At a conference in Cape Town, first-world creatives and third-world creators come face to face
Nadine Rubin -- Interior Design, 2/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
"I have always believed that the main point of design is to make the world a better place," says Tucker Viemeister, who worked on Oxo International's Good Grips, the highly successful universal kitchen tools, during his time as the founder of Smart Design. Now, he's traveling from New York to Cape Town to speak at Design Indaba, a conference that invites international creative thinkers to address South African audiences and issues.
The idea that creativity can make a better world is what's under consideration February 23 to 29 at this year's Design Indaba. The series was launched shortly after the abolition of apartheid by Ravi Naidoo, a South African scientist turned entrepreneur with a sociopolitical conscience. Indaba, a Zulu word, translates loosely as a harmonious conference.
It's this kind of thinking that allowed Nigerian business academic Mohammed Bah Abba to develop an earthenware pot-inside-a-pot for keeping food cool—revolutionizing lives in semidesert areas. The same solution-oriented mentality led University of Calgary engineering professor Dave Irvine-Halliday to realize that combining LEDs with a solar-powered battery could create a viable light source in even the most remote of locations. "It may seem counterintuitive, but high art and high design are solutions for third-world economies," Naidoo says. "Rather than ask politicos for answers, why not ask designers? They are reformers."
Design Indaba initially brought three British luminaries—Jasper Morrison, Tom Dixon, Nicole Farhi—to address sold-out venues in Cape Town. This year, British-born, California-based Bill Moggridge, cofounder of Ideo, and New York's Ivan Chermayeff, principal of Chermayeff & Geismar, will join a strong contingent of speakers from Japan in exploring the need for elegant technological solutions that take intuition and tradition into account. (The Japanese include two industrial designers, a graphic designer, and a design anthropologist.) Also on the bill are Ilse Crawford, the interiors guru behind Studioilse, and Oona Scheepers, a design chief at Volkswagen.
To ensure diversity, Naidoo has also invited Marije Vogelzang, whose Proef restaurants in Amsterdam and Rotterdam tackle bad eating habits by recontextualizing the rituals of food, and Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, who recently returned from recording the sound of ice shifting in Antarctica and plans to share that experience with his Design Indaba audience. "South Africa is a kind of test case to see how many issues—education, multiculturalism, progressive digital media, and, of course, global issues in music—respond to a rapidly changing cultural environment," he says.
To collect a geographic spread of speakers, Naidoo meets with them personally. "I had traveled to six continents by September last year," he says—explaining how sheer tenacity, over the course of three meetings, finally convinced Sir Terence Conran to come in 2003. Among the results of that visit were his selling exhibition "From Harare to Higgovale" in 2005 and the South African products sold at the Conran Shop worldwide today.
"Sir Terence worked with a candle maker in Bredasdorp and a ceramist in Paarl. You take people from small towns in the southern Cape and give them access to a doyen with a wonderful ability to convert design into dosh, and that savvy rubs off," Naidoo says. In the last few years, buyers from Artecnica, Anthropologie, the Gap's Product Red line, and Wal-Mart Stores have all placed orders for South African merchandise after visiting the Design Indaba Expo, a curated commercial platform that runs concurrently with the conference.
"We're trying to get visitors to take note of what's happening here and to get involved in collaborations," says Barbara Jackson, a South African ceramist who cofounded the beading collective Monkeybiz, which supports more than 400 women in Cape Town squatter camps. "Our cultural boycott during the apartheid years meant that we had to dig deep. Now, because of our major lack of education and facilities, our style is not academic. Instead, it has a raw energy."
One of the life-changing results of 2007's Design Indaba was the 10x10 Housing Project, a collaborative effort between South African and international architects and designers, all of whom are conference alumni, to construct low-cost housing for 10 families living in the shacks that surround Cape Town. Each team—led by the likes of Shigeru Ban, Will Alsop, David Adjaye, and Thomas Heatherwick—designed one house by December. Under an initiative described as "architectural open-source," the plans are currently being compiled as a manual to be donated to African governments, royalty-free.
"Design Indaba has taken a fishing village at the bottom of Africa and hitched it to the design world," Naidoo says. And why not? After all, the future of the planet lies in the exchange of ideas.