Furniture speaks a thousand words

Katy Taplin cranks up a metal roll-up door leading into the vast, double-storey, 1500 m2 expanse of the Dokter and Misses workroom in Jeppestown.

I follow her to a staircase leading to the second floor through a contented buzz of collaborative commotion.

The graphic designer says: “The staff choose their own pool of who they want to work with rather than us choosing … Somebody will say: ‘I’ve got a friend who needs a job’, and we take them on. We like it that way. The idea is to grow and be creative and not to stagnate.”

The chances of stagnation appear to be remote. After seven years in the furniture design scene, Taplin and her industrial designer husband and business partner, Adriaan Hugo, have succeeded in striking a balance between limited edition collectable art and standard designs produced in sufficient quantities to sustain their business.

Their work is informed by architectural principles. They spend a lot of time paging through art and design books and magazines and draw on European and African, contemporary and historical architecture and images for inspiration. They work around the clock.

“When we go on holiday, we do designs. That’s the fun part,” says Hugo.

The couple are also passionate collectors of art and photographs. “We collect our friends’ [work],” Taplin says, mentioning artists and photographers such as Zander Blom, Kudzanai Chiurai, Givan Lötz, Cameron Platter, Black Koki, Chris Saunders, Brett Rubin.

Their first collectable designs were inspired by the hand-painted adobe structures produced by the Kassena people on the borders of Ghana and Burkino Faso. Their structures are an invitation into a wonderland of unexpected angles, shapes and colours: some reach to the sky, others have arms extending outwards, and patterns in peach, cherry red and black ink are hand-painted on to them. The painting alone takes two weeks to complete. As you open drawers, cupboards and flaps, the furniture transforms itself, changing shape again.

Individually crafted pieces
Each piece is named after the form it adopts as it evolves: The Horseman, The Watchtower and Sleep – a tall, hand-painted, red-patterned cabinet made from wood and metal tubing, with a horn-like apex and lights pointing towards the ceiling.

The process begins with a sketch around a basic idea: “It is quite tricky to get a basic shape that doesn’t look basic; that takes time,” Hugo explains. “It is nice when you are making something like this and suddenly you see, oh, it’s a headrest; it’s such a weird shape,” Taplin adds.

Each individually crafted piece takes between six weeks and three months to produce. “We don’t know if there will be a market when we are doing this. That is not what it’s about. It’s just beautiful when you look at it,” Hugo says.

Contours come before functionality. “When we get the shape, we add things on to it. We may want to add things like drawers and cupboards and things that open up at the front or at the back, with different compartments. There might be a secret compartment or a double drawer.”

The motifs on the first pieces in the Kassena series were informed by the visuals of the team’s everyday life: fried eggs, palm trees, bricks.

The images on the two new items are literary texts written in the Pan-Africanist writing system developed by a team led by South African linguist NRH Pule Welch. The writing system known as isibheqe sohlamvu, or ditema tsa dinoko ( draws on symbolic design traditions of the region such as Basotho ditema murals or Zulu amabheqe beadwork. The geometric symbols of the isibheqe script form patterns made of triangles, which represent the vowels, filled with circles, arcs, crosses and curves, representing the consonants.

“For us it was definitely very interesting and we knew that it would work. It is fascinating the way that the design changes depending on the original language [which] the isibheqe system is applied to. I really liked that you don’t have to worry about whether a triangle should be here or there because it is not a graphic, it is part of a text.”

Unlike the Roman alphabet, the letters are not linear; rather, they are arranged into syllable units, which makes written words shorter and more visually distinct, whether arranged from left to right or top to bottom, as in these furniture pieces.

“We asked for some selections of poetry that we could package in different languages as we went along.”

Functional art that tells a story
The ditema text on the cabinet is transliterated from a poem by the prolific South African Sesotho poet KPD Maphalla: Mahlo a ka tutuboloha/ O lekole tsela lefefeng le letsho,/ Fatshe lena ha se la difofu,/ Lekgantsha sekgukgu, ho tswedipana.

This means: My eyes, open up!/ Survey the path in the black darkness./ This world is not for the blind/ It boasts secrets, it zigzags.

The result is functional art that tells a story. The furniture has presence; it demands attention. I found myself gravitating towards it, wanting to touch it, examine it, explore it, read it and understand it.

Can furniture influence people culturally, politically, socially?

“I don’t think it can change the world, but I do think it is a tool for communicating,” Taplin says.

The new furniture is made of beech and is hand-painted in black ink. No more than 15 of each will be made on commission in different colours. The server is on casters and can be moved. It has three drawers in the front and one drawer at the back. The writing desk has two cupboards, a flap-down desk and one drawer.

The isibheqe designs are on show at the international arena for contemporary designers, Design Miami at Miami Beach in the United States. Dokter and Misses is one of 11 South African designers or design companies promoted by Southern Guild, which facilitates international exposure for collectable, limited edition South African design. The pieces cost between $26 000 and $30 000 each.


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