1 July, 2020
When Ami Doshi Shah graduated with a BA (Hon) in Jewelry and Silversmithing in the United Kingdom in 2001, there weren’t many opportunities for her to pursue a career in design in her native Kenya. The paucity of design jobs led her into the advertising industry, where she worked for more than a decade before officially launching her eponymous jewelry brand in 2015. Shah considers her return to her creative roots as more of an explorative venture than a preplanned business project. The rise of Made in Kenya products and a dynamic growth in the country’s fashion, music, and visual arts industries were also contributing factors in her decision.
Shah’s educational background and work is very much on the artisanal side of jewelry making: she designs her pieces by hand, approaching her work from a slightly eccentric viewpoint that defies the typical or expected perceptions of what it means to be an African designer. “The first couple of years were much more experimental,” she explains. “[Now] the brand has become more refined and a lot more minimal”. In her recent collections you’ll find a range of sculptural pieces mixed with what the designer describes as a quirky style: statement pieces that are as much studies in materiality—a juxtaposition of wood, stone, and metal—as they are of form in their collocation of shapes. Shah is adamant about the importance of sourcing local materials, a process she’s applied since her brand’s inception.
The usually private designer invites Industrie Africa into her world to chat about design, values, and how her brand has evolved over the years.
Photo courtesy of Ami Doshi Shah
What was your vision when you launched your brand?
“[My] number one vision was to source locally, and now the origin of the majority of materials [stones and wood] I use can be traced to a specific geographical location. I think that the [essence] of the brand was always to be a reflection of the contemporary take on what was happening on the continent and in Kenya specifically. Many African designers on the continent suffer from this blanket perception and perspective on what it means to be an African designer and the kind of product that we should be producing.
In terms of materials and aesthetic, we almost always have something that is predefined by a foreign audience. The West has this stereotypical idea of what an African aesthetic is and it has to do with bold prints for textiles and tribal influences for jewelry. Our identity in terms of what we wear and the way we design is imposed onto us.”
Tell us about your creative process.
“When you are trying to source locally you are forced to be quite resourceful with the material that you have. It’s like creating a recipe and you know that when you open the fridge you’ve got a certain number of ingredients that you have to work with, and you’re working within those parameters. But, having said that, whether it comes from first a sketch and then deciding the materials, or a material and then deciding on how it’s going to be used, there’s a sketch not specifically related to a product, and there’s also a story behind every collection. I think the first stage of every collection starts with points of inspiration or the point of storytelling.”
Where does your research start with each collection?
“It could be flipping through a book about Frida Kahlo, or it could be looking at post-modern or Bauhaus architecture, or an article about post modern colonialism. I’m Kenyan of Indian origin, I’ve had a European education and all of those things also [influence] the way I might approach a body of work. So that also forms a point of inspiration [for me]. A lot of my work is also driven by structural form, texture, and design. It’s never a one-word answer.”
How do you decide on the materials?
“Being a jewelry designer you have much more liberty. [You do] not have to worry as much about the trend motivation. The way that l work with materials is quite intuitive because I do a lot of the making and designing myself I think the same way a fashion designer, someone who works with textiles and fabric (would). It always starts with a sketch or a design and then you start working with the materials and it’s almost as though the materials themselves speaking to you in quite an unusual way and telling you what to do. Then you go back to the drawing and you start rethinking things, and l think that’s the beautiful thing about design generally.
The last collection, Salt, was driven by a hugely exciting exhibition that l did for IFS (International Fashion Showcase) in London [in 2019], which was very conceptual but then it was also very process-driven. What I derived from that body of work was specific processes that l wanted to explore and one of them was this process of patination, which is a way of chemically oxidizing metal, so you’re almost creating a skin on metal and that’s where the color from the collection comes from. There’s always an overarching story with every collection. That story might be exploring a specific process that leads to a bigger narrative or it actually might be telling the story of the material itself.”
What values are most important to your work?
“Small is beautiful, and I don't mean that on the scale of the word, but in a way that we approach and consume products. I started by making everything myself. I now work with one other artisan who does some of the other production for me, and [our] production [pieces] are very limited. If we wanted to, we could be making a thousand pieces of a single object, but I don’t see the purpose of that. I don’t think that [would be] doing anything for the environment, I don’t think it’s doing anything for the brand itself, and l believe that the way we want to build the brand is by engaging with people who are wearing the object, and creating close-knit relationships with them. That [has] been very important for me from the beginning.”
Are we right in describing you as an introverted designer?
“I’ve never wanted to be the face of the brand or in front of it. I think it’s always been quite important that the work speaks for itself because that’s the most important thing. Particularly in the age of social media, you can fall down a rabbit hole when your brand is very much about you in terms of who you are in the digital realm versus what you stand for as a brand. I made a conscious decision to step away from a lot of the publicity.”
What’s your favorite of your creations?
“My torque necklaces are my favorite. [I made the first torque around] 2015 or 2016, and I’ve been making them in different materials in every single collection since. It’s just one of those classics!”
“I think it’s always been quite important that the work speaks for itself because that’s the most important thing.”
What’s your biggest style tip for accessorizing?
“When it comes to jewelry I need pieces that are conversation starters. I love layering the jewelry but sometimes it’s just beautiful to wear a necklace and that’s enough. I’m one of those people who styles quite minimally.”
What do you love most about being a designer?
“I think it's a real privilege being an artist or a designer and to be involved in something that not only brings you joy and is a point of self-expression, but also is an opportunity to connect with like-minded people. It becomes a way for you to also start conversations with incredibly interesting people. I’ve met the most incredible people not just within the fashion, art, or the creative industry but more so just people.”
How do you stay motivated?
Being creative, you just constantly create with self-doubt and it’s hard to keep yourself motivated because you always wonder whether it’s good enough and very often have this kind of imposter syndrome of [questioning] whether you deserve [the] opportunity to do what you do. I stay motivated by just having incredible friendships and relationships. I’m also married and l have two kids and l think that if there’s anything that can keep you motivated and positive, it’s your children.”
Music is motivational for many. What’s on your playlist?
“I have Taste by Tyga. I’m also listening to Circles from Post Malone and I’ve got Everything I Wanted from Billie Eilish, Zulu Screams from GoldLink and Slides from H. E. R. It’s like a mixed bag of a lot of stuff.”
Photo courtesy of Ami Doshi Shah