There are few names in South African design at the moment as exciting as Thabisa Mjo, the founder of the award-winning Johannesburg-based lifestyle and homeware brand MashT Design Studio. Created by the Pietermartizburg-born designer in 2017, the studio brings together technology and traditional crafts to tell uniquely South African stories using the medium of design.
From her pieces being acquired for the permanent collections of prestigious institutions like The Louvre and Centre Pompidou, to growing her business from a one-woman show into a global studio, hers is a story that is full of inspiration for anyone. Surprisingly, Mjo remains one of the most humble, approachable and relatable in the industry, and hasn’t fallen into a sense of celebrity that so often accompanies the sort of stellar chart her career has followed.
IQOQO caught up with Mjo from her studio in Johannesburg, where she brings her extraordinary creations to life while juggling the demands of her business and personal life.
Your growth has been so inspiring to witness. What do you think it is about your designs that resonates so deeply with the industry, the design public and international buying audiences?
Firstly, I really don’t take it lightly that I’ve been part of a business that has become something like this. A business that endeavours to really mean something, and that is inspiring. I don’t know for sure, but I think that for people the designs we make feel familiar, but also unfamiliar at the same time. If you see the Tutu Light for example, it is a form that is welcoming, and comfortable, and I think that’s what people like about our designs – that they feel like home. But also that it’s an elevated version of home, and a little bit aspirational. I think you can also see in the designs that they are being made by people who want to have a little fun with the things they make. That they’re a little whimsical. It can also of course be serious, but at heart, it’s about home and the whimsy and fun of that. I think the designs are also now just aesthetically resolved, and intrinsically make sense to people because of that.
As a business person, how do you find a balance between the more creative aspects of working and the business side?
For the longest time, I thought that I could focus on the creative, and run the business, with a business hat on, but I realised with experience that that wasn’t the case. What was happening was I was either dropping the ball on the creative side of the business side in terms of making sure the pricing was correct, making sure that there are systems in place, and that the running of MashT was not so incredibly dependent on me. The question I used to ask myself was, “if I was to fall sick, or if I’m away, can this order go out? Can we meet that deadline?” and the answer to the question was consistently “no”. Everything was all in my head, and everything was solely dependent on me. At the time, in the beginning, it had to be that way, because I was not in a position to get all the necessary skills and resources I needed in place, but as time went by it became so necessary. I realised that if this business is going to scale and be sustainable, I need to bring in the necessary skills. I guess that in itself – that my business is no longer a hobby – was a good business decision. There’s also something to be said for conventions. About things being done a certain way simply because they work. In the beginning, it was lots of fun because we were young and inexperienced, and trying different things. We would go, if it works then great, but if it doesn’t, well, oh well, we’ll try something else! And that worked in the beginning. But then things started breaking. And I then understood why having experience is important. So what we’ve got now is a really nice balance between the corporate side of the business, how things are done properly, and the creative spark. We’re constantly asking ourselves: how can we be creative about solving problems?
What keeps you going on the hard days? Those days when staying in bed is a nicer option than heading to the workshop, or endless meetings, or countless interviews with journalists wanting to know the same things as us?
In one sense it’s knowing that I’m too far gone. I can’t quit now. That it’s too late for quitting. Also, what would I do, how else would I make a living? But seriously, the desire that I have to create something great, that there is something inside of me that wants to make something iconic is a big part of what drives me. Designing things that in a hundred years’ time will still be referenced; to be part of a collective of designers who establish South African design as a ‘category brand’ built on heritage, in the same way that Italians have built heritage brands that have existed for a century. Designs that speak to their values, and their appreciation for craft, and creativity, and problem-solving. I think as South Africans problem-solving is something that’s innate to us. We are creative in the way we approach solutions to things. We have this incredible gift and tradition of craft, storytelling, culture, and values, that are inherently South African, and I want to be part of a history that taps into that, presents it to the world, and to have it acknowledged as knowledge that is worth teaching to others, and preserving for future generations.
Being a public persona can be tricky. How have you come to terms with the role your personal name plays in building your business, and maintaining space for your own personal growth?
I actually don’t consider myself a public persona. But with that said, I think it starts with personal growth, and something my pastor used to always say really stuck with me in this process. He held that your character will keep you where your gift takes you. When I was younger I didn’t actually get what that meant, but as my business grows, it becomes and continues to become clearer that if my personal growth is stunted, if I don’t take the time to work on the habits I’ve created – those things, both positive and negative, will inevitably affect your business. So I think having a gift alone is not enough. It’s your character, who you are: your habits, your personhood, the things you do, and your thought patterns. But all of those things will either keep you where your gift has taken you, or cause you to fall, and fail. And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about my own self-development, and spend a lot of time reflecting on how my habits affect the output of what I do, how my habits affect the team, and affect the clients and the way they treat MashT. If I operate from a place of fear, that absolutely translates into the business. When I come from a place of fear I say yes to things that I should rather say no to. And so I’m constantly having to think about what my mindset is, asking myself constantly if that makes sense to me? Does that make sense to our profits? Does that make sense to the well-being of the artisans? And so on. So I’m constantly having to check myself.
You’re very young to have built such an expansive operation. What’s been the biggest challenge that you have encountered in scaling your business to where it is today?
The biggest challenge in any business is sales. If there aren’t sales, there is no business. But I had to learn that I had some negative connotations to sales. I kept on telling myself that I’m not good at sales, because at that stage I actually didn’t understand what sales meant. I’ve realised now that all of life is sales. If you’re trying to get a boyfriend, if you’re trying to get married — that’s a sales pitch! You want to make a friend? That’s a sales pitch. If you want to get employed, that’s a sales pitch. So for me, removing the negative connotations with sales was important when I realised that all of the sales for MashT are about speaking from the heart, about telling people who you are, and this is what I believe I can do for you. It’s realising that you don’t centre yourself in selling. I’m not hitting them over the head with a Tutu Light. I’m clear on what we provide, and need to understand what my customers’ pain point is, and because I realise what I offer, I know what I can release from your paint point by not centring myself.
What advice would you give younger Thabisa on day one of registering her company?
The advice I’d give to a younger Thabisa is to keep going. And I’m giving that advice to myself right now, at this very minute.