Cathy O’Clery

Growing up in a household of writers and artists, Cathy O’Clery didn’t struggle with her own creativity. She did, however, find it difficult to discover which of her many talents she wanted to pursue.

“I grew up in Dublin. I went to London and I kind of drifted until I discovered that there was this amazing career called styling. Once I knew it existed, I pursued it relentlessly and ended up working at World of Interiors, which at that time was my favourite magazine,” she says.

O’Clery has moved between mediums, starting out with writing and eventually ending up as the creative director for Platform Creative Agency, as well as the creative director of 100% Design South Africa.

It’s curiosity and collaboration that keep the creative process going for O’Clery. She still regards herself as a storyteller, and believes that pulling out the stories of changemakers also helps other artists to create.

And perhaps it is that focus on stories that has led her here. After living in Johannesburg for 12 years, she returned to Dublin. She did a stint of journalism there but it didn’t work out, so she returned to the continent.

“I kept being asked to return to Africa. I worked with Design Network Africa and that took me to places such as Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. I realised that this was where my passion was.”

Then she became business partners with Lawrence Brit, whom she’s known for many years. Together they launched 100% Design SA; now it’s just one component of their business.

The ability to maintain a vision throughout her professional career has yielded many benefits. O’Clery has been able to define for herself what she wants her creative process to be, and then has been able to pre-empt and imagine how creativity fits into all aspects of human beings’ lives.

“Design thinking, a term I don’t like, refers to design processes and creative thinking merging to create something. This is something that a lot of businesses are now paying attention to. People would rather experience things than have things. We kind of saw this gap in the market for experiential curation and activities.”

But working in design means you can’t be inside. O’Clery goes to as many exhibitions, studios, factories and other artistic spaces as possible, making sure she interacts with artists, collaborating to create better, beautiful things.


“That is our strength. We are very good at introducing people to each other and then we stand back and watch something creative happen, which is very exciting,” she says of her company.

Although artists generally have to be open to new experiences, it’s not always easy. O’Clery says it’s one of the most important things for her business.

“I’d love to encourage young talent especially to be as open as possible, to be as curious as possible. A lot of what we do for clients is research. We have to have our finger on the pulse and know what’s going on ム not just in South Africa, but right around the continent.”

Second to that is working in a partnership in which you collaborate effectively. Her business partner focuses on the business side of things, which she says gives her space for a clear head to think and strategise creatively.

A social creature at heart, O’Clery enjoys walks up Table Mountain to clear her head, and her enjoyable social life is part of what keeps her running. It clearly expresses the multifaceted approach that ensures success in design and business.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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