Highlights: Design Indaba 23.02.16

  • Jaime Hayon was among the star speakers

  • Studio NB hired actors to perform a play, Turning the Tables

  • Swedish agency Snask performed with a rock bank

  • A surprise performance South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela

  • Rich Mnisi's fashion brand blend African heritage with modern culture

  • Helen Isibor-Epega performs with The Venus Bushfires collective

  • Artist Tony Gum came to prominance posting selfies on social media

  • Francois Knoetze's Cape Mongo monsters told stories about scrap materials

Acting, music and dance were all in the mix at a design conference in Cape Town that refuses to categorise and define the limits of creativity, says Debika Ray

There is reason to be suspicious of any event that uses the words “inspiring” and “creativity” so liberally, but the Design Indaba festival pulls it off, without succumbing to the evangelical creepiness associated with many forums that claim to present ideas that can change the world. For its 21st year, the annual conference (the centerpiece of the organisation’s work as a platform for design) last week attracted an impressive and enthusiastic crowd to a new venue, the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, while simultaneously broadcasting live to auditoriums in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Potchefstroom and Windhoek.

Design Indaba is about “design” in its broadest sense, with speakers hailing from the worlds of architecture, product design, fashion, illustration and branding, as well as music, film, food and fine art. Big hitters such as Jaime Hayon, Sou Fujimoto, Assemble and Pentagram’s Naresh Ramchandani pulled in large audiences, while legendary British typographer Margaret Calvert, who turns 80 this year, received a standing ovation after her session, in which she promised to “keep going until I’m 100”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most inventive performances came from communications and branding designers: Swedish practice Snask was the name on everyone’s lips after they explained their strategy to “make enemies and gain fans” to vigorous accompaniment by their rock band Väg. Meanwhile, London-based designers NB Studio hired actors to perform a play that explained the anatomy of the perfect pitch.

Two architects stood out for the socially-oriented nature of their work. Thomas Chapman of South African practice Local Studio has designed a series of projects in Johannesburg aimed at reintroducing “publicness” into the post-apartheid city, including a suburban school focused around a communal hall and a community centre that includes a public terrace funded by local housing associations. Kigali-based Christian Benimana of Mass Design Group explained his practice’s method for engaging local communities in construction and its plans to develop the architecture profession in east Africa.

Londoner Safia Qureshi and Harare-based Maxwell Mutanda are both trained as architects but as Studio D Tale they unveiled their design for a viable system to eliminate the use of disposable cups in cities. Meanwhile, Egyptian identical twins and cartoonists Mohamed and Haitham El-seht explained their work to organise and foster the artistic community in Cairo since the 2011 revolution.

Some of the most memorable presentations came from the contingent of “global graduates” – recent or current students from some of the world’s best design schools. Mumbai-based Yogita Agrawal showed Jhoule, a device that generates power to light up homes in off-grid villages through the motion of walking, and Soapen, a product that uses play to encourage handwashing in young children, while Ugandan industrial designer Pia Nyakairu’s presented a device and app that helps with remote rehabilitation for breast cancer patients. Swiss designer Christophe Guberan showed off his experiments in shaping two-dimensional materials into three-dimensional shapes such as shoes by printing patterns onto their surfaces.

Musical performances provided a change of pace, but these artists were selected as much for their contribution to the professional conversation as their capacity to entertain: in the final session, for example, singer Imogen Heap demonstrated her Mi.Mu gloves, which allow the wearer to play music through movements and gestures, and outlined her latest project, a digital platform aimed at ending confusion over musical credits and ensuring all artists are compensated fairly.

As if to demonstrate the power of a good speech, the conference began this year with Chanel Cartell and Stephen Dirnberger, a couple who quit their jobs in advertising to go on a nomadic “creative sabbatical” after watching graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister speak at the 2014 edition of Design Indaba. Whether or not anyone makes such a life-changing decision this year, it seems mean-spirited not to allow Design Indaba to describe itself as “inspiring”.

Design Indaba took place from 17 to 19 February 2016



Debika Ray

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Swedish practice Snask was the name on everyone’s lips after they explained their strategy to “make enemies and gain fans” to vigorous accompaniment by their rock band

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