Anybody who follows South African affairs will know that ever since the country said goodbye to the apartheid years, there has been a wonderfully rich unleashing of creativity on myriad different fronts – in music, theatre, architecture and fashion, as well as in interior and product design. There are not too many prizes for guessing why. Once the stultifying years of cultural isolation were over and all South Africans were liberated to become themselves, there was an upsurge of optimism that filtered through into every aspect of design and, despite the much-written-about local difficulties, it’s still there today.
Justin Van Breda, a South African-born designer living in London, is in no doubt as to what is special about South African design. “It often shows a raw talent that doesn’t depend on going to design college. It springs up untamed out of the African surroundings and is usually an amalgam of something African, something colonial and something European – everything, in other words, that has gone into making up South African culture.” He believes the best of South African work has more to do with the spirit behind the pieces and with the hand that makes them than with any commercial considerations. This appeal has led him to collaborate with a series of designers and artists, in a project called Curate, on pieces that he is bringing to the attention of the British market.
Until quite recently, anybody who fell in love with South African design had mostly to travel to the country to see and buy the products, or to engage in complicated one-off transactions across continents. From time to time special exhibitions have brought South African wares to the UK – some years ago The Conran Shop had a notable season of wonderful furniture, lighting and ceramics, and it continues to sell the now-famous Wonki Ware pottery. More recently, Habitat had a pan-African selling exhibition. But the offerings of many small artisans have been hard to find outside their own country.
Van Breda’s Curate collection remains smallish for now, with about 20 producers, but every single thing he sells is special and usually has a story behind it. “What I love about these South African designers is that they are all about collaboration,” he says. “I’ve never met a big designer ego in South Africa. They just want to create something beautiful. I decided that I wanted to work with a variety of artists to create an accessories collection, and wherever I turned I found that one artist would pass me onto another. For instance, designer Michael Chandler saw a Robert Adam neoclassical wall sconce and created a modern mirror inspired by it. He immediately got together with an artist who could do beading, and they have made the Madam mirror [£750] out of white beads.”
Chandler, who designs from an enchanting treasure trove of a shop in Cape Town filled with finds that have caught his eye, is passionately interested in the history of the Cape, and loves vintage blue and white Cape Dutch china. But these days it is prohibitively expensive, and so for Curate he designed a range of china inspired by the original pieces but much more accessible in price (from £450). Artist Patricia Fraser has also decorated items along similar lines for his Chandler House brand (from about £8). Chandler produces sculpture too – a plaster stack of books (£195) is charming as an object in its own right and can also be turned into a lamp base.
Chuma Maweni is an artist who started out playing around with river mud in his Transkei home and today for Curate takes one of South Africa’s great cultural products – the traditional Xhosa maize pot – and transforms it into a thing of beauty. His version of the pot (£210) is in graphite glazed ceramic, decorated inside in either jade or blue. Keri Muller takes pages from old books and, using origami techniques, makes paper sculptures (from £180) of the outlines of the African continent. Rialheim (previously known as Ceramic Factory) mostly makes rather quirky objets, but for Van Breda has created the extraordinarily beautiful Swirl bowl (£320), which requires up to 18 moulds and is hand-glazed in navy or white. One interior designer was so taken with it that she ordered 20 for a recent project.
Van Breda hopes continually to refresh the range, and he’s adamant that it is a commercial project – it has to pay its way – although 10 per cent of everything sold goes to the Pay It Forward Foundation, which offers design education and guidance to children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.
Meanwhile, Paula Goodburn, founder of African interiors studio Porcupine Rocks, who was born in Johannesburg but lives in the UK, also sources a range of contemporary home accessories from what she calls her “beloved homeland”. She sees her role as bringing “African soul” into British living rooms. Standout pieces include the chandeliers (from £2,500) created by WillowLamp. The design fuses organic forms with high-tech materials, using laser-cut metal frames from which hundreds of small metal ball chains are suspended in tiers to create the chandelier effect. They make for truly dramatic pieces, a million miles from traditional crystal chandeliers, yet they cast the same magic over a room. All are made to order and Goodburn liaises with each customer to ensure that a chandelier of the right size and proportions is made to fit their room. They come flatpacked and concertina out to their designated shape, so are easily shipped.
In a different vein are the beaded lights (made to order, £575) that Umcebo Design creates for Porcupine Rocks – extraordinarily colourful lights inspired by the natural world, featuring birds and plantlife. All are made from the sort of recycled and reclaimed materials that South Africans are accustomed to finding new uses for, such as galvanised wire, beads, crystals, fabrics and even old CDs. Goodburn also has some wonderful papier-mâché heads of South African animals (from £2,750) by David Farrer – including a Cape buffalo, steenbok, dik-dik and hippo – that make stunning pieces for the wall.
