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South African Designers Target Asian Exports to Combat Local Woes

With the sector clearly inspired by Cape Town's tenure as the 2014 World Design Capital, South Africa's design and home furnishing sector is looking increasingly outwards, according to attendees at this year's Cape Homemakers Expo.

Photo: Bold, bright design themes dominated this year’s Homemakers Expo.
Bold, bright design themes dominated this year's Homemakers Expo.
Photo: Bold, bright design themes dominated this year’s Homemakers Expo.
Bold, bright design themes dominated this year's Homemakers Expo.

With Cape Town currently rejoicing in its role as the 2014 World Design Capital, it comes as little surprise that homegrown design innovation was very much to the fore at this year's Cape Homemakers Expo. Undoubtedly, World Design status seems to have brought new energy and ideas to locally-made design projects.

From an economic perspective, however, the export market remains the priority for a number of South African interior-design firms, many of whom are now keen to explore Hong Kong as a platform for accessing the wider Asian region. Several exhibitors at this year's event also maintained that their African-inspired designs had a natural affinity with the Chinese and Asian markets.

Equally importantly, South Africa could now be a burgeoning consumer market for Hong Kong manufacturers of homeware products. This was underlined by the number of Asia-sourced products on show this year.

Looking at the homeware market in an economic context, South Africa has been experiencing something of a consumer-debt crisis of late. One of the recent casualties was the August collapse of the African Bank, an unsecured lender. Several South African retailers are also warning of headline losses amid high levels of consumer debt.

In a shaky market, where consumers are experiencing financial strain, what then are buyers with squeezed disposable income looking for in terms of home products? The answer seems to be simple – functional design and natural materials. Products that offer economic efficiency, such as solar technology and items for energy-efficient buildings, are also set do well in these tough economic times. Home maintenance is another high priority for consumers, many of whom are choosing to renovate rather than relocate.

The main trends evident at this year's Cape Homemakers Expo – South Africa's most comprehensive collection of home-improvement products – were innovative, individual designs, particularly those that celebrate South Africa's cutting-edge interior, furniture and textile industries. Among the 80 product categories on show, it was clear that artisanal creativity and individuality were set to win out over mass-produced homogeneity.

Colour was also definitely back in – with bold, bright design themes threatening to displace the hegemony of the neutral tones that have dominated the interior design scene for many years. Commenting on interior-design trends evident in 2014, John Leyden, Business Development Director at Homemakers Media, organiser of the Homemakers Expo, said: "This year, the show has been designed around four main decor and lifestyle themes. The Design Project 2014 celebrates South Africa's innovative interior-design, furniture and textile products. Alfresco Living focuses on inspirational outdoor spaces and exterior living trends. An Artisan Affair is a curated collection of unique, hand-made design by local artisans and craft entrepreneurs, while In Vogue features a cameo collection of the most up-to-date interior decor trends and ideas."

Emphasising that the expo primarily supports South African-produced design, Leyden said: "We aim to provide a platform for local, curated artisanal products – at the same time, though, we also focus on essential home-maintenance solutions. In today's market, maintenance – the functional element – is just as important as home beautification."

Homemakers Expo may well be a local platform for suppliers and buyers, but many of the exhibitors were focussed on the international markets and already exporting their products worldwide. Several were looking for expansion into the Asian markets via the appointment of distributors.

Old forms refashioned into new

The theme of transformation through design was evident at this year's event. Typically, South African designers of furniture and decor are highly committed to the principles of reclamation, recycling and repurposing – metamorphosing materials into new forms, releasing new life and energy into previously-used objects, sometimes in unpredictable ways – such as reinventing a bath as a chair.

This trend was evident in the products on offer from Beachcomber Home Decor, a South African company that produces furniture refashioned from reclaimed materials. Many of its products had a previous life in various industrial applications, including functioning as wooden scaffolding planks or the steel hoops of wine barrels. Jochemes Prinsloo, the founder of the business, said: "We go for an aged, refashioned industrial look with our furniture, which complements a high-tech home environment."

Most of Beachcomber's business comes in the form of commissioned installations – providing bespoke decor for their clients' architect-designed homes. According to Prinsloo, overseas clients, including Europeans, are showing increasing interest in such products.

Another company that repurposes previously-used wood is Ellis Furnishers, a South African investment-furniture manufacturer, which reuses such things as reclaimed railway sleepers – requisitioned from southern Africa – in a number of its products. The original sleepers were made from ironwood or the rarer yellowwood. These are both indigenous African hardwoods and have excellent durability and colour character. The company also uses African game hide, such as kudu or zebra skins, to cover its armchairs and sofas, imparting an authentic colonial game lodge-style character to its imposing furniture.

