The other side of sustainability: South Africa’s design sector

Mar 12, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Dave Southwood

Flicking through design journals from the past five years it is arguable that the issue of sustainability has been reported with an increasing emphasis on advancements in material technology. Which is all well and good if you’re a designer working in a country with a manufacturing sector that can respond to high tech innovation, or a customer base that can afford it.

So how does a nation such as South Africa, which barely has either, embrace green design practices? By using a fascinating mix of necessity and imagination, where old-school recycling and fundamental social change are combining to produce some startling results.

It is difficult to give a brief overview of the design scene in South Africa because it is difficult to give a brief overview of South Africa full stop. It’s the kind of place that any visitor has a number of preconceived ideas about, some of which are quickly confirmed on the taxi ride from the airport, where miles of shanty towns are followed by white neighbourhoods with ten foot high walls and razor wire surrounding every single house. But once you stop noticing the fences (and unnervingly that does happen after a few days) you become aware of a very real, if tenuous, positivity to the place.

Although the dismantled edifice of apartheid continues to cast some long shadows over the country, South Africa is embracing the future with an incredible pride and many young designers are expressing that spirit in their art and practice. Trying to describe this national atmosphere to Australian readers, who have been fed a steady diet of political cynicism washed down with a fine drop of Post-Modernism ’87, is virtually impossible. It is easy for us to look at South Africa from afar and be sceptical of what appears to be an over-earnest do-gooder sentiment among white designers towards their black workers, but once on the ground such chardonnay socialist attitudes are to be regretted. Welcome to the conundrum that is South Africa, please leave your prejudices at the door.

Living in the conundrum in more ways than one and letting just about everything else through his front door is Cape Town designer, Heath Nash. Nash’s workshop is a jumble of empty cleaning bottles, prototype paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling and boxes of thousands of plastic petals in a multitude of bright colours. It looks like a flower truck has crashed into a Chinese laundry and as you stand there trying to find the words to describe the place you realise they are already hanging on the wall: “It’s beautiful here.”

While this delightful sentence, written with telephone cables in this instance, should have no need to justify its existence, it also serves a further purpose as a hat or pot rack. It’s one of a number of pieces from the ‘other people’s rubbish’ range which has brought Nash international attention in recent years. Most successful has been the flowerball lampshade, constructed from hundreds of plastic petals strung together with wire. Featured in Wallpaper* and US Harpers Bazaar, and then picked up by the Conran Shop, each flower of the light is hand cut using a metal die from the flat middle section of a recycled plastic bottle. Nash now has three staff making the flowerball and other products, and for the bigger commissions Nash himself can be found wire and plastic in hand. On a recent trip overseas he spent over 30 hours weaving to create a giant exhibition piece flowerball at 100% Design Tokyo.

This labour intensive process gives an indication that Nash is something of an accidental product designer. After graduating in Fine Arts from the University of Cape Town and taking out the sculpture prize, he began making lampshades using the 3D geometrical paper folding methods he had investigated in his honours year. Then, while poking around a local market, he came across a wire and plastic bottle flower which led to an ongoing fascination with the traditional African craft technique of weaving with wire.

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“I try to explore and investigate materials for what they are,” says Nash. “I love the nature of synthetic plastic bottles, and their relationship to light, and I am also very interested in using age-old craft practices to make contemporary objects. I have tended to use limitation as a tool in my work – by limiting myself to a specific material or technique for a period of time, I have found new and interesting ways to use that material.”

One would have thought that sourcing used plastic bottles in a country of 47 million people would not be a limitation but South Africa is a few years behind in the recycling trend and access to materials has been Nash’s constant challenge since he started out, to the point that he has started taking things into his own hands.

“I’m now initiating a new production process by creating a chain of events from recycling drop off,” he continues. “This will increase the value of the bottles themselves – hopefully creating a new micro-economy in informal settlements [black townships] whereby earnings can be made by simply collecting and selling the rubbish to the recycling centre, which then employs extra staff to clean and cut the bottles flat. These flattened plastics are then sold with further value added, i.e. flat and clean, to the end user, i.e. me or any other designer. Ultimately, this will mean constant access to any colour needed, with colour rarity being the price point indicator per kilo of bottles. I’m currently arranging this process and I’m trying to move away from manufacturing towards straight development and design. This means teaching others how to use the plastic and training a new crop of crafters in new skill sets.”

Like many young designers who suddenly find themselves in demand, Nash seems a bit bewildered by how he got to be so busy and is hoping to have more time in the future to experiment and play with design instead of micro-managing production. This will include looking at how he might use waste products from different industries such as film production and sailing.

