House & Garden

Sweet S.A.

Distinctive, exuberant, daring… South African design is bringing fresh perspective and highly covetable objets to the world’s style capitals, says Lucia van der Post.

April 22 2010
Lucia van der Post

Mention South Africa among the chattering classes and you might be forgiven for thinking that only two things are of any account – politics and football. Oh, and the beaches and the weather, of course, which always get a pretty good press. But the country also has another talking point – its design. Whether you’re staying in a hotel or safari lodge, eating in the great restaurants or just rootling about in the tourist emporia, evidence of South Africa’s rich, complex and diverse cultural heritage is everywhere. You see it in the ubiquitous use of local materials such as clay and straw, animal skins and recycled glass, pebbles and wood. You see it in the ceramics that echo earthy shapes and colours, in the intoxication with African fabrics, colours and beading, in the thrilling mix of myriad different influences that give much of what is being produced a particular and indisputably South African air.

For a crash course in where South African design is at, you could do worse than head to a delicious little hotel called Hout Bay Manor on the Cape Peninsula. There you’ll find a brilliant visual manifestation of what South Africa can do for interior design. It’s been put together by star interior design company Cécile & Boyd’s, which has produced some of the most aesthetically stunning safari lodges in Africa. What is wonderful about Hout Bay Manor is that it is indubitably of Africa, of South Africa specifically. It is colourful, particular and individual, with Africa’s colours and landscapes, craft traditions and skills evident throughout. From the wonderful chandelier of clay beads (Mud Studio versions are stocked by Merci in Paris and Anthropologie in the US and the UK, from £1,380) to the beaded hangings, the curtains edged with Zulu-influenced ribbons, the brilliant colours and the printed fabrics, it couldn’t belong anywhere else.

To somebody like myself who grew up in the country, it seems nothing short of miraculous. In my childhood South African design scarcely existed. In the homes of people I knew, design was mostly European-influenced, and usually dire at that. My mother used to haunt the one small shop in Cape Town that was renowned for having “tasteful” products, and African influences were usually only visible in very traditional crafts such as wood-carving, beading and basketwork – some of it very beautiful, but unchanged for decades. So how has this design revolution come about?

Firstly, it’s now 20 years since Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and 16 since the first democratic election, and the country has seen an explosion of creativity – in graphic design, in filmmaking, music, fashion and architecture, as well as product design. Because the country was isolated during the long apartheid years it had to look inwardly for inspiration. Its extraordinary multiplicity of cultures – Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Bushmen, Afrikaner, European, to name just a few – are a rich source of stimulation out of which comes something new, refreshing and different.

Ronél Jordaan, for example, draws on the landscape to come up with exquisite felt cushions – some covered in hand-crafted green “succulent” leaves (£315), others looking for all the world like giant stones or pebbles (from £250). And a designer such as Haldane Martin looks at the humble centipede, the Songololo that every South African child is told stories about, and creates an amazing curving multilegged leather sofa (price depends on configuration), while his much-photographed Zulu Mama chair (£585) was inspired by traditional Zulu basketweaving techniques – but with recycled plastic woven onto steel frames (providing, not so incidentally, employment for many Zulu women).

Design in South Africa extends beyond race, religion and nationality into a wonderfully rich and joyous mishmash. Creativity seems to bubble up from the gritty urban streets, as well as from the awesomely beautiful natural surroundings. It’s as if the country’s complicated, difficult past has enriched it and a new inner confidence has been unleashed. And it often comes laced with biting satire. Gregor Jenkin, for instance, creator of some stunning tables sold by The Conran Shop (£595), uses old mortars as casts for vases, and reuses old metal meal trays from the bad old days of military conscription, as well as recycling scarred desks from the townships (all prices on request).

Ingenuity in using whatever materials come to hand is part of the culture. To many South African designers, recycling is part of how they’ve always thought. The famous township toys made from discarded tins, barbed wire and bottle tops, and the lovely bowls woven from electricity wire, came about because they couldn’t afford new materials. Reusing what they recovered, they invented rich new shapes. So today, Heath Nash’s amazing Leafball flower lights created out of recycled plastic (from R1,875, about £170) are to be found in some of the world’s most sophisticated homes. Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens make chandeliers out of old hippo bones (from £1,500). And sometimes, when the materials are available, the design group Egg makes its delicately beautiful Rosette Standing Lamp from discarded pressings of old steel (from $626). Indeed, Cape Town’s best source of gorgeous African design objects, Africa Nova, had a whole exhibition when I was there recently called Salvage Art, with the watchwords “Recover, Rescue, Reuse, Reinvent” – and mighty desirable most of it was too.

