Design Indaba founder shifts focus in a bid to revive cultural showcase


Ravi Naidoo – founder of Design Indaba. Picture: Supplied

Is the country’s design industry in trouble? One of our most prestigious cultural showcases, the internationally acclaimed Design Indaba, is scaling back. Despite claiming a R2.1 billion gross domestic product contribution over the past seven years, the event has cancelled the important trade show of its annual festival.

Known as the Design Indaba Expo, the trade fair has shown a sharp decline in visitors since its record-breaking 63 560 during the World Design Capital 2014, to 49 523 in 2015 – figures so low they were last seen in 2009.

Despite reduced visitors, trade sales and exports showed only a small decrease from R201.9 million to R195 million, emphasising that the actual value of the event lies not in the eye of the domestic consumer. For both buyers and exhibitors, trade shows are widely considered to be the most time- and cost-efficient way of making big business deals across the globe.

The conference, which will be relocating from the Cape Town International Convention Centre to Artscape, will soon announce a new date, no longer the usual last weekend of February, says founder Ravi Naidoo.

The expo was founded in 2004 when “the Woodstock Exchange didn’t exist, the Biscuit Mill didn’t exist, Watershed didn’t exist, SAM on Bree Street didn’t exist”.

Naidoo denies the event is in trouble. He says he preferred to innovate with the times along the lines of the London Design Festival and Milan Furniture Fair, where the truly progressive work is showcased across the city.

Nonetheless, both these festivals have a trade-orientated anchor event. Naidoo felt that this sector contribution should no longer be the responsibility of his “small, private company of 30”, when the City of Cape Town and Western Cape Government had their own priorities in terms of investing in special purpose vehicles.

“Maybe there’s a savvy entrepreneur who can go in and fill that gap, and maybe the City will support it, and maybe they’re not of a dusky hue like me and they’ll get better endorsed by the province,” said Naidoo after bemoaning that the company has not once presented to the Mayoral Committee despite its GDP contribution.

He also bemoaned the fact that the convention centre’s economic model and price points were orientated towards international events.

Naidoo wanted to refocus Design Indaba along “a more distributed nationwide platform”, expanding nationally into Maboneng in Joburg and Florida Road in Durban, and even internationally.

A big push remains the Indaba’s online magazine, which now attracts more than 100 000 unique visitors a month. The brand is no longer concerned with being a mega-event, but “morphing into other spaces locally and internationally … that operates 365 days a year”.

About the art and design side events that have cropped up around the same time as Design Indaba, Naidoo is equally indifferent.

“Most of them have not come over to us to collaborate or coordinate, they just happened. So maybe they’ll just have to happen when we happen.”

City Press, 4 August 2015

Art and design exhibitors flock to Cape Town

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The luxurious frivolities of art and design are a hard sell in South Africa, which is focused on redressing the inequalities of the past. Where exactly does the word “beautiful” feature in the emerging democracy’s mass rollout of houses, toilets, education and social justice, for instance?

However, boosting the economy and creating jobs — promoting the concept of trade not aid — is what Design Indaba, South Africa and Cape Town’s flagship annual design event, has been doing for the past 21 years.

“It was scary; we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says founder Ravi Naidoo about starting out in 1994 in a country newly emerged from economic sanctions and with no design economy of which to speak.

Naidoo, who was also responsible for South Africa’s winning bid for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, credits this and other work as having bankrolled the early years. Only in 2004, when it moved into the newly built Cape Town International Convention Centre, added the expo component and signed department store Woolworth as a sponsor, did the event start drawing attention beyond the marketing, advertising and design-orientated professionals.

The idea was that such speakers as Terence Conran, Tom Dixon, Marcel Wanders, Ferran Adrià and Stefan Sagmeister would bring the world to the tip of Africa, and that visitors would hopefully pick up some South African design at the expo to take back.

The 2014 economic impact assessment of the event — which now includes elements of music and film festivals, and is also broadcast live to venues around the country — reported a R385.2m ($32m) contribution to GDP and 1,146 jobs created. Since 2009, the total GDP contribution has been R1.7bn.

The fact that, despite these figures, the creative economy remains difficult to market is shown by the fact that, until last year, Design Indaba pretty much had the run of the city during the last weekend of February. As Alayne Reesberg, chief executive of the Cape Town World Design Capital (WDC) 2014, said in her outgoing media address, her biggest regret was not being able to make an economic case for commercial sponsorships.

The WDC is an initiative of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, a non-governmental organisation that promotes industrial design.

WDC2014’s biggest success was arguably to focus the city and international media’s attention on the last weekend of February.

