Wonderboy works wonders
"The world is craving stories converted into beautiful products. If it comes from Africa the demand is even greater."
Inspired by the unforgettable artworks of Wonderboy Nxumalo, Ardmore Ceramic Art’s gentle artist-poet who died seven years ago, the vibrant new homeware range launched at this year’s Design Indaba and in New York recently features sophisticated imagery that is uniquely African.
“The whole world is in love with Africa,” says Fleur Heyns, the entrepreneur who has partnered with Ardmore’s Fee Halsted and her son Jonathan Berning to create a new brand called Halsted Design, the company behind the range.
“There are just not that many exquisite products being made in Africa that fit the international taste and lifestyle,” says this powerhouse London-based investment banker who spent 10 years in Johannesburg with JP Morgan and then in the emerging market’s retail area. “Nowadays luxury and exclusivity lie more in the story of the product than the product itself. Ardmore has a phenomenal story and its quality has grown to an exceptional standard by all measures globally.”
It’s almost three decades since Halsted launched Ardmore with the late Bonnie Ntshalintshali, her housekeeper’s daughter. From the start their ceramics were unique, decorated with their own quirky and exquisite take on South Africa"s fauna, flora and Zulu folklore.
Now Ardmore’s ceramics are collectors’ pieces globally. Coca-Cola heiress Susan Mathis has several hundred Ardmore bowls, jugs, vases, candlesticks, egg cups and urns. Buckingham Palace and the White House have Ardmore pieces too. They’re made by about 70 people working in the Ardmore studios on the old KwaZulu-Natal lavender farm where Halsted lives in a terracotta farmhouse with a stone-walled rose garden, and where she has created a Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum.
Nxumalo was the star of the show for years. His pieces conveyed his simple but inspirational view of life and the world, and they fetched high prices. One of his vases went for R200 000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2008, the year he died.
“Wonderboy’s aesthetic is deeply rooted in hope and a wish for a better lifestyle for the South African people,” says Halsted. “His choice of words [for the titles of his pieces] is innocent and sincere and it’s what charms you: My Hope of Love is in You, Let Us Talk About It [and] O God Please let our Rulers not be Greedy.”
Equally engaging is Nxumalo’s visual wit. His monkeys pray and play soccer, his rabbits leap and do gym. They’re all metaphors for humankind, and they all frolic happily on the new range among Ardmore’s signature hippo flowers and frogs’ eggs motifs.
It’s a style that Halsted describes as “somewhat funkier and cleaner than the brightly coloured organic shapes and patterns we associate with Ardmore”. So far the range is a niche player in the market, consisting mainly of textiles, tableware and fabrics for soft furnishings. But Heyns says this is just the beginning.
“We plan eventually to design, develop and distribute products inspired by other African artists, going beyond the Ardmore Collection. The world is craving original stories converted into beautiful products. If it comes from Africa the demand is even greater. They all want a more modern, contemporary execution of African inspiration that goes beyond the traditional arts and crafts. And discerning ... consumers increasingly care how products are being made – they don’t want [products made in] sweatshops.”
What’s more, she says there’s a shortage of this kind of high-end commercial enterprise with social or environmental benefits that investors are keen to jump into.
Halsted’s two other children are also in the family business. Catherine does Ardmore’s marketing and graphic, fabric and scarf design. Megan is studying fine art and has recently created a striking handbag out of Ardmore fabric designs in collaboration with local handbag heavyweights Via La Moda.