The secret is out

The new Spier Secret Courtyard pop-up in the Cape Town city centre is seasoned with some of VISI’s favourite ingredients: design, wine, food and creative collaboration. You can even make friends for life!


An official World Design Capital 2014 project, the Spier Secret Festival that happens annually in October decided it couldn’t wait that long to start the party. They launched a temporary bar slash restaurant slash creative project space in a dreamlike courtyard space they uncovered on Wale Street – where designer Liam Mooney’s shop used to be, alongside Honest Chocolate and Commune.1 Gallery.

“The name Secret is not an elitist thing at all,” explains organiser Hannerie Visser of HV Studio. “It’s really about being generous, giving people a platform and sharing secrets – like chefs have secret recipes and ingredients. It’s a space where people can share that information.”

For the next three months, the space will host Secret Dinner nights on Thursdays, live music evenings on Fridays and outdoor movie showings on Saturday. A full range of Spier wine at cellar prices – including a very sneaky Chenin Blanc slushy – as well as Devil’s Peak ale and Dear Me snacks – such as buchu-and-chilli flavoured peanuts – are served.

The Secret Dinner nights, as in previous years, promise to push the limits of experiential eating with people like Caro de Waal engineering a few Food Jams, Thingking and Soma (both of whom are featured as reasons to love SA design in our WDC2014 edition) teaming up to make an interactive chocolate factory, and even a jazz and curry, among other surprises. The cool kids from Yoh! are also collabing with Honest Chocolate for a movie night.

“The best feedback we always get from the Secret dinners is that people say they come and don’t know anyone, but make friends for life,” Hannerie goes on. “It’s because a certain type of person comes – someone who loves and is passionate about food and wine, as well as being adventurous. So they’re like-minded.”

The space itself is also testament to this spirit of like-minded passion, collaboration and experimentation. Inspired by the original geometric tile pattern of the courtyard and the massive old-school copper bar behind it, interior designer Hendrik Coetzee worked with the Kinsmen Collective and Renée Rossouw  to incorporate geometric and copper elements throughout.

Architect and pattern-extraordinaire Renée’s “half-square” wall installation uses triangular tiles from Spier Architectural Arts stuck on a hand-drawn geometric grid to recall and play on the courtyard pattern.

Primarily graphic designers, Kinsmen did the corporate identity including the logo, menus and copper-and-black tessellated vinyl window decal. Particularly fun are their perforated paper placemat-slash-doilies that guests can fold into all sorts of shapes and creations.

Hendrik himself got resourceful with Spier wineboxes, which he painted copper inside and turned into pendant-style lamps. He also built tables for the courtyard from the boxes, and display units for the shop, which sells wine, cook books and other goodies. To go with the tables, Thingking made tripod stools that strap boxes as a seat onto copper-painted frames.

Guests can even watch pictures from their phone dry on the wall! Bridging the physical and digital social divide, 250 Gram is printing guests’ Instagram pictures tagged with #spiersecret. The poloroid-style prints are then hung on the wall to be claimed when you leave – quite uncanny watching one’s phone come to life!

Running for only three months in the build up to the Spier Secret Festival in October, Hannerie reassures that there are more exciting (secret for now) events on the cards. The festival itself will run over three days this year by incorporating the WDC2014 Food Indaba on the first day, which will have speakers focused on sustainability and food economy, followed by the more food design orientated speakers on the second day and the market on the third.

VISI, 14 February 2014

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 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

Tweets for sweets

South Africa seems keen on treat-based tweeting these days. On the heels of Bos’ “Tweet for Tea” social media-driven vending machine at Design Indaba, Cape Town welcomes another guerilla marketing installation integrating the mechanical with the digital to make you smile. Conceptualized by design duo Thingking (who created the Bos machine as well) and advertising agency DraftFCB, the Wonka-like pop-up machine occupies an unused storefront window and is based on bringing to life the Toyota Etios “Here to make you smile” campaign.

Visitors tweet the #etiossmiles hashtag and a unique pin to activate the Rube Goldberg-style installation, which releases a gumball that is put through about a minute’s worth of trials and tribulations before being dispensed to the tweeter. Using the drama of the extravagantly intricate machine to delay gratification just slightly, tweeters have become completely absorbed in the experience and, asvideo records show, leave with an ear-to-ear grin.


The contraption was literally born from a bunch of junk, melding a hodgepodge of avelskoen, car central-locking motor, treadmill, plastic palm trees, xylophones, magnifying glasses, a mirror ball, a midi keyboard played by a rotating armed stick, a plastic shark tank, a polaroid camera, a bird house, a zoetrope of dancing bears and wobbly-legged wooden toys among other things.


