South African design is going places. Porky Hefer’s installations and furniture designs, Andile Dyalvane’s ceramics, Rich Mnisi’s fashion and furniture designs, and Dokter and Misses’ furniture and product designs are just some local pieces increasingly rocking art fairs and exhibition halls around the globe.
Rich Mnisi has come a long way from Kempton Park, baby. Last year he introduced the ‘Africa Explosion’ collection at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Moscow, and was then promptly featured in Italian Vogue. He is also one of the designers Beyoncé chose to wear – a blouse and halfpleated skirt – while in South Africa for the Global Citizen Festival recently. British supermodel Naomi Campbell is also a fan.
Also in fashion, Swedish multinational clothing retailer H&M recently announced its first African collaboration with local designer Palesa Mokubung. From August, her Mantsho label will be available in stores in the USA, the UK and Israel, as well as some European and South American countries.
‘We love how she works with colour, print and silhouettes, enhancing the female shape in a flattering and playful way,’ H&M’s Pernilla Wohlfahrt said recently.
Hefer’s ‘Endangered’ collection of soft sculptural seats made of recycled, eco-friendly materials was exhibited at Design Miami/Basel last year, where it was virtually sold out, while his giant birds’ nests, woven with Kooboo cane, have been described as ‘delicious’ by critics.
Under their Dokter and Misses label, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin’s limited-edition handpainted pieces form part of a growing catalogue of collectible work exhibited in Basel, Dubai, London, New York and Miami. They exhibit in New York frequently.
Andile Dyalvane, Designer of the Year for 100% Design South Africa 2018, whose first solo exhibition showed in a New York gallery in 2016, has had residencies in Denmark, France, Taiwan, and the USA including Palo Alto Art Center in California. He says he relays ‘stories’ in clay where once, as a schoolboy in a small village in the Eastern Cape, he was ‘lashed’ for indulging in art. ‘Clay breathes,’ he enthuses about his medium. ‘It’s alive with becoming and moves with my energy, listens and holds only what I’ve impressed upon it – it remembers and lets go in the fire then becomes stronger.’
But wait. There’s more …
International recognition is not confined to these big names. There are others, including artist and furniture designer Atang Tshikare, who has exhibited in Europe and Dubai; sculptor Nandipha Mntambo, who has shown her work in Tel Aviv, Germany, the USA and Stockholm; visual activist Zanele Muholi; and world-acclaimed industry heavyweight, furniture designer John Vogel.
Trevyn McGowan of Southern Guild, a gallery based in Cape Town’s trendy Silo design hub, believes the world is more than ready right now for artists who, she says, are willing ‘to take risks’.
‘The world is hungry for authenticity, rawness, personal perspectives, emotional connection and evidence of the human hand – all of which permeate South African designers’ work.’
McGowan says in this ‘hyper-connected age’, where it’s easy to lose touch with what grounds us as humans among what she terms ‘visual clutter’, South African artists are ‘continually pushing the boundaries to create highly personal work. As a gallery, we have seen the response of international audiences escalate over the past 10 years.’
She says designers like Mnisi, Dokter and Misses, and Hefer are unique in that they ‘draw from their own culture and narrative in a deeply visceral way to create artworks that are unlike anything you will see elsewhere in the world. Their point of view and approach are confidently African, preserving and reinterpreting vernacular craft forms for a contemporary age,’ she says. ‘Their attention to detail, craftsmanship and level of execution are impeccable, making an encounter with their work a moving, emotional experience.’
For example, she says, the ‘inherent playfulness’ of Hefer’s work belies the ‘depth of his thinking, and the research and evolution that underpins every piece.’
Hot on their heels …
Following hot on these heels is an even younger generation. Six young South Africans recently returned triumphant from Milan’s annual Design Week. Supported by Nando’s Design Programme, creative director Tracy Lee Lynch described it as a roaring success with ‘an incredible response by overseas media and visitors. Our bold South African aesthetic and powerful inclusion of craft was truly celebrated. This aspect of our design elevated the curated pieces and created the opportunity to share personal stories relating to our diverse culture.’
She says design has the power to connect people and to challenge perceptions. ‘To see this happening on the stand was the most powerful experience.’
She, too, has seen our local design growing on the world stage. ‘There’s tangible evidence of a dynamic, layered culture filtering up in what’s being created here at home. These emerging designers are passionate about telling that unique story. And how they tell that story is often through collaboration with crafters and other makers. Often a piece reflects so much more than just one person’s ideas or responses. It’s perhaps why, when works travel from South Africa, they get the response they get – because they feel as if they’re a whole universe in one piece,’ Lynch says.
‘There’s so much inspiration here that isn’t cookie cutter, that isn’t very safe.’
The world is ready, she says. ‘People want to hear our voice. They have a deep need to know more about who we are, and the designers’ pieces are a precious gateway to the sharing of the diverse cultures that make up the Rainbow Nation.’
As designer Mpho Vackier, whose ‘Afro-contempo’ chair was a big hit in Milan, says, ‘I design authentic African furniture with a global appeal.’
Designer Thabisa Mjo, who designed the concept for the exhibit – an architectural installation piece that takes the form of a room-sized pod – says she had something close to an epiphany in Milan: ‘I learnt we are good enough. That we can compete on the world stage.’
Housing and education
The launch of design spaces like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town in 2017 has also helped to give design a local address, becoming a hub for collectors both local and international.
Trevyn McGowan says she and her husband, Julian McGowan, co-founders of Southern Guild, make a point of educating the global world about SA design: ‘Every time we exhibit at an international art fair, we tell the stories that went into making each piece and what inspired the artist. We have these conversations with collectors and curators, in our printed catalogues, and in panel discussions and interviews with the media.
‘But the biggest advertising for South African design is the work itself.’