Most unusual of all, perhaps, are Goodburn’s fabrics. She works with a group of designers in South Africa, all of whom have a fresh take on fabric that is filled with a bold African joie de vivre. Several specialise in using their designs to tell a story or to comment on current political or social themes – a particularly African tradition. Besides selling the fabric, Porcupine Rocks offers a bespoke upholstery and curtain-making service, as well as having cushions covered in the fabrics.
This storytelling tradition is clearly seen in the contemporary, pop-art-inspired fabric designs (£48 per m; cushion, £55) from Shine Shine. Brightly coloured, they feature women riding scooters, animals encountering people and images from African urban life.
Caversham Textiles is run by the family who own the first private fine-art printmaking studio in South Africa. Today, it produces meticulously hand-printed fabrics (about £35 per m) inspired by these prints. It uses only water-based pigments and 100 per cent cotton twill base cloth, which is woven on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Very fine detailing is a specialism and several of the floral prints were created by picking flowers in the morning, putting them through an etching press and using the resultant pattern for the design.
FabricNation also uses textiles (£59 per m) to tell a story – very often political. The No Man Is An Island design (£65) draws on well-known landmarks in Cape Town, such as the town hall outside which Nelson Mandela made his first speech on being freed from prison, as well as Robben Island – shown with a boxer on it, symbolically fighting for freedom. Its Toile du Jozi uses a traditional toile de Jouy style to tell the tale of a modern city, presenting images of a buzzy, multicultural, very urban Johannesburg.
And there is Evolution Product, which is inspired by the exquisite drawings of the explorers who came to South Africa not to conquer but to record the plants and animals that they found there. These lovely drawings are available in huge panels (154cm x 220cm, unframed, £295; framed, £560) that can be hung on the wall like a tapestry. (I like particularly an original drawing of the Umnonoti River in Natal by English explorer, naturalist and painter George French Angas, who in 1846 spent two years in Natal and the Cape.) Many of these drawings are available as beautiful and unusual cushions – the linen snake or fish cushions (£155 each), for example, feature delicate anatomical drawings.
Finally, there is Ardmore Ceramic Art, which has obtained an ardent fan base, including sculptor Patrick Mavros, founder of the eponymous design brand. “In our quest to be the reference point for the best of Africa we are very proud to stock the creative, colourful and ingenious work of Ardmore in our London store,” says Mavros. Ardmore was founded in 1985 in KwaZulu-Natal by Fée Halsted, Mavros’ sister-in-law, who worked with Bonnie Ntshalintshali, her housekeeper’s daughter, whose polio meant that she was unable to work in the fields. Ntshalintshali had natural artistic talent, and Ardmore soon developed an aesthetic that is today recognised around the world. More than 60 artists work at the studio, and its pieces often turn up in international auction houses. The Ardmore style is colourful, intricate, exuberant and exotic. It offers teapots enfolded by leopards (£600), highly patterned cheetah-handled espresso cups (£300) and mustard pots with zebra-topped lids (£250). An extravagantly ornate chameleon teapot – the chameleon is painted onto the teapot’s side, and its tail forms the handle – is £400, while an egg cup, complete with baby wild-dog pup at the side, is £150. Exquisitely made, they have a memorable character all of their own.
A recent offshoot from Ardmore Ceramic Art, Halsted Design, creates non-ceramic products using Ardmore patterns. The star of the first offering was the Qalakabusha sofa, in a limited edition of 40. It was such a success – Kit Kemp bought two for her Ham Yard Hotel in London – that it has sold out, but there is now an ottoman (£1,500) from the same collection, as well as tablecloths (from £180), cushions (from £80) and other small accessories. The next collaboration involving Ardmore’s designs is in January 2017 with Cole & Son, in the wallpaper brand’s first collaboration with an African designer.
Ardmore’s beautiful imagery can also be found on two colourful patterned silk scarf designs, part of a collaboration with Hermès: the African-animal-filled La Marche du Zambèze (90cm sq, £280) and The Savana Dance (70cm sq, £215), which includes symbols from Zulu culture. But these are merely the beginning – in the pipeline is a complete beachwear collection based round Ardmore’s vibrant patterns. Africa really does, as Pliny the Elder suggested, have a habit of forever delivering up something new.