“In places where the annual rings touch or part, the season may have brought more or less rain, while irregular rings are often caused by the tree growing at an angle due to the wind. If you look at the grain it tells you a story.” Gys Potgieter is running his hand over the fine annual lines and fit-to-perfection joints on the matumi wood table we’re sitting at. He is walking me though the story of this particular slab of wood, the same story we were all introduced to as children, where the inimitable narrative of a tree’s life can be read like a book.
For Gys, the founder of Kuni- a new woodworking atelier dedicated to creating art pieces in local woods, it all began with a humble pencil box, carefully handmade by Gys as a boy. That one box lead to more boxes which were sold at school, and so began his lifelong relationship with wood. Having dedicated decades to the large scale manufacture of wooden furniture for many of the country’s biggest commercial names, Gys has parted from the manufacture business and taken the opportunity to truly reveal his skill.
I was aiming for a Bentley or Ferrari in wood
Based on his family farm, south of Johannesburg, Gys and a small team are producing a limited collection of furniture items, crafted from sustainably sourced indigenous woods. “I was aiming for a Bentley or Ferrari in wood,” he tells me. It’s not entirely a figure of speech, as we walk among each of his masterpieces he points to a light and lean jackalberry server, whose double butt leather details are hand stitched in the same criss-cross design that characterises luxury vehicles like Bentley.
It’s about allowing the age old craft of woodworking to meet with the inherent beauty in the woods he selects, be they burnt stumps of jackalberry, or centuries-old fallen leadwood. “When you open that slab of wood up, it’s all black and dirty… my best is when a plane goes over it and reveals the grain- it changes dramatically,” he explains. It’s an organic process that truly honours nature, where Gys and the team can only design around what the wood reveals, and not a set of plans.
What puts it a notch above the rest is Gys’ dedication to his craft- with over 40 years at the same game he’s after perfection. A visit to his atelier will reveal 2nd world war age analogue machinery which he claims is the only kind that can handle the density and weight of his woods. Furthermore, Kuni’s passion for sustainability, using indigenous woods, initiating seed planting projects as well as gifting furniture buyers with 5 seeds and planting instructions, brings the brand’s practice full circle.
“A table looks so simple once complete, but to get it to this stage Gys uses incredible technology like lasers to mark the wood and old Italian hand tools to clean it… but then he’ll cut it himself with a hand saw,” Adrian Lombard tells me. Adrian is Kuni’s brand and creative director and is also involved in the craft and design of a number of pieces. “We wanted to position Kuni like an artistic atelier, where young designers and architects come in, collaborate and undertake knowledge and skills transfer,” he continues, revealing the breadth of the brand’s vision and their dedication to the craft of woodworking.