Stepping on toes

Leanie van der Vyver says her designs are a reaction to the things that bother her about modern society.

‘High heels make you look like an easy conquest in the animal kingdom,” Leanie van der Vyver told a receptive audience at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town last week. Van der Vyver was talking as part of the graduate students’ PechaKucha session, in which top students from around the world present their design work.

Van der Vyver was born in Bethal, raised in Paarl, and completed her design degree at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam last year.

Her graduation project, Scary Beautiful, a concept piece exploring how high high heels can go, hit the internet and went viral with 2.8-million views on Vimeo. It even popped up on American talk-show TV, and she got a call from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe assistant.

“They all wanted to know who this sadistic, chauvinist designer was,” Van der Vyver said. “None of them read further than the images to see I was critiquing the very beauty system they were accusing me of fuelling.

“Shoes have become an accessory to posture,” she said, showing her earlier work — the Limp Shoe, which gives wearers a gangster swagger. “There’s extreme power in accessories.” What Van der Vyver did not tell the audience is that she had been a fashion model for six years before deciding to study design.

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
I wanted to be an artist-veterinarian. I wanted to paint and sculpt sick ­animals back to health.

What was the first thing you designed?
My first design was a ninth-grade assignment to make handskoene, and “hand shoes” was what I made. With the help of a leather artisan friend, Fred Liebenberg, I crafted a pair of sandals complete with soles that fit my hands perfectly.

Do you think of yourself as a ­fashion designer?
I am a critical designer. I am very influenced by my personal frustrations with modern society. My designs are a reaction to things that bother me.

Do you consider yourself an ­artist?
Maybe. My work teeters on the edge of art and design. I like the grey area.

What is your design philosophy?
I have two at the moment. The questions I ask myself when designing are, one, why should people care? And, two, does it make sense?

Who are some of your favourite designers?
Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, John Kormeling and Hussein Chalayan.

What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading two books. One, for looking at pictures, is called Shelter, edited by Lloyd Kahn. The other is for theory and is called The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudofsky. I don’t really like reading fiction; theory books are a kind of sensible fiction.

What’s on your playlist at the moment?
I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t really enjoy listening to music, I love silence. But if I have to get down, I like to listen to Tyler the Creator and R Kelly. I am going through a weird R&B phase because I was a metal- head teenager and totally missed out on that side of things. At home we like to listen to music like the Eagles and the Doors. My dad is a serious jazz musician so he won’t really approve of this answer.

Are you getting involved in the World Design Capital 2014?
I don’t know. I’m not planning anything especially for the event just yet. The city of Cape Town needs to stop demolishing heritage buildings. Soon Cape Town is going to look like a Los Angeles strip mall or, even worse, a Las Vegas strip mall.

What is your favourite building in your city?
The foyer of the Nico Malan Theatre at the Artscape is the nicest place, with the most beautiful chandeliers. I don’t think Cape Town has any nice buildings left; they all get modern upgrades or demolished. The most beautiful, enormous rose window in Orange Street was smashed to build another generic trying-to-be-something-it’s-not hotel, the African Pride. This makes no sense to me. It might be the inspiration/frustration for a new project about authenticity and what that means to our young nation.

Mail&Guardian, 8 March 2013

Creativity, allure and inspiration

There was no shortage of beautiful things at this year’s Design Indaba Expo.

There was no shortage of beautiful things at this year’s Design Indaba Expo; from the edgy trendware in the emerging creatives’ corner to the delicate bling in the jewellery corridor. There were all the “flavours” of the rainbow in the fashion boutique.

The Western Cape Furniture Initiative stood tall in its championing of contemporary design, showing original storage solutions by local furniture designers, and Parisian trend forecaster Li Edelkoort’s Memphis Meets Africa stand proved how well our country’s work is tracking international fads.

Our South African predisposal for cynicism reared its head at the abundance of craftwork. It is a criticism that is levelled at the expo every year by serious design professionals and minimalists who miss an element of architecture and industrial design. It is this tension between what the design pros and suits think South African design “should” be and what the 52 000 visitors (2012’s figures) actually buy that makes for the fascinating contrasts that distinguish our national aesthetic.

This year, both sides won — Gavin Rajah’s handmade leather pebble dress was named the most beautiful object in South Africa, as voted for by the public, and Wintec Innovations’s newly patented Stratflex furniture won the innovation award, as judged by professionals.

Part of the spring-summer 2013 couture collection, Rajah’s dress is the result of a collaboration with the Klein Karoo Co-op last year, in which a technique to foil ostrich skins was developed. The leather is moulded over pebble shapes and then embroidered on to mesh by hand. The colour of the dress is gradated from chocolate at the bottom to rose gold at the top.

Some South Africans may squirm at our handmade heritage, but the power of the handmade was emphasised repeatedly by international speakers at the Design Indaba Conference.

Touching and thinking design

Afropolitan architect David Adjaye predicted an urban crisis if we continue to let mechanisation build our cities. Daniel Charny told delegates that the 2011 exhibition titled The Power of Making, at the V&A Museum in London, attracted the biggest audience the museum had ever seen and launched his fixperts.org social network to promote making and fixing.

The message, perhaps, is that South Africans should own our national heritage with international pride. That said, it’s pretty exciting when an East London company comes up with a radical innovation to turn flat-packed furniture into comfortable, flexible and stylishly rounded lounge items.

Term it East London-style Scandinavian, if you will. Rubber-injected joints in plywood seats take the one-dimensional rigidness typically associated with flatpack and transform it into moulded sitting experience, even with a little bounce.

“This award is the culmination of a life of looking at, feeling, touching and thinking design,” said Al Straford, founder of Wintec, on winning the innovation award. “The product gives me a legacy to leave to those around me.”

Finding a happy medium between these extremes of the handmade and the industrial, Cape Town design duo Thingking walked away with the third Design Indaba Expo prize — the most creative stand.

Marc Nicholson and Lyall Sprong installed their Rube Goldberg-inspired gumball machine, which enchanted young and old alike. Made entirely from junk sourced at the Milnerton Market, the machine puts gumballs through about a minute’s worth of trials and tribulations involving a veldskoen, a car’s central-locking motor, a treadmill, plastic palm trees, a xylophone, a magnifying glass, a mirror ball, a midi keyboard played by a stick on a rotating arm, a plastic shark tank, a Polaroid camera, a birdhouse, a zoetrope of dancing bears, and wobbly legged wooden toys. Playful but high-tech, entailing good, old-school, home-programmable electronic boards.

The duo’s geeky industrial side really comes to the fore when they explain that the paper designs hanging off their mobiles have exactly the same mass — they calculated and designed them that way. Geometric powder-painted, steel-rod plant stands and trestles comprise their covetable industrialised wares.

It is gratifying to witness this increasingly diversifying South African design industry every year in Cape Town, delivering more original and radical wares for show at the Design Indaba Expo.

Mail&Guardian, 8 March 2013