Discovering Ourselves - Exploring Advances in South African Design

March 2021

What better way to celebrate Human Right's Day than to take a brief journey through the changes we've seen in furniture design through the years? Until recently local furniture had been mainly based on styles and techniques from other parts of the world, and therefore South Africa had no unique furniture design history to speak of. This has fortunately changed, and although early examples of locally made variations on classic pieces are interesting, it is since the breakdown of apartheid that our local designers have started taking the world by storm.

Image: the Mvelo Desk from designer Siyanda Mbele for Pinda Furniture. - Photo by Simanga Zondo 

Our story starts with Van Riebeek's arrival at the Cape in 1652. As the new settlement grew so did the demand for furnishings, and we see increased mention of furniture items in the ships logs and manifestos. These were mainly Dutch styled items that had strong influences from Indonesia. Amongst the settlers were a number of highly qualified woodworkers. This prized skill was passed on to locals, and numerous copies and variations of furniture in the Indo-Dutch style started to be produced.

By the early 18th Century the Cape colony had become one of the most diverse societies in the world. The growing rich elite often imported furniture pieces, but locally made items became increasingly popular. A good example is the Swellengrebei Cabinet. This elaborate piece was commissioned around 1740 by Governor-General Hendrik Swellengrebei. Local craftsman made it  from Amboyna-root wood, Paduk, Ebony, Oak, ivory, and silver mounts - and the workmanship is comparable to Europe's finest cabinetmakers.

Image: the Swellengrebei Cabinet. C 1740

The furniture made under the VOC was usually in traditional Dutch taste. The VOC (Dutch East India Company) had actively recruited carpenters for the construction of Cape Town. The actual workforce were slaves (or ex-slaves) with no previous background in furniture culture making the quality of these items even more remarkable.

A local adaptation to chair design that became popular was the use of ‘riempies’ in place of woven reed seating. These thin strips of cured leather not only provided comfortable seating, but were easily obtainable and lasted longer than their woven counterpart that had to be imported.

Image: A fine example is the'Tolletjie' chair.The turned elements can be traced back to the 17th century Dutch, Flemish and English chairs. Instead of cane, which had to be imported, leather straps or ‘riempies’ were used.

Further north of the Cape Colony saw the Voortrekkers and early settlers to the interior start to establish fixed settlements There was no place for elaborate furniture in this harsh setting and items were chosen for practicality, adaptability and durability over decoration or embellishment. This could be described as Pioneer Furniture and there are some similarities between what is now regarded as 'Boer Furniture' and the principles of The Shaker movement in America.

As far as furniture necessities, chairs took dominance and there is more development in chair design than in changes to the chests and cupboards that were also produced at the time. The use of ‘riempies’ was the obvious choice for seatingas it was easily available.

Image: Nineteenth century Boer-made chairs in the collection of the National Cultural History Museum, Pretoria 

The only regular recorded example of riempies not being used for seating is in the 3-legged low stools that can be compared to the milking stools common around the world, and ‘squatting’ stools found in many African cultures.

A strong British influence on South African design was Sir Herbert Baker, one of the most famous names connected to local architecture. Although not his main passion, he  turned his hand to furniture design and some notable styles are attributed to him. On the rare occasion of his pieces appearing on auction, they are snapped up by serious collectors and museums.

Image: Stinkwood and bone inlaid chairs with Riempie seats designed by Sir Herbert Baker

A truly British design that was adopted locally is The Morris Chair, with its reclining back being set by variations of grooves and pegs. Its popularity has endured through the years and original examples are highly sought after. For those not lucky enough to find an original, modern replica are widely available.

Image: The ever-popular Morris Chair

A furniture item with obvious Cape Dutch roots is the Jonkmanskas.This handy storage staple has two drawers that sit atop a cupboard with two to three shelves. A favourite combination of woods remains stinkwood and yellowwood.

Image: A Cape Neo-Classical Yellowwood and Stinkwood
"Jonkmanskas", Oudtshoorn Area, early C19th.

