Design memo from Cape Town

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“What is design?” In Cape Town, this question has as many answers as species of “fynbos,” the low scrubby plants that thrive along the Western Cape of South Africa. Located in the smallest and most biodiverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms, around the feet of Table Mountain—one of the seven modern wonders of the natural world—Cape Town is a city of contrasts, both natural and humanmade.

Offsetting its geographical splendor is one of Africa’s most recognizable urban skylines as well as the continent’s most-visited site: the V&A Waterfront, a retail, commercial and residential hub established on the old docks. Topping many of the latest lists of places to see, Cape Town is just as much home to Hollywood stars and world leaders as to refugees, hipsters, nomads, born-and-breds and the urban poor. Though the city boasts the nation’s most expensive houses, the legacy of the apartheid-era’s economic and racial ghettos prevails. Just on the other side of the mountain are acres of corrugated iron shanties with limited to no plumbing.

Design, with its creative approach to seemingly intractable problems, has increasingly become a rallying cry for how change and equality can be realized. Craft groups are engaging under-educated communities in the economy. Architects and industrial designers are considering living solutions for those at the bottom of the pyramid. A growing cadre of brand-name designers are producing high-end and collectible wares that are feeding an export and manufacturing industry. And, in 2014, as Cape Town wore the title of World Design Capital, the mayor and city hall itself attempted to adopt a design thinking attitude—resulting in some rather contentious public art and an award-winning skate park.

The long-term legacy of Cape Town’s design capital reign remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the design world sat up and noticed the southern-most tip of Africa.

New builds

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Given Cape Town’s environment and the resource-scarce African context, it is no surprise that green building has always been a priority.

Celebrating the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s centenary, is the unusual tree canopy walkway designed as a structural skeleton by Mark Thomas Architects. Creating this construction without disturbing the ancient trees was quite a feat!

Based in Cape Town, the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) has rolled out its green star rating system since 2007, but in 2014 had the pleasure of awarding its first six-star as-built rating to the No 1 Silo, built by VDMMA for client Allan Grey, at the V&A Waterfront.

The V&A Waterfront also saw the completion of the Watershed, in which Wolff Architects converted a centuries-old dock warehouse into a creative market and innovation hub that prioritised passive cooling and minimal materials. Similarly retrofitting a heritage site, is British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick’s currently under-construction Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

The first skyscraper built in Cape Town since 1993, the Portside FNB Building by dhk architects was also completed in 2014 and is regarded as the tallest green building in Africa (with five stars from the GBCSA).

On the low-cost housing front, Stephen Lamb’s co-designed “green shack” approach that incorporates vertical gardens to address issues of food security and nutritional deserts is a game changer. Lamb has pioneered insulated corrugated iron panels for easy construction.

Also exploring the possibilities of alternative building materials, the Design Develop Build initiative saw CS Studio and a group of students from around the world collaborate with a community theatre in Langa. The result is the Guga S’Thebe Children Theatre built entirely from shipping containers, straw bails, recycled pallets and other waste materials.

What’s trending

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Nicknamed the “Rainbow Nation” South Africa has 11 official languages—which is not even all of its indigenous languages. Adding to these multifarious African cultures, Cape Town is a port city that thrives on constant cultural influence from the East, West and Global South. Not to mention its still visceral British and French colonial heritage.

For a long time South African design struggled to find its identity between all these influences. African crafts were considered touristy and contemporary design to be Westernised. Without a manufacturing industry or consumer demand of which to speak, design also never reached mass-production, relegated to weekend markets and specialty stores. The consumer and the designer needed to grow together.

Following some 20 years of the Design Indaba conference and expo sensitizing market tastes, and the global artisan-maker movement, South Africans have begun to appreciate the value of the handmade, resourceful recycling and objects with narratives. Product and industrial designers such as Haldane Martin have also found ways to express indigenous craft more subtly in luxury furniture and collectible design.

This economy of scarcity and veneration of the unique has resulted in boldly idiosyncratic interiors that show resourceful and unusual use of materials—as in Etienne Hanekom’s offices for the World Design Capital team; multi-disciplinary collaboration—like knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s work with Leon at CCXIX; and a nostalgic textural and narrative layering of old and new. Global trends such as untreated wood and Scandinavian chic—especially Skinny LaMinx fabrics—are also popular. Somewhat ahead of the curve, a spate of office interiors by Inhouse aims to increase connectivity among employees while referencing the city’s geography—shipping containers, nests and views of Table Mountain have all influenced the firm’s projects.

Insider’s take

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Design curators Trevyn and Julian McGowan will look back on 2014 not only as the year Cape Town was World Design Capital, but as the year their business went into orbit.

