A curious thing is happening in the large, airy studio that Peta Becker and Margaret Woermann share in a converted industrial building in Cape Town's Woodstock. One room has been converted into a type of conservatory, with tiny monkeys swinging from plants, cacti growing out of an old ball-and-claw couch
and succulents everywhere.
Nature has not taken over here – a wild cross-pollination of creativity has. Woermann is the enterprising force behind Heartworks, which has two Cape Town shops packed with well-curated craft, and Becker runs Projekt, a skills-training initiative that produces finely crocheted accessories and toys – hence the monkeys.
They have formed a new collaborative venture, the Curious Room, a kind of lab to play around with new ideas free from the constraints of commercial pressures.
But put to the commercial test their products will be when they bring the Curious Room to the Design Indaba Expo. Their products include wobbly little cacti crocheted in fine cotton, upcycled wooden furniture with embroidered panels and slouchy plant containers woven out of brightly coloured T-shirt fabric.
There are curious things happening elsewhere, too. Michael Chandler, who debuted his own range of decor pieces last year under the label Chandler House, has brought his neoclassical sensibilities to bear on the beaded creations of African Home, a skills empowerment project co-founded by Claudette Davis. Their new venture is called Serpentine.
"I showed her a picture of a Georgian mirror and her eyes went as big as saucers," says Chandler of his initial encounter with Davis.
So he scaled down his ideas to a more manageable Adam-style mirror, a classical design originated by the 19th-century Scottish architect Roger Adam. After much trial and error, African Home's beaders mastered the delicate acanthus leaves that unfurl along the top of the mirror.
If this all sounds rather highbrow, that is because it is. Chandler makes no apologies for his "Eurocentric perspective". Auction work is his background and he spent several years working for Sotheby's in Cape Town. But there is room to inject some fun into the process too – the Adam-style mirror has morphed into the "madame-style" mirror.
The mirrors have made it to Anthropologie's New York stores, the local design world's version of performers making it on Broadway. But Chandler is hoping that the pieces are less about trends than timeless design classics, reinterpreted in beadwork. "We're playing with real icons of design," he says. "We're not talking about Cassina chairs."
Among these icons are ancient Chinese vases and old Cape Dutch brass chandeliers, all translated into tiny beads. The vases are pared-down silhouettes in uniform white beads, except for one red bead, slipped in as a wink to Chandler's Eastern Cape childhood and the Xhosa belief that pure white is reserved for spiritual leaders. They have been selected for the Cape Craft and Design Institute's South African handmade collection, but for the expo Serpentine will be displaying versions in aquamarine, celadon and seaweed-coloured Czech beads to match the colours of antique glassware.
<strong>Fascination with underwater life</strong>
There are a number of other designers at the expo this year who have found innovative ways of using craft. One of the quirkiest is Maymott, which began as a pet project of Kate Carlysle (of Mustardseed and Moonshine ceramics) and long- time friend Danny Myburgh. They have brought their fascination with underwater life - a fascination that compelled them to don wetsuits and take scuba-diving classes - to the patterns they explore on their giant crocheted pouffes, three-dimensional blankets and cushions. The quality of the stitchwork - done by a group of pensioners in Khayelitsha - is almost obsessively good and has been applied to curtains, ottomans and even bannisters at a new private lodge in the Waterberg.
Over the past year, Binky Newman's Design Afrika has explored new shapes and materials in its woven designs through collaborations with a raft of artisans. A light- hearted range of baskets incorporates brightly coloured polo necks knitted from recycled plastic shopping bags by Alison Coutros of Kunye. The richly textured weavings of other Design Afrika products resulted from collaborations with linen designer Helon Melon, felt artist Stephanie Bentum of Krafthaus and weaver Liz Vels, who uses a tiny loom.
The misshapen forms of Design Afrika's Bulawayo gourds came about by accident, but tap into a current taste for wonky, imperfect design. "My weavers in Zimbabwe tried to emulate traditional clay pots, but their baskets kept collapsing because there was no internal structure to keep them in shape," says Newman. Her crafters became increasingly distressed because they could not make them perfect. "But I loved the final product and, when the baskets were finished, they agreed with me that they were beautiful. Now they go mad and are weaving all kinds of interesting shapes."
<em>Kelly Berman is the Design Indaba expo manager</em>