Heritage Day- South African Design: Looking toward the future

Heritage Day is the perfect time to contemplate the history of design in South Africa and where we are going. Until relatively recently most furnishings were based on styles and traditions that were firmly ensconced in European trends. The political changes the country has experienced over the last quarter of a century heralded a change in many areas of our daily lives and there are now a growing number of designers who are finally finding their own voice.



South African design was once epitomised by ethnic prints and earthy colours, and although these elements will always be an inspiration and touchstone for local designers, the past few decades has seen major changes in our local approach to design. This month we would like acknowledge where our local design ideas came from and, more importantly, where they are heading.


To look at the origins of furniture design in South Africa we have to pay a visit to the Cape of 1652. When Van Riebeek’s growing settlement started bringing Indo Dutch styled furnishings with them. These were copied by the newly settled carpenters. By the mid 1700’s elaborate pieces were being made from local woods. There are numerous fine examples of the level of craftsmanship such as the cabinet commissioned by Governor-General Hendrik Swellengrebei which was comparable to the finest furnishings found in Europe of the day.


Image: The Swellengrebei Cabinet


With the expansion of the Boers into the interior, furnishing took on a more practical form as everything had to be transportable by ox-wagon. Folding tables and stools with ‘riempie’ seats were standard. When settlements started to form, practicality, adaptability and durability replaced decoration or embellishment. This could be described as our Pioneer Furniture era and there are some similarities between what is now regarded as 'Boer Furniture' and the principles of The Shaker movement in America.

South African designers are moving forward from colonial era influences and, while drawing from local traditions, are incorporating global influences into everything from furnishings and fabrics to jewellery and technology. It is an exciting time to be a designer and thanks to events such as the Design Indaba, the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest creative conference, South African style has access to a global stage.



As one of the biggest producers of gold, diamonds and platinum, it is no surprise that South Africa is full of innovative jewellery designers. The likes of Jenna Clifford and Kirsten Goss are internationally recognized, but every year brings more talent to the foreground.

Image: Xhosa Bling headband from Babalo Chuma Rozani. - Find him on Instagram @babalorozani.
Photo Credit: Cape Precious Metals


This is true of local designer Babalo Chuma Rozani whose interest in the anthropology of the Xhosa male was the inspiration for his pieces. In his own words, his signature Xhosa Bling pieces are “attention-seeking, and aims to garner admiration from onlookers. The pieces force people to look again, and in turn, to reconsider their assumptions about the wearer.”  His innovation saw him being included in the 2021 Design Indaba’s Top 50 Emerging Creatives.


South African fashion and textile designers have been taking the catwalks by storm for some time. A young lady who is starting to make waves is another of the 2021 Design Indaba’s Top 50 Emerging Creatives, Yanela Mloto. Like jewellery designer Babalo Chuma Rozani, she draws from her own Xhosa culture as inspiration in her collections of stylish, modern garments that explore a traditional, Xhosa aesthetic.

Photo Credit: www.designindaba.com


Mloto's designs have won Most Innovative Range at her graduate show at the Durban University of Technology. She has also showcased her work at the Beijing Institute of Fashion and Technology graduate fashion show and is definitely a designer with a bright future.


When designer Candice Lawrence created the Ndebele Woven Pendant Light she struck a chord in the interior world. As a finalist in the 2015 Nando’s Hot Young Designer competition, her designs have been featured in leading publications around the world, including Vogue Italia and our own TV magazine Top Billing.

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org.
Find Candice Lawrence's work at https://moderngesture.co.za/


Her Cape Town based company, Modern Gesture, believes in sustainability, using recycled wood off-cuts to create spectacular, environmentally conscious items. Lawrence is always personally involved in the turning and manufacturing process.


Leonardo Designs have used diverse African themes into their table collections since the company’s inception over 30 years ago. Ranges such as the Bakamo, Hombori and Maphilo feature repeat cut-out geometrics with a distinct local flavour while the Protea Side Table (available on special order) features our national flower.

Left: The Hombori Side Table / Centre: The Bakamo Table Range / Right: The Protea Side Table


South African design often influences bespoke pieces that we create for discerning clients, such as these reception tables that we designed for a new Johannesburg hotel project. The brief called for a unique design with easily maintained finishes and a nod to our South African heritage. We used stylish Oak veneer conical bases with brass ring detailing reminiscent of the traditional neck jewellery of the Ndebele nation, while the sharp angle to the table-top support suggests the shape of the ‘Isicholo’, the hat worn by married Zulu women during ceremonial occasions. We finished the collection with Eezi-Quartz Whisper Stone tops to complete the client’s vision.


From our major cities to the tiniest villages, South African design is evident in some form or another and reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our wonderful country. Happy Heritage Day to you all.


Wishing you a stylish month – Frank

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