Amid the nostalgic whiff and versatility of pure leather, Ruth Lelei chanced upon a discipline parallel to her architecture. This discipline isn’t an art more than it’s a craft — think of it as the more playful, more colourful, more creative side of architecture.
Lelei is one of the few local artisans handcrafting leather for interior decor. She crafts under her brand, White Bull Kenya. This is Lelei’s story.
‘Lelei’ directly translates to ‘white bull’ in my mother tongue. It was fitting for my business because bullish means aggressive and confident. A bullish stock market. Some people also tell me the white bull reminds them of leather. So yes, I feel that I was born and named to do this.
I wanted do to something different with leather. I didn’t want to make bags, belts and shoes like other artisans were. I wanted to craft interior decor items that were simple, minimalist, beautiful and solved a problem. Which I have. Now I want to venture further into furniture, lighting and more storage solutions.
My brother wears our bow ties to work a lot. He’s my guinea pig. Here, let me show you some of the photos on Instagram where he’s tagged us. My mother and all my three sisters have our products in their homes — the magazine rack, floating shelf, bin, cardholders … anything I’ve made they have. My dad likes to wear Stetson hats, I jazz them up with a leather strap. I’m the middle child and the only one pursuing a creative art.
Building a team hasn’t been easy. I haven’t found artisans who are keen to detail, and are as obsessive as I am about clean, straight lines.
The first piece I ever made and sold was something I called a ‘Bin’. It was a piece of brown leather that could fold into itself, it wasn’t held together by stitches or studs. I didn’t know how to stitch leather, this simplicity and minimalism added to its appeal. My boss was my first customer.
I moved my studio here to Kuona (Artists Collective) last March. I wanted to work away from home and surround myself with other creatives. I’m more productive here.
SIMPLE AND BEAUTIFUL
Our most popular product is the floating shelves. Urban men and women both love them. These shelves embody the ethos of our brand. They answer the question, ‘How can we store our things in a simple and beautiful way?’
I’m an architect by profession, I’ve been practising since graduating from the University of Nairobi in 2015. I love architecture — the function and form of lines and geometry informs our product designs in White Bull. There’s a concept in architecture called anthropometrics, it studies the human form in relation to what you’re making. Like, how do people use cardholders? Or, how do they reach in for a magazine in magazine rack? How does a cigarette pack sit in the palm of an adult? Our products are crafted around anthropometrics.
I never feel that I have to choose White Bull over my architecture because they’re an extension of each other. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Most of the tools I use for my architecture I also use for White Bull. Like the industrial knife, steel ruler, tape measure, sketchbook, drawing pens. I eventually bought tools for working leather — chisels, rotary punch, awls. I keep them in the same pouch I’ve had since I was a student.
After selling my first piece — ‘the Bin’ — in November 2017, I experimented with folding leather. I worked with vegetable tanned leather. Veg-tan leather softens when dipped in hot water, you play around with it wet to create shapes. It stiffens when dry. Oiling and waxing it makes the product last longer. I made a miniature elephant, a clock, some holding trays, coasters … I discontinued most of these products because they took too much time to create.
I used to buy my leather from Kariokor market but it wasn’t of consistent quality. Now I get it from Leather Industries of Kenya in Thika and from another tannery in Sagana. I buy large rolls for our popular products: tan for the floating shelves and green for the magazine racks.