The design industry in South Africa: the future is local


How is the South African design landscape structured?


Design has always played an important role in South Africa – archaeological records can date design in the country to at least 80 000 years ago. Our nation has spent considerable resources over many years creating products and technologies and using design thinking (from educational curricula to business development) in ways that make our society a better place for those that live here. From the mundane design of a piece of furniture you might take for granted, to the complex moving parts needed to draw the country’s mineral wealth to the surface, designers are a critical part of the future success of South Africa. The time to shine the spotlight on them is now.


South Africa has a surge in the number of young and talented industrial, object, furniture and lighting designers creating items that are not just beautiful manifestations of the concept of form meeting function, but which also speak to the complex and nuanced fusions of cultural, social, historical and religious influences that make this country such an exciting place to live. 


In order to gain a better understanding of the South African design landscape, the challenges and opportunities it presents, and the trends we see emerging, our research focused on four main fields of design in South Africa: industrial, object, furniture and lighting design. 


Organisations representing and supporting designers

The African Institute of Interior Design Professions (IID), a registered professional body representing South African interior designers, enables anybody actively participating in the design industry to register and be a member. This certification and membership create crucial visibility for a designer wanting to pitch for a big project or add credentials to their portfolio. Formal recognition, and being part of a supportive business structure, can play an important role in forging a career as a practising designer. 

The Pan-Afrikan Design Institute (PADI) is a professional organisation representing designers from all over Africa. It is an affiliate partner with the IID. This body organises regular events and workshops geared towards supporting and enabling designers and design students, and also runs educational initiatives with specific mandates geared towards generating research in the fields of design. Its scope encompasses all aspects of the design field (ceramic, fabric, industrial, etc.).


The South African Furniture Initiative (SAFI) is a joint collaboration between the South African government, the furniture production industry and stakeholders along the production value chain. The Initiative creates opportunities for employment and strategic partnerships, business and marketing opportunities, in addition to technical training and mentoring.


In terms of governmental support, the South African Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) offer funding for designers wanting to start their own projects or initiatives but, according to our investigations, this funding can be difficult to access and the grants available are not easily understood or seemingly erratic.


DEFSA (the Design Education Forum of Southern Africa) is a non-profit body that represents designers and design educators. It organises a biennial conference where designers from all sectors (textile, graphic, ceramic, clothing, jewellery, etc.) can leverage each other’s connections and best practices. Individual or institutional membership is required to participate in DEFSA events (membership fees are reasonable and accessible). 


The Institute of Media Strategy and Design (iMSD) offers a one-year programme for unemployed youth that encourages design and design-oriented thinking. iMSD is based in Johannesburg, but also offers online courses. With South Africa’s unemployment rate at record high numbers, grassroots courses such as these are incredibly important because they give young people a sense of purpose, and open opportunities for either further tertiary education or starting a business.


Southern Guild is a gallery focused on fine art and design started by Trevyn and Julian McGowan in 2008. Its primary purpose is to curate local designers and artists in a way that encourages the development of their work beyond the borders of South Africa and onto world stages. Southern Guild works very closely with the designers and artists it represents so that products emerging out of their gallery tell an authentic South African and African story. Design products from the Southern Guild studio can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Loewe Foundation in Spain.


Emerging design trends in South Africa

The future of design is local. Presently, the focus of design in South Africa is currently on recognising the intrinsic value of African objects, and the history of thoughtful, considered design choices that they embody. There is an exciting academic shift happening in the South African design industry. Where once objects and ‘artefacts’ were relegated to museum display cases, they are now being brought out and examined to reveal and educate others about the design secrets they might contain and how this informs our idea of heritage. Knowledge that might have been hidden from sight for generations is finally being revealed. 


According to our research, designers are increasingly focusing on products that fit into a circular, regenerative and sustainable ecosystem. Bright design minds are taking time to consider, for example, how smart design can eradicate unnecessary plastic waste or packaging, and upcycling is the word of the day. 


Artificial Intelligence (AI), emerging digital technologies and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) are the way of the future, not just in terms of design but across all spheres of production. This also applies to South Africa and the African continent, where each year sees a higher percentage of the population enjoying access to the Internet of Things (IoT). 


Events that promote design

The South African design landscape is peppered with events focusing on design, designers and lovers of design. The Designer, Architect and Specifier (DAS) conference brings together suppliers, designers and clients in one space over a few days. DECOREX and Design Joburg have built reputations as leading names on the design event calendar, and have a massive following of both participants and guests. DECOREX Africa takes place in Cape Town in addition to Johannesburg, and designers from across the continent participate. For many years now, DECOREX has partnered with 100% Design, another design curation and exhibition platform that falls within the broader DECOREX exhibition, to form a constructive collaboration that leveraged the strengths of both entities. More of these joint partnerships are needed in South Africa.


