Nairobi-born London-based designer and gallerist, Shiro Muchiri, shares her striking home in Tuscany and tells Harriet Brennan about her mission to build bridges between artisans, makers and developers around the world.
SoShiro Gallery, Marylebone, London © SoShiro
You’d be forgiven for missing SoShiro, a new gallery and collaborative space in London’s Marylebone. The imposing five-storey townhouse blends unassumingly with its Georgian terraced neighbours, but soon after entering its handsome stucco façade gives way to an unexpected immersion in global art, design and culture.
This duality of purpose is important, for the architectural significance of SoShiro as a house is key to the gallery’s value and intent. Owner and founder, Shiro Muchiri, has a clear and simple mission for the building: to provide a warm, convivial space for artistic connection, nurture and experience. More than a gallery, SoShiro is a platform and creative hub; Shiro hopes to foster engagement with the narratives behind the collections she creates and curates, and the cultures they speak for.
Entering SoShiro, my eye is drawn to a beautiful silk kimono illuminated in the late-morning sunlight. On closer inspection, the kimono is in fact a sculpture. ‘Hagi’, I’m told, is hand-carved from Atni Wood (a Japanese Elm) by the celebrated artist, Toru Kaizawa, in collaboration with Muchiri for SoShiro’s second collection, Ainu.
“Touch the hands,” Shiro encourages, and I am struck by their realism and tactility. For Shiro, it’s important that visitors are absorbed by the pieces; that they understand their stories. Ainu is a celebration of the artisanal traditions of the Ainu people in Hokkaido, Japan, for whom the relationship with the forests and nature is sacred.
We want to “unroll so many layers of learning”, Muchiri says of her process when unveiling each collection, and likewise the events she hosts at the gallery. She carefully infuses sensory elements from the same regions to draw synergies between aesthetic and use, to paint these cultural narratives for the contemporary audience.
Born and raised in Kenya, Shiro’s style and aesthetic grew organically, influenced by travel, academic study and the local Kenyan craftsmanship surrounding her. After studying art in secondary school, she began a design internship in Nairobi and became fascinated by the practical application of good design: how people interact with space. With her sights set on Europe, Shiro left Kenya to study Interior Architecture in Milan and London, where she also started a family and design practice - Interni Design Studio - where she continues to work on high-end projects.
After living in Africa and Europe, learning different languages and cultural differences along the way, Shiro identifies with an ‘outsider’ perspective: a sense of looking into society “from the outside”. Perhaps she is uniquely positioned, therefore, to analyse the human experience, specifically as it pertains to art and design. Well-read and a remarkable philomath, Shiro soon felt a yearning for something more. “I knew I needed a space [to] showcase the artists that I’m wanting to work with - the creativity of these different cultures - and I wanted to do that in a context that was welcoming, non-intimidating, [somewhere that] encouraged questions.”
And so, SoShiro was born. Opening, and soon after closing, just before the pandemic, the gallery had an uncertain start, but Shiro has since hosted a variety of events and exhibitions, and launched three collections of art and objects: Pok, Ainu and Layers. Each celebrates artisanal traditions from three very different parts of the world - Kenya, Japan and Cuba, respectively - and has played a role in fostering relationships between artists separated by land and sea.
In the tiny rural village of Takaungu, Kenya, artisans in the Zinj Workshop make and sew exquisitely detailed colorful beadwork onto Italian leather panels, which makers in Veneto then incorporate into elegant wooden objects and carefully crafted pieces of furniture. The result is SoShiro’s Pok collection - designed by Shiro and made by artisans - which pays tribute to Shiro's Kenyan heritage.
A notable relationship has developed between the Pokot artisans and the Venetian craftspeople. The Kenyan artisans had never come across leather engineered so well, so much so that they initially refused to believe that the fine Italian nubuck leather panels sent by the Venetians were real, Shiro recalls. Meanwhile, the Venetian makers couldn’t believe the intricacy of the Pokot women’s workmanship; their panels crafted so painstakingly bead by bead. For Shiro, this reinforced the importance of her approach. “There became this cross-cultural fascination, and appreciation of each maker’s skill,” Shiro relays, “people discovering one another through their art”.
Shiro's 19th century house in Tuscany © SoShiro
For the London Design Festival 2023, SoShiro will present over 30 pieces of tableware and furniture from the three collections. The SoShiro Collections Story explores work from lesser-known makers, specifically those "from places that don’t normally get a spotlight of design shone on them," Shiro explains.
In her personal projects - homes in London, Tuscany and Diani Beach, Kenya - Shiro has worked hard to reflect the local aesthetic, materials and skills. In the extensive renovation of her 19th-century Tuscan farmhouse, where contemporary art and furniture is displayed in a historic space to striking effect, Shiro gave a local artist carte blanche to finish the walls.
The artist worked fastidiously, staying so true to the property’s character that a local neighbour could not tell the difference between the new and original walls. “The house had been used in local wine production, Vin Santo, so we wanted to maintain those [architectural] elements,” Shiro explains.
Shiro Muchiri photographed at SoShiro Gallery © SoShiro
“In London, we have the ‘prato Inglese’ (a term the Italians use to describe the characteristic perfect English lawn); it's fascinating how it exudes Britishness,” Shiro laughs. When viewed from the sea, her home in Diani Beach, Kenya, does not stand out, but rather blends seamlessly with its surroundings; Shiro used colors that work with the coastal environment. It’s a curation of authentic materials and craftsmanship, including Mvule wood - used by local fisherman to build boats - and a locally-quarried Mazera stone for the floors and swimming pool.
With her professional projects, Shiro also hopes to bring a richness in cultural diversity to contemporary art and design. Her latest venture, Art in Architecture - a collaboration with Hanna Afolabi of Mood and Space - aims to connect commercial developers with local communities, creating social impact through artistic strategies.
Drawing on her architectural background and positioning in the art world, Shiro engages with stakeholders on both sides, and encourages developers to work with artisans, infusing the artistic concept into architecture, no matter the budget. “It’s really exciting that there are progressive developers who realise the ‘tick box strategy’ isn’t working,” she says, adding that buildings, “must tell a compelling story that works both for now, and for the future of the development and its local community”.
Shiro's 19th century house in Tuscany © SoShiro
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SoShiro Gallery will present design from Japan, Kenya and Cuba during London Design Festival 2023; 15-30th September 2023. www.soshiro.co
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Harriet Brennan is a British designer and writer, based in north London