It helped husband and wife Trevyn and Julian McGowan — interior designers and founders of Southern Guild, a platform for showcasing South African design — to launch SA’s first international design fair, Guild, last year. This in turn spurred the Cape Town Art Fair to reschedule from October, creating a cluster of events at the end of February.

The McGowans established Southern Guild in 2008 after noticing that the South African design industry needed a stimulus to create more high-end, collectable design.

Rather than bringing the world to Cape Town, their focus was to work with individual designers to create very limited-edition works and take them to international fairs such as Design Days Dubai, Design Miami/Basel and London Design Fair. Works such as Porky Hefer’s Weavers Nests and Dokter and Misses’ Kassena series have become widely known.

During the last week of February, the Cape Town Art Fair also grew, extending itself throughout the V&A Waterfront, linking into a public art programme from the under-construction Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, as well as hosting museum and gallery evenings throughout the city and township art tours during the day.

Also taking place was the unashamedly grungy That Art Fair, hosted in a parking garage, presenting the early days of an authentic underground.

“It just makes sense: people can come out from afar and have a lot to do,” says Elana Brundyn, owner of Cape Town gallery Brundyn+, who exhibited at the Cape Town Art Fair.

The art fair’s producer, Liza Dyason, is equally thrilled by the speed of growth of the event run by exhibition and conference experts Fiera Milano. After just three editions, they are ready to seek sponsors and secure a larger venue.

“It’s right in the middle of [Cape Town tourism] season for international and local visitors. And it fits in with the international art fair calendar,” Ms Dyason says.

Design Indaba’s Mr Naidoo is more sceptical about how much competition the local market can accommodate without competitors “shooting each other in the foot”.

However, it is safe to say that interest in design is growing in South Africa. The country may still be grappling with the legacy of its recent past, but the value of art and design to its economy — in terms of the potential boost to GDP as well as simply creating jobs — is beginning to be recognised.

First published in Financial Times, 27 March 2015

Africa rising: Best of Cape Town design 2015

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During what was South Africa’s biggest design happening, well, ever, we spotted three key trends at Design Indaba and Guild Design Fair last month: expansion, collaboration and Africa is rising.

Expansion: 2015 saw growth both in the scale of events and in the scope. While Design Indaba has grown year on year for the past 20 years, its inspirational TED-style conference and buyers expo of South African design has inspired a host of side events that extend the scope of design to include music, film and performance.

This year marked the second edition of the Guild International Design Fair with its impressive exhibition of collectable design including the Haas Brothers and Stephen Burks. Fine artists Kendell Geers and Conrad Botes expanded the range of their work into the design realm at Guild, however the Cape Town Art Fair also brought fine art onto the agenda with guest curator Roselee Goldberg of New York’s Performa. The lofi underground event That Art Fair also announces the beginnings of an organic fringe economy, which will hopefully extend to design too in future editions.

Collaboration: The sharing of skills, creativity, resources and experiences was everywhere, from the opera by fine artist William Kentridge and ballet dancer Dada Masilo to the Haas Brothers’s joint venture with Monkeybiz and the launch of the Imbadu Collective of black designers including ceramicist Andile Dyalvane and knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo. Legworks also showed how graphic design can enter the living space with 20 flat-pack carry tables customised by local illustrators.

Africa is Rising: An unprecedented number of speakers from the African continent were on the Design Indaba Conference program, many of whom also showed their work at the Expo. Rather than the traditional African ethnic aesthetic, many of these designers worked in multidisciplinary collectives that engaged with urban realities.

The work displayed at the Design Network Africa stand at Guild similarly found crossovers between traditional craft and urban grittiness. A particularly striking collaboration came from Botswana-based Peter Mabeo and South African designer Porky Hefer, renowned for his weavers nest-inspired swings and loungers.

As these art and design events continued to cluster and accumulate in Cape Town over the last weekend in February, drawing masses of international media and buyers, the city will no doubt become more of a drawcard to designers across the continent.

Published by Interior Design, 17 March 2015

Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort says “Design for your selfie”

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For years now a similar message has been at the core of Li Edelkoort’s seasonal trend forecasts: the more digital and less tangible our technological lives get, the more handmade and tactile our fashion and home design. This makes her latest “Vanities: The Mythologies of Self” forecast at her annual Design Indaba seminar quite the departure. Not only does it position design and fashion as following, rather than contrasting, the dominant technological trend, but it goes against the physical to elevate the ephemeral, the image, the appearance, the concept of the self.

