10 Questions with Haldane Martin

Interior Design, 15 September 2015

How can you reimagine healthcare? This was the question posed to Cape Town designer Haldane Martin. Having not too long ago “reimagined” his own career from furniture designer of some of South Africa’s most heralded pieces—such as the Songololo Couch and Zulu Mama chair—to interior designer with each project on a completely different trajectory—from steampunk to futuristic minimalism—Martin is intimately familiar with mental gear changes. In his recent project designing an Innovation Hub in the Groote Schuur Hospital, however, he had to create an interior that sparked those mental shifts in other people.

Interior Design: What an exciting opportunity to see design starting to creep into public institutions. Groote Schuur may be the most acclaimed teaching hospital in Africa—where the world’s first heart transplant took place—but it was built in 1938 and it’s labyrinthine! How did this project come about?Haldane Martin Portrait 2014, Photo Guido Schwarz

Haldane Martin: The project was initiated by theBertha Centre, which is a part of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, but a separate unit all to themselves focusing on social innovation in healthcare, education and finance. The healthcare team has been working with Groote Schuur to do service delivery innovation, not so much medical or technical innovation. This ranges from things like wayfinding, how a patient’s folder goes from one place to another, and other little irritating hiccups that happen in the hospital and decrease the efficacy, to more serious ones like mobile referral platforms, orthopedic data management systems and so on.

ID: Did you work from a brief, or was that an innovation process itself?

HM: It was more collaborative. I met not only with the Bertha Centre about their vision for the space, but also hospital administration, students, nurses, and staff who would be directly involved in the space. While there was an appetite for change, there was a sense of inertia, which is how my brief came about. The guiding principle was that the interior design had to encourage people to breakout of their normal mindset of the big bureaucracy and hierarchy, and doing things by the book. In this space they needed to push the boundaries and be more innovative, so the interior had to stimulate it.

ID: A hospital has so many different users, how did you take that into account?

HM: We stayed away from institutional or corporate visual language, and tried to keep it more humble. To keep it inclusive and welcoming it couldn’t be too opulent or high-tech as it would just be out of context in a state-owned hospital.

ID: How did this manifest into a visual language?

HM: The concept was to give it a workshop feel, like a maker’s workshop. There’s a lot of pine and little details like the plywood crates, threaded adjustable tables, workbenches for desks, oversized bulbs and the work-in-progress chevrons that you would expect to find in a workshop.  Everything is also on wheels to keep the configuration flexible—with the fold-up chairs, small symposium setups are even achievable.

ID: The first impression walking in, after snaking through those long dreary indistinguishable hospital corridors is the light freshness of the space. But then one starts to notice all the clever little details and surprises in what could otherwise just be a meeting room. Can you explain some of these design situations.

HM: Well, we never went completely radical—for instance, we stuck with the typical hospital colour of green, but made it a very loud acid green. The round tables are where people meet and collaborate in groups, but we made them higher than a normal table to encourage people to stand, move and be more active than passive. The surfaces can also be written on with whiteboard markers. Then there’s a large glass meeting table with a paper roll that can be pulled over it for brainstorming, and easily torn off to take the records of the meeting away with you. A loungey café space is flexible with it modular cushions and plywood shipping palettes. The enclosed couches enable more intimate one-to-one meetings, or when facing each other, a larger private meeting.

ID: Did you design all of this yourself?

HM: Everything is custom designed, except the stools are made by a local design duo called Sutla, and the fold up chairs are store-bought and spray painted green. Needless to say, the main challenge is always to come in on budget while still producing innovative custom designs.

ID: There must have been other challenges working in a bureaucratic hospital?

HM: Yes, the humility of the project was also tempered by how difficult and frustrating a process it was to get authorization, even just to bash a hole through the wall connecting the two rooms. We had to apply to provincial government for permission! In addition, we weren’t allow to redo the carpet, ceiling or electrical wiring. Luckily for us the Bertha Centre handled most of these negotiations, but we also had to keep in mind that the project could be moved at any point, meaning that everything had to be reusable, mobile and reconfigurable.

ID: How has the transition between from product to interior designer?

HM: It’s a lot more work and a lot more stressful, but it’s more financially viable for me. With all my interiors, I am still doing furniture design, and the more successful pieces being born are put under license and into production. Although the pieces from this project will probably be kept exclusively for other hospital innovation labs, we did a custom desk range for the Environ office that has been picked up by an office furniture manufacturer. The other plus is that I get to try out different design languages and styles—and I do otherwise just get bored easily.

ID: Tell us more about exploring different styles. No one expected to ever see steampunk coming from Haldane Martin, but you did it so well thatTruth has become one of theworld’s most famous coffee shops.

HM: The furniture under license is more my style, but otherwise all our interiors are very different—I mean, we did a girly beauty salon that is really not me at all. We really listen to the client and try to express and facilitate their identity, rather than being the kind of design studio that has a house style and clients must take it or leave it. I prefer listening to the client and creating something original for them, which enhances their brand experience and context.

ID: What’s next?

HM: We’re working on a big beer brewery in Johannesburg, which will be our first significant project up there. There’s also talks with Nando’s to do a specially license chair for their global chicken franchise—they’re doing really exciting stuff with design at the moment.

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