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Meet Jamar Simien of Contour Functional Art in Cypress

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jamar Simien.

So, before we jump into specific questions about what you do, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My educational background is in landscape architecture. In 2007, I graduated from LSU, which is annually ranked as the #1 program in the country. Because of the positive reputation of the program, we were able to travel around the country on class field trips and build our network within the industry, even as students. Shortly before graduation, while my classmates were enjoying a senior trip in Paris, I chose to interview at a distinguished urban planning firm in Houston. As the largest LSU alumni base in the country, Houston was always on my list of potential places to practice design. Right before they returned from their trip, I accepted the job and began preparing to start a new chapter in Texas. My decision to join the firm was influenced by my intrigue for the city of Houston and my desire to be connected to a strong LSU alumni network.

Landscape architects design creative outdoor spaces that connect people and facilitate memorable full sensory experiences. While at the firm in Houston, I was able to travel and work in collaboration with other design professionals on large real estate developments around the world. The experience in Houston had a major influence on what would eventually become Contour.

My foundation in design is actually my diverse skill set in art. I have extensive experience with oil, acrylic and watercolor paint, as well as pencil and charcoal. My passion for art led me to become an art teacher in Houston in 2010. While teaching art, I began dreaming of owning my own design business. I approached my cousin, who is a woodworker in Cypress, to collaborate on a custom display case project. It was a success, and from that project, we were commissioned to design and build a larger project in The Woodlands.

Never sitting too long on a proof of concept, I started planning an exit strategy to leave the classroom and pursue my vision of ownership full time. I resigned from my teaching position in May of 2018 and immediately hopped on a plane to Malawi to visit my best friend and his family. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on earth, with the average person earning about 90 cents per day. While I was there, I had the opportunity to teach art at The Jacaranda School for Orphans and spend quality time connecting to the students there. Unfortunately, they don’t have a permanent art teacher, and I had never taught abroad before, so all of us walked away with a meaningful experience. The trip to East Africa had a tremendous impact on my life, and it was there that I realized my diverse skill set in art could not only help people, but it could actually help transform entire communities. That’s when Contour Africa was born.

Has it been a smooth road?
Every aspect of setting up the business in Africa has been challenging. We had no proof of concept so we had to literally start from scratch. Finances, logistics, manpower, infrastructure, partnering with the right people, mitigating risks, weather-related issues, cultural barriers, the inconsistency of electricity in Malawi, the workplace in Africa not being properly outfitted, adequate storage space, software issues, and communication issues because of the time zone difference. Even though we have faced tremendous adversity in Malawi, because our team members all share the same core values, we have been able to persevere and accomplish our goals despite the adversity. Now we have a strong proof of concept.

We’d love to hear more about your company.
The name of our design company is Contour Functional Art. We design and build beautiful art you can use. I am the CEO and Creative Director of the company. Brandon Destouet is the CMO and Technology Director and Ike Igbo is the CFO and Logistics Director. We are based in Houston, with a design workshop in Cypress and in Malawi, a small country in East Africa. In the Cypress workshop, we mainly work with domestic wood species, in the Malawi workshop, we only work with exotic wood species.

We empower communities in East Africa by collaborating with local artisans to design and build custom furniture. We are passionate about creating meaningful, sustainable pieces of functional art. These handcrafted pieces of furniture are made from 100% sustainably sourced exotic wood, only found in remote regions of East Africa.

We have a partnership with a non-profit organization called Root to Fruit. For every item that we sell, we donate up to 20 trees to be planted in East Africa. Clients of Contour can track their planted trees with a GPS location. Clients can actually choose the wood species and specific location that the trees are planted in Malawi.

With several tree nurseries across the country, thousands of trees are being planted each year to offset deforestation, reduce our carbon footprint and help reverse global warming. This component of the company is extremely important to us. We understand the value of one tree for rural communities, and we are very proud of the partnership.

Every successful relationship is founded on a set of shared values. At Contour, we believe in a set of four values that have become the North Star of what we do. Reinvest, Outreach, Sustain and Empower are the words that define our outreach program in Malawi called R.O.S.E. Before we began operations in Malawi, it was important for me as the team leader, to express my intention for our collaboration. I gathered the men at the workshop on the first day I was there in order to convey my vision for the custom furniture project. For me, it will always be about relationships. I know my collaborators very well, and their families. I personally know their set of circumstances and I also made a concerted effort to understand their dreams. We’re overjoyed that Contour is helping them realize their dreams, which are very similar to the dreams that we have for ourselves and our families in America.

As a business owner, similar to conducting operations in America, your highest quality work in Africa comes from an equitable incentive-based system that rewards productivity and accuracy. We go above and beyond to make sure we pay a fair rate by any cultural standard, and we also offer quarterly bonuses based on the quality of work. We always hold a project completion reception for our staff, and we understand the power of investing in the people that we care about in Malawi. So, that means purchasing bikes for them to travel to work instead of walking. That means purchasing electricity for their homes so their children can do homework at night. That means offering our employees meal plans that improve their health, which directly relates to them being able to support their families. Our first goal was to connect to them as people, our next goal was to improve their workspace and purchase better equipment, which streamlines productivity. We are building this “house” in Malawi from the ground up, and our foundation is our set of values. We have a big-picture approach to everything that we do, so the positive effects of our investments in Malawi are meant to be sustained for generations.

At Contour, we design through the lens of legacy. Each handcrafted piece has a unique story that our clients around the world are forever connected to. All of the materials that we use are indigenous to East Africa and have all been sustainably repurposed. Contour designs cannot be duplicated because each piece features a different cut from an exotic tree, only found on location in East Africa. Each exotic tree is sustainably sourced and goes through a careful drying and cleaning process, before being handcrafted in our workshop in Malawi. The one of kind furniture features our signature steel rebar legs, crafted in the shape of our logo, which represents human connection. The pieces of steel that form the legs are all found, repurposed and fabricated in Malawi. Our design style calls on historical elements of Mid Century Modern, but it fearlessly carves its own path in the world of premium furniture design.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Houston is special because of its diversity. The strong sense of variety that is embedded in a large, diverse city such as Houston, opens up opportunities for meaningful, cross-cultural connections. At Contour, our mission is to connect the heart and soul of Africa with the heart and soul of America through sustainable design. Houston provides an essential framework to support our mission. The large market size also enables us to cover every base on the American side in Houston. I would definitely recommend embracing the cultural assets that Houston provides and using it as a way to connect your business with people from a variety of different walks of life.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Ike Igbo, Bado Bahaji, Jamar Simien

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