Sourcing the majority of the parts from Cape Town’s infamous weekly car boot sale, the Milnerton Market, the aesthetic is charmingly retro, upcycled and handmade. All of the switches and triggers are visible on the system that took Thingking’s Marc Nicolson and Lyall Sprong three weeks to make, and some tweeters have reportedly spent ages figuring out exactly how it works. Rather than the typical black-box approach of contemporary technology, this openness of the mechanics has certainly enhanced the magic of the situation.


The machine is also prone to fail on occasion, mostly because not all gumballs are perfectly shaped and in an effort the keep the machine as open as possible, there are very few guides. However this element of chance only serves to make the receiver more grateful for their good luck. “Tweets for Sweets” is now up and running at Muti, 3 Vredehoek Avenue in Cape Town.

Images by Sydelle Willow Smith

Coolhunting, 26 June 2012

Wheel Simple: Velokhaya Clubhouse

Form follows ingenuity for young South African industrial designers Marc Nicolson and Lyall Sprong of the year-old studio Thingking. They work with just a handful of tools; their designs are about what they can source and make themselves.

“We try to keep things very honest and simple,” says Nicolson in the middle of a muddy BMX track in Khayelitsha. “We know that most people in South Africa have even less tools than us. Then [design] becomes more about the idea.”

A suburb of Cape Town, Khayelitsha is the largest and fastest-growing semi-formal township in South Africa. Home to more than half a million residents, it offers few lifelines out of an endless sea of single-story corrugated iron shacks. Nicolson is there to upgrade the clubhouse of the Velokhaya community road cycling and BMX hub, one of the area’s few escapes.

Velokhaya (literally, bicycle home) has been encouraging exercise, cycling and community-mindedness since 2007. The shipping company Safmarine donated seven retired cargo containers, which became the foundation of a physical manifestation of the Life Cycling Academy awareness campaign. Says BMX team manager Mzukisi Vicani, the center inspires children’s dreams. But its condition had rapidly deteriorated. “When we first came there were leaking taps and roofs, and broken things everywhere,” says Nicolson. “People were just going through the motions with the mind frame that they had been given the building, but since then it had just been deteriorating more and more.”

Nicolson and Sprong have known each other since studying industrial design together some five years ago. They were inspired to start a company when they realized they shared a belief that design is about “thinking” and “things” — the origin of their name. Although Velokhaya is their first social design client, they hope it will lead to more.

Handed the conservative budget of ZAR50,000 ($7,268) by Safmarine, Thingking began by covering one of the building’s walls with a giant mural brandishing big bold letters contrasted with brightly colored Afrocentric patterns. The mural was designed by Spanish street artists Boa Mistura, who were in Cape Town on a residency. Boa Mistura and Thingking executed the painting over two days in March with about 40 community volunteers.

When Nicolson and Sprong returned a week later, they discovered that the Velokhaya team had painted the entire clubhouse inside and out. On their next visit, they found that the taps had been fixed. Then they returned to a patched roof. “There was a massive change in terms of the ownership, the pride and the empowerment that happened through us just being here and implementing things,” Nicolson says.

Thingking next focused on upgrading the clubhouse to better support cyclists while also creating a community space. The firm supervised the design and construction of barbecue grills known as barrel braais for large community events. A gas-catering unit was purchased to compensate for the township’s lack of electricity. Cheap seating was made by adding re-used steel legs to eucalyptus logs to create three-person benches.

All of these solutions were designed with an eye to showing residents how simply they could be done onsite, Nicolson explained. Every component was sourced from a hardware store. In the clubhouse, plastic crates were used for drawers, while in the changing room, wooden-lidded buckets doubled as seats and storage facilities. A rope strung with wooden blocks provides a helmet-hanging solution that does not put too much strain on the structurally weak dry walls. An outdoor misting system was made from a standard-issue hose pipe.

As a finishing touch, Thingking used milk cartons and cable ties to create windmills to adorn the surrounding fence. Community members write wishes on the plastic “wings,” which are then attached to the fence and blow in the wind. One such wish is already coming true: the 12-year-old Anita Zenani will be participating in the BMX World Championships in Denmark at the end of July. The first time a Velokhaya team member has been seeded internationally, this will be only the second time Zenani has been outside of Cape Town, following her BMX World Championships debut last year in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

First published on Design Observer, 14 July 2011