Design Joburg also contains a fringe event called Design Joburg Collective, which focuses more on emerging design talent and unique collaborations that blur the conventional boundaries around design. Design Indaba, when still organizing in-person conferences before the COVID-19 pandemic, was viewed as a benchmark design event that includes design from Africa, Europe, Asia and America. Currently, through their online platform and digital magazine, their team profiles art, architecture, fashion and object design through exciting multicultural and interdisciplinary fusions. We hope to see them in person again soon.


For 2023, DECOREX and Design Joburg have joined forces to create Cape Decor and Design Week (June) and Joburg Decor and Design Week (July/August) 


There is also a spattering of design awards and competitions aimed at fostering and rewarding young design talent. The Caesarstone Student Design Competition and the PG Bison 1.618 Education Initiative are only two of these, with the latter geared primarily towards supporting third-year university design students. The Nando’s Hot Young Designer Talent Search, run by CloutSA, has propelled many young local designers onto the world stage and is different because it focused on sustainable and lasting partnerships with the designers it awards. Through her collaboration with Nando’s, designer Thabisa Mjo has participated in Milan Design Week and has had her work selected as the coveted Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at the 2020 annual Design Indaba conference.


Nando’s also operates the Portal to Africa, an online shopping platform that allows interior designers working on Nando’s outlets worldwide to choose South African design items. This has resulted in sales of over 20 000 South African designer items for Nando’s stores globally – and the profit generated from these sales goes straight to the designer.


Designers to watch

While these larger collectives are important, there are exceptional designers who represent themselves and their labels outside of larger collectives or organisations, many of whom have fought against the odds to develop a dedicated audience and following and who are making design objects that proudly represent the South African brand. While we list a few notable names, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the design talent to be found in South Africa.


An excellent example of a young South African designer who is crafting objects that exemplify the uniqueness of a Southern African aesthetic and speak to heritage and history is Thabisa Mjo, the founder of Mash T Design Studios. Her Tutu 2.0 pendant light harnesses the complexities of a South African design language in a way that speaks beyond our borders and to an international audience. It has been included in the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.


Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin of the brand Dokter and Misses have developed a formidable design reputation since they founded their studio in 2007. Their work elevates the status of contemporary South African design, and ranges from shelving to lighting.


Siyanda Mbele’s brand, Pinda Furniture, blends his own personal narrative with strong design techniques and homegrown materials. His Mvelo desk is a clever comment, through Ndebele and Zulu symbology, on our obsession with career. 


Candice Lawrence makes lighting, stationery and mirrors that embody the considered relationship between maker and object. There is an ancient tradition within South Africa of makers bonding with objects through the process of handwork, and Lawrence’s design encapsulates this methodology. 


Where are the opportunities?

Our research points towards design education being a huge area of unexplored opportunity. The idea of starting a conference focused on bringing design educators from the Global South together in one space to network, share ideas and best practices, and draw on each other’s unique and shared creativity regularly arose. Overwhelmingly, we discovered that what is needed locally is design manufacturing support so that purchase price points are affordable for end-user clients. There are maker spaces, workshops and studios such as the Made In Workshop in Johannesburg that are making it easier for designers to make items on a smaller scale without needing to buy expensive machinery or equipment. A beautiful piece of local design is desirable from an aesthetic standpoint, but must be competitively priced to rival cheaper items that are available at mass retailers. 


There is enormous potential for designers in the private sector to work with government to create supportive design centres and councils. Feedback from our research would indicate that political instability in South Africa’s urban centres (in terms of city administration) is hampering the ability to effectively implement sustainable design programmes that fuse government departments with the design sector.


What are the solutions?

Stakeholders in the design industry point towards design apprenticeships with practising designers being needed in the South African design sphere. Through these, aspiring designers would be able to learn hard skills without necessarily having a formal design education. These apprenticeships can also assist new design graduates to prepare for the working world outside of design school or university. Supportive, incubating spaces are also a requirement for designers to establish modes of thinking and production, and develop a design language that is authentic to their working methodologies and background. These must be spaces where it’s OK to make mistakes and experiment, and where they are allowed to play with manufacturing and production techniques.


Furthermore, there is space for collaboration between international design or business schools and South African makers and thinkers. A fusion of skills, education and experience stands to benefit both parties in constructive ways that can broaden the reach of South African design, and expose international design and business people to our unique local design language.


Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders we consulted with indicate that creative, innovative, society-centred thinking is what is needed currently in South Africa. With vast repositories of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (although who should leverage these systems and how credit should be attributed is a complex discussion) at our disposal, and an emerging youthful population looking for opportunities, the time is ripe for African design to reach its full potential. Design must be centred on human beings, because all aspects of our culture, society and history influence our design choices and preferences. Design has the possibility to change the world for good because designers are changemakers; socially, environmentally and economically. They are incredibly important parts of our society.


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