/ 27 November 2009

Household hints

For designers and artists, recognition used to arrive on the back of a show in a gallery and a concomitant critical piece in a newspaper. Nowadays, it’s likely to arrive as a blurb and link on MarthaStewart.com, or a South African Blog of the Year award.

The plaudits for designer and illustrator Heather Moore are from all those sources, which is exemplary of what it means to be a 21st-century designer working from an outpost of the empire. And by empire, I mean both digital and design. And by outpost, I mean Cape Town, which for some people is about as far as you can get from the centre of design without actually going to the ludicrous Fourways Design Quarter in Johannesburg. (Described on its website as “très chic”, which I assume is French for “something you put on your lap to eat fried chicken”.)

So Moore’s iconic teapots-and-jugs tea towel is one of the featured 2009 Christmas gift ideas on Stewart’s “Martha’s Circle” blogging community. If you want a full view of the range of Moore’s products, visit her award-winning blog, SkinnyLaminx.com.

But e-commerce affirmation and online accolades aren’t enough to differentiate the good from the great and craft from art. The so-called real world still counts and Moore’s work is also included in Fenomen Ikea, running until February at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg.

Moore’s “I Wish We Had Ikea” tea towels and cushions, a witty comment on the economies of design and how they relate to the margins inhabited by Moore and other designers from the developing world, are in the Non Ikea section.

Some will argue — and I’m aware that this is a fundamentally boring question, but bear with me — that Moore’s designs shouldn’t be termed art. This would certainly be Moore’s standpoint.

“I’d hate to be called an artist. I’m an illustrator, not an artist. My stuff is attractive; it’s decoration. There might be an idea or two behind it, just an expression of pattern and rhythm, but it’s produced quickly.”

Modest words, albeit an implied criticism of Andy Warhol and his ilk. But although the crude binary of art and craft has been done to death, it does provide a useful vocabulary for looking at the impetus behind some of Moore’s early work.

Exemplary of this is her Sevilla Rock fabric collection, wonderfully simple iterations of self-conscious red elands, frisky blue ponies and greenly poised duikers. Looking at them reproduced as cushions, tea towels or aprons, one gets a sense of how beauty always has to inhabit a faultline between utility and ideology.

“Each of the five designs is based on ancient paintings from the cave walls at Sevilla in the Cederberg mountains, as recorded by rock art enthusiast [and cartographer extraordinaire] Peter Slingsby.

“The whole idea was to remove cave paintings from their value as artefact or tourist attraction and look at them as beautiful drawings. It’s about the artists, not the history. And it’s also a rescue job — I hated the clichéd Bushman stuff.”

Moore’s style has been termed “modern revival”, which she describes as “a kind of retreat from the design excesses of the Eighties and Nineties, going back to when things were made properly”.

“The Fifties was such an amazing time for production methods; a time of simplicity, of cutting the crap. Some of my work draws very directly on artists of the Fifties. For example, I’ve directly drawn teapots and jugs sourced at Milnerton Market and made fabric from that. The eeps [little birds that feature on many Moore designs] are a more general nod to the Fifties.”

This would still be a fairly straightforward story of recognition and success were it not for the way it happened. Rather than the more usual process of peddling wares from store to store, Moore has just sat back and waited for the world to beat a path to her URL. Thanks to the power of the internet, Moore provides her distinctive products to stores all over the world, including the iconic Heath Ceramics in Los Angeles and Sausalito.

According to Moore: “Online’s been the enabler for everything. I’m not very good at self-promotion or marketing at all. Everyone I’ve ever stocked [with] in the world, the initiative has come from them.”

The other pleasing aspect to Moore’s design ethic is that her merchandise is truly local. “I do every aspect of my production in Cape Town. The cotton is milled in Cape Town and everything is printed and manufactured here.”

But it’s also local in the sense of being distinctively South African without relying on crudely kitsch juxtapositions (three flying ducks on a wildly overpriced T-shirt, for example), or impossibly romantic references to the prelapsarian bush (anything involving lions and possibly giraffes).

Moore’s silently waiting birds, her poised animals and vital teapots are at once reminiscent and something you’ve never seen before. And the craft and rigour that’s gone into the production process is a thing of beauty in itself.

It’s also not incidental that her work is affordable. There’s no reason beauty should price itself out of the market once it becomes desirable, in the same way that there’s no convincing reason why good design shouldn’t be a prerequisite, instead of an optional extra.

Heather Moore illustrated the cover for Chris Roper’s book, out in June 2010