Now word is getting out, and highly sophisticated “eyes” have discovered South Africa’s design charms. The Conran Shop was probably the first to promote the country’s wares in a big way when it came upon Di Marshall’s Wonki Ware, traditional pottery made by workers in her local Eastern Cape that is covetable and fashionable as well as useable and hard-wearing (from £8.95). So successful was the range that creative director Polly Dickens decided to explore further. In 2005 The Conran Shop ran the selling exhibition From Harare to Higgovale, and some of the lines have been staples ever since.

Meanwhile, design has moved on apace and a raft of new South African designs will be coming into the shop from this month onwards. There will be great bobbly ceramic jugs (£75) and big-footed platters (£225) by ceramicist Michael Haigh, as well as huge Kiaat timber bench-cum-coffee tables by Andrew Early (£1,995).

But they’re not the only ones to be excited by what they see. Buyers at Mint in London, ABC Carpet & Home and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Takashimaya in Tokyo, and countless others, now sell South African designs.

Most of what they sell are exactly the sort of life-enhancing pieces many of us are looking for. Boyd Ferguson, of Cécile & Boyd’s, captures something of the South African spirit when he talks of how he “looked at local culture, at the colour and pattern in tribal garments and decided to work with all of that and to play with scale and vibrant colour, to bring a sort of joy into the interior”.

Few large pieces make it abroad, with the exceptions of the Mud chandelier, some of Haldane Martin’s pieces and Gregor Jenkin’s wonderfully elegant steel tables – his first table evoking the shapes of early Dutch furniture was a long-time bestseller in Conran Shops around the world. In his next range (again available at The Conran Shop) is a beautiful steel version, the Foundrie, with edges imitating old printing trays (£6,995), and another very simple (and so, at about £600, much cheaper) model made out of unfinished plywood (which could be painted, varnished or waxed).

Straight from Jenkin’s studio one can buy other versions marrying steel tops with antique wooden legs (price on request). But even his tables are produced in a very artisanal way. As he puts it, “My hand is on them all.” There is little major industry in South Africa and so almost nothing is mass produced, which is what gives the pieces much of their charm. “Every piece tells a story,” says Polly Dickens. “That’s what makes it so compelling. It’s very now.”

All over the world the mood is turning away from anonymous, mass-produced goods towards something one-off that comes with a story. South African design has this to offer in spades.

At Anthropologie, designs from this part of the world vary at any given time, but they usually include the Mud chandelier, a steel-wire and bead chandelier by Liv (£988), lots of other chandeliers made from beads and recycled materials (two of which can be found in the Obamas’ living quarters, and which range from £328 for one made of buttons and go on up to £5,400), some wonderful wooden horn-shaped stools by Adam Birch (from £1,050), and lots of ceramics.

Most of the designers seem to be entirely lacking in the big egos of some of their European counterparts. Gregor Jenkin and Haldane Martin are the nearest the country has to star designers, but even their approach is very modest. “What I’d love Africa to represent is a returning to earth, to sort of humble, simple values,” says Boyd Ferguson. And on their website the couple behind Egg write: “This is our home. It’s what’s around and in us. Others write books. We make furniture that tells a story and engages the eye, imagination and soul... Africa is within us and our furniture. It crawls, it roars, it moans and grows a fresh surprise every day.” Their products are extraordinarily charming. The Desert Rose Locker (£7,140) in brilliant yellow steel was one of the stars of the Harare to Higgovale exhibition.

Crucial in lifting the quality of the debate around South African design has been Design Indaba, the brainchild of Ravi Naidoo, who was listed in Design Week’s “Hot50” in 2008 and 2009. Every year, in Feburary, he turns Cape Town into the hub of the design world. World-class graphic artists, photographers, filmmakers, product designers and architects trek thousands of kilometres to take part in one of the most stimulating design forums around. As Ilse Crawford, who runs her own design studio, Studioilse, and a department at the famous Design Academy Eindhoven, puts it, “It’s much more stimulating than the Milan Furniture Fair because it factors in the bigger world – that of graphics, architecture, films, music...”

Accompanying the Design Indaba debates (among this year’s speakers were product designers Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, Tord Boontje, architect Alejandro Aravena and designer Marcelo Rosenbaum) is a big exhibition of current work designed to draw in retailers from around the world. This year, more than 35,000 people came to see what’s happening.

These twin events are predicated on Naidoo’s belief that the nation’s creativity is the key to fuelling an economic revolution in South Africa. He believes that design is a national asset that belongs to the country, and he observes that all over South Africa people are finding their voice. He sees year by year that confidence growing, that over Africa people are starting to celebrate their heritage. He acknowledges that it’s starting from a very small base and that South Africa still needs more risk-takers and more proactive ventures that can leverage the innovation and inventiveness of South Africa’s people, but he believes the design is fantastic and the trajectory of influence quite steep.

The world, he believes, is ready, and it needs what South Africa has to offer, which is “a way of thinking, of problem solving, and of using design to have a big socioeconomic impact”. South Africa just needs to start thinking big; once its voice really begins to be heard, then, as Naidoo puts it, “Watch out world”.