“You couldn’t do what I do anywhere else,” says Nash, acknowledging the unique set of social and historical conditions he encounters in South Africa, “but I hope that the job creation and sustainability aspects give it integrity.”

Another designer who has been inspired by the intersection of first world and third world realities in South Africa, is Haldane Martin, who set up his design studio is 2002 and now employs a staff of eight. His several product lines all feature African material and references, from the white ostrich feathers of the ‘Fiela’ light to the echoes of 17th century Dutch Cape furniture in the ‘Riempie’ collection.

Martin’s furniture has won numerous awards and he is represented by stockists in Europe, US, Scandinavia and Australia. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, and he refers to a series of setbacks in the early noughties – including bankruptcy from growing too big too soon and an intellectual property infringement saga – as “my very expensive and painful MBA degree”. He has clearly refined his business model and says the main challenge he faces as a South African designer today is dealing with production issues.

“Apartheid crippled our manufacturing industry by keeping it isolated from globalisation for 20 plus years, therefore a constant challenge is to encourage our suppliers to achieve higher quality, efficiency, and lower cost through the application of technology and effective management,” says Martin.

Despite this he is committed to local production, which he almost sees as
his duty as a designer in the new South Africa to assist in the reconciliation process.

“Fourteen years on, we are still in the more difficult process of transforming the social fall-out left by the legacy of apartheid. The obvious symptoms of this can be seen by the staggering 45 percent unemployment, mass poverty, poor education and the majority of the population living in ‘informal settlements’. The less obvious fall out is a damaged sense of self for most South Africans. Good design has always been about meeting society’s needs and desires. A deep need at this time and place has been for the healing of our national identity, and the social ills left by apartheid. As my career started at the time of our political transformation, it was natural for me to have been one of the many South African creatives who responded to this need with design.”

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Martin is aware however, that from a foreigner’s viewpoint such statements can appear awkwardly paternalistic when the products are designed by whites and produced with black labour. He diplomatically avoids general statements on this issue but will talk from personal experience.

“The Zulu Mama chair is my best example of this […] expression of the integration of our split society. The chair is literally a weaving together of first world industrial technology and rural hand craft. As such, the chair also provides much needed employment in poverty stricken rural and township communities where traditional craft is still practiced. The evolution of traditional craft through the use of durable industrially recycled materials, has contributed towards keeping the practice of craft relevant for contemporary culture and lifestyle. Working with Ester, the main weaver at the craft project, was one of the highlights of my career. We, two South Africans, managed to transcend our vast racial, cultural, language, and social differences to create something beautiful together with our hands.”
And thus, a new design vernacular emerges.

A young designer who has been similarly inspired by the changes afoot in his country is Liam Mooney, who set up gallery/studio/designer’s collective, Whatiftheworld, with fellow graduates Adriaan Hugo and Lyall Sprong in 2006.

“One of the initial challenges [for Whatiftheworld] has been finding young industrial or product designers that haven’t either moved overseas, or joined large corporations designing promotional products,” says Mooney. “There just haven’t been opportunities for young product designers to work for themselves until now. Initially, we started with a small group of designers, and have recently grown to include a few more. It has also been slightly challenging to encourage the South African public to support locally designed and locally manufactured products.”
While Mooney thinks that the state could probably do more to promote and assist local designers, such as Martin and Nash, he is philosophical about whether that is practically possible and was most concerned about young designers missing out on the design jam currently playing out in their country by thinking that they have to go overseas to further their careers.

Despite Mooney’s patience, government support still appears negligible from an Australian perspective, and not just for designers. To provide some context, during the apartheid era the South African National Gallery in Cape Town went to the High Court to challenge a government ruling which decreed that all public institutions only promote white culture. It won the case, and promptly had its budget cut to zilch. One might have thought that, post apartheid, the Gallery would be handsomely rewarded for this stance but in 2007 the new acquisitions budget stood at SAR30,000. That’s about A$5000. Yes, that’s right – $5000. Apologies if you just spluttered your chai latté all over your iBook.

This is a country where hospitals, schools, housing and roads are so horrendously overdue for the vast majority of the population that the luxuries of state funding – arts, culture and design – are almost a laughable proposition. Nonetheless the country’s designers seem genuinely positive about the potential of the local industry at this crucial and exciting time.

South Africa isn’t a nation one automatically associates with design but all indications, from the success of the annual expo, Indaba, to the talent of its young creatives, suggests that’s all about to change. Despite some pretty big challenges, of which sustainability is only one, it’s all good. Because it’s beautiful here.


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