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Lifting the status of South African design

Staff Reporter

Does Design Indaba hold any weight as an international benchmark for locally made design?

More than 38 000 people walked through the doors of last year’s Design Indaba expo, resulting in a gross domestic product contribution of R261-million.

The figures, which were determined by an external economic impact assessment undertaken by the graduate school of business at the University of Cape Town, are proof of the wide-ranging ­creative prowess of South African designers across various fields, including craft, product design, furniture, jewellery, fashion, film, ­publishing, new media, architecture and graphic design.

What does this mean in the broader context? Does Design Indaba hold any weight as an international benchmark for locally made design?

“Good design is borderless, no matter where it originates from,” says Veejay Archary, founder of advertising agency Black and a member of the curator panel for graphic media, advertising and photography. “Design Indaba represents the best of South Africa to the world; it needs to be carefully positioned to the marketplace, just as items need to be carefully selected for their broad appeal and uniqueness.”

Differentiation is key
Erica Elk, a curator for craft and executive director of the Cape Craft and Design Institute, believes differentiation is key. “South Africa is unique in our diversity and there is a large, untapped talent pool. That said, we don’t have a pervasive ­tradition of design innovation in manufacturing and the creative industries—there is a tendency to imitate and replicate. We need to find our competitive advantage; it’s not about competing on volume and price but on innovation, quality and variety. A cross-sectoral design-led showcase like Design Indaba is very important for us to reposition our manufacturing sectors, from the handmade to furniture to fashion.”

Verna Jooste, a jewellery curator, says South Africa has never really had its own unique design sensibility. “Over the past few years, Design Indaba has made a significant impact on helping to achieve that aim. The curating process aims to ensure that those showcased at the expo are cutting-edge thinkers who are experimenting with something new and different. Work that is not unique to South Africa or contemporary in its approach is not selected.”

According to expo manager Kelly Berman, the curation process is Design Indaba’s unique selling point. “Items are chosen for the level of profession in their manufacturing, as well as their ability to seek out and define ‘new’ ideas. The curators have been tasked with the difficulty of ensuring and maintaining the exceptionally high standards set out by Design Indaba, while at the same time filling the floor. A curated event ensures that Design Indaba is not just another craft show, but an international event showcasing South African design at its very best.”

Elk says the local market is fairly small. “We have to ‘sell’ the value and quality of locally originated goods not only to trade buyers, but also to local consumers. Curation is about a purposeful selection against a certain set of criteria; it is essential that a curated show remains true to its vision and purpose. A curator establishes a benchmark—we don’t settle for mediocrity and homogeneity but strive for the best.”

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