Since 2008, they have been establishing Southern Guild (SG) as the go-to for collectable South African design at all the right international design fairs – Design Dubai, Design Maimi/Basel, London Design Fair and more. In 2014, they invited everyone they had met at these fairs to participate in South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild.

They established SG after noticing that the South African design industry needed a stimulus to create more work at the very top end. Their insight was based on their work through Source SA, through which they work as buyers and suppliers in small-scale South African design and craft for international department stores such as Anthropologie, the Conran Shops and, even, the White House.

Interior Design: 2014 was a huge year for Cape Town design and for your business ventures. What is the most significant thing to come out of it?

Trevyn McGowan: A focus on the incredible design work that is coming out of Cape Town. Interest in African design is at an all-time high and the World Design Capital validated this fascination in the continent. For us, to have held the inaugural Guild Design Fair during the historical year, means that we can now, with our second edition, build on this legacy. We also opened our first physical Southern Guild Gallery in Woodstock at the end of the year, which indicates that Cape Town is ready for more design exhibitions. In addition, Watershed at the V&A Waterfront is a great new retail concept that we curated, where visitors can purchase the best local craft and design in one space.

ID: What is the importance of the role of curator in design?

TM: I find that my role as curator allows me to showcase the best that South Africa has to offer. I love this role because it means I’m able to share my passion for craft and design in this country. In fact, as programme coordinators of Design Network Africa, we’re tasked with linking designers across the continent in order to raise the standard of design and assist in providing platforms for these designers internationally. The most important aspect of curation is that we’re able to provide opportunities to designers who might not otherwise have had them without our support.

ID: How did the Watershed come to be?

TM: The Watershed was a vision by the V&A Waterfront, the most-visited destination in Africa. Being housed in a revamped shed alongside the dry dock, it’s now seen as a ‘Watershed’ moment for craft and design in this country as for the first time some of the country’s top designs can be found under one roof, while many other designers are for the first time going from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing.

ID: How will a physical gallery for Southern Guild affect the initiative?

TM: Having a gallery of our own means that we’re now able to exhibit design work in South Africa throughout the year. Before, we used to have to exhibit in other people’s galleries for limited periods of time, and have always shown at international design fairs such as Design Miami and Design Days Dubai. We’re excited about the opportunities that having our own gallery presents us with.

ID: You typically travel to and exhibit at international shows around the world, but Guild saw the world come to us. What have been some of the effects of that?

TM: Guild was our inaugural design fair, and besides the great reviews it gained from the press and public, it’s the actual exhibitors who have been our best ambassadors. The Los Angeles-based Haas Brothers were here exhibiting with their New York gallery R & Company. During their time here they were part of an exhibitors’ off-site programme we arranged that had them visiting different local designers, among them Monkeybiz and Bronze Age Foundry, who they have now worked with to create their next body of work for Guild 2015, called ‘Afreaks’. This came about from them witnessing first-hand the incredible talent present in Cape Town. We also have Beirut-based designers, Mary-Lynn and Carlo Massoud, coming to work with Andile Dyalvane, one of our Southern Guild ceramicists. Collaboration has really become a keyword for Guild.

ID: What will your focus be for the year ahead?

TM: We’ll be exhibiting at Design Days Dubai and Design Miami again, and are looking forward to the second chapter of Design Network Africa as it runs into it’s next two-year phase with some new designers from east and west Africa. And, of course, we’re looking forward to cementing ourselves as a gallery in Woodstock’s energetic community of creatives.

First published on Interior Design, 30 January 2015

Chopper safari

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‘Cape Town tower, Papa, X-ray, Juliet, good day and ready for lift,” my “baby” sister, Rudi Botha, says into the microphone of her noise-cancelling aviation headset. This is not a simulation and I’m most definitely not dreaming – except, when did the student transform into a tough-as-nails 24-year-old woman?

We’re sitting in a two-seater Robinson 22 helicopter (RH22) as the engine warms up for takeoff. The rotor blades are gathering speed, and sweat is pouring down our faces as the temperature in the tiny cabin climbs. Rudi’s reflective aviator sunglasses could not get more Tom Cruise, except this movie is more Top Girl than Top Gun, with the two of us about to helicopter into the blue yonder, like Thelma and Louise.

I repeat, this is not a simulation.

“Papa, X-ray, Juliet, lift own discretion. Remain west of runway one niner. Wind two one zero degrees, one two knots,” a male voice comes over the radio.