Very little was written or recorded regarding South African furniture design between 1900 and apartheid's gradual crumbling in the 70s & 80s. Happily, since that dark time South Africa has seen a constantly evolving wave of exciting local designers across all disciplines. In researching this Heritage Day blog I came across so many great examples of local furniture design that it was hard to select the five pieces I had planned to feature.

The first of these is a local talent who draws her inspiration from childhood memories and combines storytelling with her designs when creating a piece. Thabisa Mjo is becoming a force to be reckoned with and was a favourite at both the Milan Design Week and 100% Design in the UK. Her rise to prominence has seen her collaborate with local master-weaver, Beauty Ngxongo, the Qagambile Bead Studio, and the highly awarded furniture brand, Houtlander.

Image: The Pooitjie Server - Designed by Thabisa Mjo for Mash T Design Studio  -  Photo by Elsa Young

When your furniture creation is named’ The Most Beautiful Object in South Africa’ it's a clear indication that you are on the right track. This happened to designer Siyanda Mbele, when her Mvelo Desk won the coveted award at the 2018 Indaba exhibition. The subtle geometric patterns that are engraved into the surface are a nod to traditional Zulu shapes, and follow the lines of the desk resulting what can only be considered a useable art-piece

Image: the Mvelo Desk from designer Siyanda Mbele for Pinda Furniture  -  Photo by Simanga Zondo

When Mpho Vackier launched her Ndebele-inspired furniture range, The Urbanative, in 2016, this metallurgical engineer turned interior designer probably didn’t know that within three years she would be jointly named Designer of the Year with Thabiso Mjo.

She defines her collections as a juxtaposition of ethic motifs with the feel of mid-century and Bauhaus silhouettes. She now uses influences from various African countries as can be seen in her African Crowns range that draws inspiration from the Oromo people of 19th century Ethiopia.

Image: The Oromo chair and planters designed by Mpho Vackier of The Urbanative. - Photo by The Urbanative

Upcoming star Sifiso Shange regards himself as a ‘New Age Zulu Man’ and claims that his most relevant work comes when he seeks more about himself and his culture. His style is a toned-down play of familiar geometric motifs, often magnified beyond the expected scale, which adds an interesting vibrancy to his pieces. 

Image: Ntombi Enhle open server, designed by Sifiso Shange of Afri-Modern. -  Photo by Afri-Modern

Producing designer furniture for the international market has proven challenging for many manufacturers, but a name that has overcome the obstacles and is regarded as one of the proponents of South African style is Capetonian John Vogel.

His furniture is inspired by the animals, plants and natural landscapes found in our country. His ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ tables have become a well-known classic of local design and continue to sell well at exhibitions worldwide.

Image: John Vogel’s ‘Love Me, Love Me Not’ table set 

Diverse African themes and motifs have excited the Leonardo Design team since our inception over 3 decades ago, and we have often used these repeated geometric shapes in our popular ranges such as the Bakamo, Hombri and Maphillo collection, while our Timbuktu range borrows from the mud-cloth designs of Mali. 


Image: Leonardo - Tables by Design's locally inspired furniture

It is heartening to see so many new designers making their stamp on the international market. Once considered an extension to African craft and curio, local design has now ventured beyond the preconceived safari bush lodge expectations and expanded into a truly global market.

In the words of Thabiso Mjo, “We tend to have a preconceived notion of what South African design looks like. We think bright colours, pattern, craft, and yes that is true to a certain extent. But we also live in a global environment, and we are inspired by all these things we now have access to. African design is no longer only about bright colour, patterns and craft, it’s so much more than that, and it’s as diverse as we are.”

I do hope that you have enjoyed this exploration into an aspect of our history that is often overlooked. Wishing you all a wonderful Human Right's weekend.

Yours in Design - Frank

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1 comment

Thank you. What a fascinating article. So interesting to see how South Africa is running with the design ball. There are some new talents I’ll definitely keep my eye open for.

Andrew Knapp March 23, 2021

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