Cape Town Design Town Live Design, Transform Life

Cape Town presents itself increasingly as a design city and has submitted a bid for the title World Design Capital in 2014. As a preview Henk Jochims and Dorine van Namen visited some design centres and festivals, and discovered how design contributed to the shaping of the democratization of South Africa.

What is typical about South African design?

"In the apartheid period, there were very few examples of South African design that were known internationally," says Lauren Shantall of the Freeworld Design Centre in Cape Town. "South Africa had long been isolated from the global design community and only after the democratic transition international attention for South African products returned. Labour is in ample supply and there is a strong tradition of ancient African skills and techniques. Through application of the principles of ‘high design’ South African products have transcended from tourist curiosities to global products.” Examples of interesting contemporary South African designers include Heath Nash, who amoung other things designed lighting from old plastic bottles, and furniture designer Haldane Martin.


‘There are also examples of more practical design, focusing on poor communities, such as the hippo roller, a device to transport water barrels, and the windup radio, that works on human power instead of electricity,’ says Shantall. "People's throwaways get a second life," says Mike Purdham, manager of the Design Indaba Exhibition when asked for a characterization of South African design. A good example of that would be the Magpie Art Collective, two of whose chandeliers made from recycled materials even made it to Obama’s White House. Another example is the work of designer-artist Zavick, aka Supa'dog. With his project Pimp Your Jeans he gives old and worn out jeans a new image and a new life. Botha: "I see the recycling trend more as an international development in design than as typically South African."

Design Indaba and Toffie Pop Culture Festival and Design Conference

"Local is lekker" (local is delicious) was the motto of the Design Indaba (DI). In 260 booths South African architectural designs, furniture, lighting, fashion and jewellery were on show. More than 38,000 visitors attended the exhibition, and stand holders selling products did good business. Nuno, maker of fashion and decor accessories in South African wool, stated on the Design Indaba website that the three days of the fair brought in as much revenue as in two regular months. And she was not the only one: The Business School of the University of Cape Town calculated that the Design Indaba of 2010 contributed R232 million to the Cape economy and created 956 full-time jobs.


A stand of the Western Cape Furniture Initiative showed the winning designs of a competition for young furniture designers around the theme “Seating: shack chic”. Fashion shows of local designers drew full grandstands. "You could not get a church mouse in', Purdham summarized the attendance. International celebrities such as Alberto Alessi, Maarten Baas, Michael Wolff, Dana Arnett and Robert Wong caused the 1500 seats for the Design Indaba Conference to be quickly sold out. Interested people who could not get tickets as well as design students had the opportunity to watch the “Simulcasts” in another room of the Cape Town International Convention Centre and at the University of Johannesburg – a simultaneous screen display of the lectures of the world-famous designers.


For the second year the Design Film Fest was part of the Design Indaba. This time in the new Freeworld Design Centre. The program consisted of documentaries about architects, furniture designers and fashion designers, an animated film and Banksy's Exit through the Gift Shop. Every day there were celebrations and after-parties. In short, Cape Town was buzzing and breathing design. Some weeks after Design Indaba the underground alternative, the Toffie Pop Culture Festival, was organized for the second time. At this design conference the designers lecturing were mainly South African. Graphic designer Frauke Stegmann for example. She designed amongst others the interior of the Bird's Boutique Café in Cape Town (a trendy place, built with minimal resources) and a sleeping bag and pillow for the homeless. Her advice: “use the ordinary to create something unusual”. Architects Sven Mahoney and Pier Swanepoel of studioMAS design their buildings to be as green as possible. Their tip to the many young designers in the conference: "Be less bad, use nature, design for life."

Design as a tool for progress

As a visitor to Cape Town one immediately sees that the city has a lot to offer in architecture and other design. Pitfalls are the sometimes disappointing production quality and inconsistent use of marketing tools. The stand with award winning designs of the Western Cape Furniture Initiative at the Design Indaba Expo, for example, was unmanned. On the Internet, the winners could not be found, and at our request we received a list of names but no pictures. A missed opportunity for the promotion of South African design. In South Africa the quality of production is a theme like the weather in the Netherlands: everyone complains about it but accepts it as an immutable phenomenon. The first concern in South Africa is getting and keeping people employed. Government measures are aimed at reducing unemployment (which officially stands at 25%) rather than at promoting efficiency and quality.


Yet Cape Town is a promising candidate for the election as World Design Capital (WDC) 2014 with it’s submission under the slogan . The title of World Design Capital is given to cities which in the opinion of the selection committee make the most effective and creative use of design as a tool for progress. “Twenty years post-democracy design is being used to undo how the city was historically designed to divide people” says Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, Managing Director of the Cape Town Partnership (the public-private partnership that filed the application for WDC). “The Fan Walk, which was designed to create a safe space for people to walk from Cape Town station to the stadium is an example. The route enabled everyone – no matter from what background – to interact in public space which is not the ‘norm’ in Cape Town, especially not on such a big scale which was seen during the World Cup. The successful use of the Fan Walk gave locals a new found respect for public space and the current drive is to continue developing peoplecentred public spaces that ensure safe places for people to live, work, play and just be. The election to Design Capital would give an extra boost to this development. "

In October 2011 the International Council for Societies of Industrial Design will announce its choice. The city that is elected will then have two years to prepare for the World Design Capital status.

Design Indaba 2011

  • • 380 exhibitors
  • • 60 new exhibitors
  • • 38,000 visitors
  • • 150 international buyers

Freeworld Design Centre

A place to be for design-loving Cape Town is the Freeworld Design Centre, established in October 2010 by the paint manufacturer Freeworld Coatings. There is a gallery with four new interior design installations of South African designers every three months, a library with design books and a magazine shop. Interior designers and architects can try out colours. The auditorium, where the Design Film Fest was held, has one hundred places, used amongst others for lectures by professionals from architecture and interior design. And finally the Hemelhuijs, the resident eatery is popular and tries to tune it’s menu to the programme of the design centre.

Montebello Design Centre

Montebello Design Centre calls itself one of Cape Town’s best kept secrets. In the luscious Newlands quarter patron of the arts Cecil Michaelis left an old farm to the University of Cape Town. When he died, in 1997, the Montebello design centre had already been established on the old farm. Cecil Michaelis himself had used the old tables to conduct experiments with South African clay types, with which he laid the foundation for the finer South African chinaware that is now so successful. The purpose of the centre is to stimulate good local design and to harness crafts for the creation of jobs. Various crafts studios are located on the property. At reasonable prices visitors can take courses ranging from ceramics to forging, beadwork and printing. There is a shop selling products made in townships from waste and weeds. In the Alien Vegetation project’ furniture is made from the wood of the Port Jackson, a tree of alien origin which is currently being removed by the government because of its burden the water supply in the Western Cape.


Henk Jochims lives in Cape Town. He is owner of an consultancy and a small hotel business. Dorine van Namen is editor of ‘Profielen’, and owns a copywriting agency. For more information please see:,, and