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

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