TrendUnion Lidewij 02“I felt that it was time for vanity because I saw all these people taking selfies,” Edelkoort said, after first reflecting on her previous year’s “Gathering” presentation. Those principles of bringing fabric together in interesting ways will remain with us for a while, but she calls out “Vanities” as “such a huge interesting new domain, where people narrate online their existence. They put themselves on a pedestal, making themselves super and glamorous.”

Edelkoort went on to present about 15 archetypes based on ancient mythologies from the virginal nymph girl and kidult prodigy to the twins who are empowered through a second half, and the hero who is taking physical power outside of the realm of exercise. The muse, the oracle and the legend represented inspirational figures of various ages. The courtesan, the odalisque and the amazon showed strong images of emancipated women.

“My next work will be about the emancipation of everything,” Edelkoort explained, predicting the logical extension of the selfie to its extreme. “Of the animal, of the food, of yourself, of your child, of colors, of textiles, of fashion, of everything needs to be rethought at this point, which is very exciting.”

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In the trend world, Edelkoort’s in particular, fashion is generally the cart that leads the horse and the presentation did not yet offer much insight into how these archetypes would manifest in design—besides more mirrors and the return of the vanity table. There would also be more focus on less things that are better made and more closely aligned with individuals’ archetypal tastes than dominant societal fads.

The elevation of personal identity and a move to the anti-consumer also came through in Edelkoort’s launch of her 10-point manifesto of why fashion is dead. At the core is the villain of mass-production and -consumption, a dampening force that she says has not yet reached the world of design, a discipline that is still defining and distinguishing itself.

First published in Interior Design, 13 March 2015

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

Shit is trending

Design Indaba - More Rainbow Shit

“Do shit that matters,” declared Bielenberg in the second presentation of Design Indaba 2012. His sentiments echoing the closing refrain of last year’s penultimate speaker, Robert Wong from Google, who beseeched: “Do epic shit.”

John Bielenberg, Rene Redzepi, Rahim Bhimani, Alfredo Brillembourg, Sissel Tolaas and Clive van Heerden all said it: shit. And the hipsters were all the happier.

With a working methodology based on “thinking wrong”, Bielenberg further provoked by emphasizing that all the shit around us is invented and it need not be that way. Primarily a socially motivated design instigator in Alabama, Bielenberg called for more do-good shit. At best it’s also good shit, but Bielenberg warned against shitting yourself before even starting.

Design Indaba - Making Future Shit

Surely though, no one could make better shit than the world’s top-rated chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma in Norway? Redzepi quoted his friend, Dutch food designer Marije Vogelzang, in pointing out that all of his work ends up as shit within 24 hours. “Food is just the shit eventually,” he said in his imperfect English. One can quite accurately say that he makes ‘future shit’. Get on it before it becomes a trend, son.

Although not on the formal Design Indaba programme, the official tweeter for the conference, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, was quick to point out her own shit, eChromi. A British interaction designer specialising in synthetic biology, Ginsberg has reengineered the eColi bacteria to emit different colours, making rainbow-coloured shit.

Design Indaba - Opening Image

That the repositories of shit – toilets – should come up on the first day of the Design Indaba was prosaic after Patricia de Lille had yet again been harangued about shit service delivery at the World Design Capital 2014 public forum the day before. What to do when the shit hits the fan? Tell the designers that they’re responsible for resolving shit.

Canadian industrial design graduate Rahim Bhimani showed off the flat-pack toilet he created for use after natural disasters. Shit happens, after all. So when deep in the post-apocalyptic shit, the loo is simply assembled using a coin to turn the screws. The handy wheels make it easy to cart the shit to a hygienic distance.

Design Indaba - Shit on Wheels

In turn, Chilean architect Alfredo Brillembourg, of Urban Think Tank, described a more permanent shit solution. The Dry Toilet. The idea is put Dry Toilets at the top of the hillsides where there was a shortage of water. It came from the residents of the favela they were working in. Brillembourg was illustrating the power of the collective community insight into getting their shit together. Further dynamics of the Dry Toilet remained, well, a little murky.

Putting shit to good use was, then, a natural evolution of the shit trend. The director of Design-Led Innovation at Philips Design, South African-born Clive van Heerden, sent everyone a shitter (and a twitter) with the Philips methane gas digester for the kitchen. Converting excrement and leftover food into methane. Philips proposes this as a sustainable source of cooking gas. Cooking with shit!

That shit be treated with such disgust is perhaps an indictment on our smell-sanitised world. It clearly has weight in the design world. As Norwegian smell designer Sissel Tolaas said: “Nothing stinks, only thinking makes it so.”

Published by Mahala, 7 March 2012