions around circular design in Africa and beyond.”