“Lift own discretion. Remain west. Papa, X-ray, Juliet,” Rudi chimes back. A qualified private helicopter pilot, Rudi has been adding flying hours towards her commercial licence for the past two years, and has about 75 of 200 left to go. Her school replaced the engine and main rotor blades on one of its RH22 choppers – the bodies last 6?600 hours, the engines up to 2?200 hours and the main rotor blades 2?000 hours. New engines need to be broken in with 25 hours of flying at maximum continuous power – ideal for high-speed, long-distance flights – before the helicopter can be used for the slower, more precision aspects of training.

So Rudi offered to take it for a spin around the country over the festive season, and we were up and away with the aquamarine of False Bay melting into the horizon on one side, mosaics of tin roofs below our feet and dark green mountains up ahead. It was my first time in a helicopter – no half measures for me – and I was so relieved to be feeling fine, over-the-moon excited to be on the brink of an unchartered experience, and gloating about my new Airwolf ringtone. It was time to take a selfie.

The plan was to take two days to fly up to the Free State over the Karoo, spend Christmas with our father on the farm, then take three days to fly back along the Wild Coast and Garden Route.

No, helicoptering in a RH22 is not really faster than driving when it comes to long distances, mostly because of the fuel stops every two hours or so – and we also had to wait out bad weather, sometimes for days.

The changing weather also makes it nearly impossible to book accommodation. Nevertheless, we still took the opportunity to smirk down at the Somerset West traffic pile-up and shrug at the escalating daily road-deaths reports, although it didn’t stop our mother’s frantic hourly WhatsApp messages.

The unmanned and noncommercial airstrips are a story unto themselves – a backstage of contemporary life that none of us ever see, and far grittier than Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport.

From the Jägermeister-bottle-lined clubhouse, replete with ties and G-strings nailed to the bar in Swellendam, to the ghost-like Graaff-Reinet airstrip, its tarred surface pointing to a more illustrious history now left to sunset photo collages, a very shy parrot and no running water.

The rather preppy Gariep Dam airstrip was home to the only other female voice we heard on the radio, belonging to the part-time air traffic information provider who keeps an eye out for the fleet of leisure gliders.

Larger aerodromes told different stories. Oudtshoorn, for instance, is dominated by an international flight training academy with a Chinese contract to train pilots for less than it would cost in the communist homeland. The cafeteria serves reheated stir-fry from sweaty bains-marie. Port Alfred is home to the famous 43 Air School, which trains SAA cadets, and where we eavesdropped on a conversation between a visiting graduate, now an SAA pilot, who bemoaned the number of disappearing planes. Bethlehem boasted numerous hangers and facilities, but once inside, most were empty, with less than a handful of people rattling around. But these impressions were fleeting and we strapped in again and left as rapidly as we arrived. Floating in a bubble with the ground 350m below our feet for an average of five hours a day makes it very hard to fully invest in what increasingly felt like trivialities of the human condition. The most literal physical embodiment of a “new perspective”, the bird’s-eye view made roads look like arteries, bushes like bunny rabbit tails,

hills like belly rolls and valleys like stretch marks, trains like mercury running up a thermometer, cows like omega seeds, rivers like wounds and gashes, shorelines like fractals and dams like mirror shards.

Different areas had different textures – the Karoo had a smooth fur-like layer of grass with a range of rich colourings mimicking animal prints. The Valley of Desolation was rough and hard, like a macroscopically enlarged gravel road, with scratches revealing fiery red soil beneath. The most geometric, like a meticulously laid out lappieskombers, was the Free State, while the KwaZulu-Natal hillocks showed a geometry of interlocking circles. The Wild Coast looked like a pristine golf course and, coming back to the Western Cape, it was all of the above – the most diverse.

From up there, the geopolitics of South Africa is also laid out for all to see: towns shaped like lopsided bow ties with large houses camouflaged by leafy streets and neon-blue swimming pools winking up from one side, and corrugated iron matchbox dwellings tightly gridlocked in a stark mirror image on the other side.

Working the nine-to-five in a city, one can get quite mentally stuck in the global urbanisation project of the 20th century – you know, “cities are the future” kind of thing – but there are thousands of kilometres and tens of hours between moderate sprinklings of human life out there. Entire expanses, especially on the Wild Coast and in the Valley of Desolation, had no signs of human life.

Time and space is different out there in the middle of nowhere. Take, for instance, the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, which is the prolific artistic output of 31 years of Helen Martins’ life squeezed into a single museum.

In the 21st century, investing that amount of time into any project is hard to wrap your mind around. Even 200 hours towards a commercial licence sounds like a lot.

We flew around the country in 24 hours – the same amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun – and less than a week later, we’re back at our office jobs.

Yet everything feels different. Anything feels possible. And that’s a holiday feeling worth having when starting off the new year.

Published by City Press, 18 January 2015