Incanda Furniture manufactures high-quality bespoke furniture using South African hardwood, game skins and leather from Nguni cattle, a breed indigenous to southern Africa. The products are made to customers' own specifications. The company currently exports to the European markets and Dubai, with Gerhard van Deventer, the company's Chief Executive, believing its products would appeal to upper-end Asian markets, including both commercial and residential clients.

Natural materials, low environmental impact

New improved designs in homeware products – with an emphasis on natural raw materials, recycling/upcycling and reduced environmental impact – characterised many of the products showcased at this year's expo. A number of the products looked to bring into focus people's relationship with their environment through design-led solutions, part of the ethos of the World Design Capital initiative.

Lights That Last, a Cape Town-based lighting company, for example, had on offer a range of solar, LED and mains-electricity lighting. These were said to be suitable for use as residential garden lights, as well as having a number of commercial applications, including functioning as aviation landing lights, lighting systems for food-processing plants and hotel chains, as well as being suitable to provide solar-powered street lighting.

Photo: Naturally-printed fabrics.
Naturally-printed fabrics.
Photo: Naturally-printed fabrics.
Naturally-printed fabrics.
Photo: Energy-efficient domestic solar lighting.
Energy-efficient domestic solar lighting.
Photo: Energy-efficient domestic solar lighting.
Energy-efficient domestic solar lighting.

Concerns over the environmental impact of electricity generation and its increasing cost to the end consumer are evident in many of the company's sustainable lighting solutions. Commenting on the system, Mark Liebenberg, the founder of the company, said: "Consumers – and some industries – are going totally solar. Some of our lights feature solar micro-inverters, a technology that enables you to feed into the electricity grid. Whatever amount of power you supply into the grid through solar power, you then get back for free."

According to Liebenberg, many households are now using solar energy to such an extent that it effectively enables them to take their homes off the national grid.

Using the 2014 expo as an official launch platform into the South African homeware market, ePromo's Chinese-manufactured bamboo pillow features an outer case made from natural bamboo fibre and internal memory foam. The user can manipulate the foam into a contour that matches his body frame, while the hypo-allergenic woven bamboo case is said to regulate body temperature.

Introducing the product, Mitchell Gie, a Senior Executive with ePromo said: "We believe this has international appeal and provides an exciting opportunity for Hong Kong distributors. Currently, the product's major markets are Australasia and North America."

The use of natural materials is also a priority for The Pole Yard, manufacturer of a versatile range of garden furniture and structures, including archways and pergolas. Its products are fashioned from eucalyptus grown in South African plantations, all of which are run and managed by the local community. Its range has already been successfully exported to Australia and Dubai, with the company now actively looking for routes into Asia.

In truth, the eucalyptus wood imparts a distinctively African personality to the finished products and provides excellent longevity through its anti-rot qualities. In light of this Lerroy Deane, the company's Managing Director, believes that the natural, rustic look of the furniture will have a clear appeal to the Asian consumer.

He said: "Our products have a bamboo-like character – only heavier. South African eucalyptus is an inexpensive raw material. By adding value to it, we transform it into an eminently exportable range of products – some of which can be flat-packed for export. We are already geared up for selling in large volumes internationally and we'd be keen to explore the Hong Kong and mainland markets for further opportunities."

A Chinese product showcased at the exhibition – one which is rapidly gaining popularity in both commercial and consumer settings worldwide – is WallArt, a range of moulded, decorative 3D wall panels. Designed to bring interior walls to life, WallArt is said to create a tactile, retro, yet modern look. This is another example of a natural, eco-friendly product. Made from the fibrous residue of sugarcane, a substance that is compostable and biodegradable, the panels are pressed into a range of patterns. After installation, the panelling can be sprayed with any colour in line with the client's interior decor requirements.

According to Keith Buckfield, a Product Manager with the company, WallArt really started to take off two years ago. He said: "Now, it's very popular with corporates internationally as well as with hotel groups, call centres and residential customers." The company now exports the product to nine African countries and into Europe.

Quirky hand-printed 100% natural textiles were on offer from ArtVraat Designs, a Cape Town-based interior decor business. Jaques Botha, the company's owner and Chief Designer, started the business with a mission to "infuse cotton and cotton/linen blend fabrics with fresh, contemporary African imagery". This has seen him create a highly individual range of soft furnishings, including cushion covers, runners, lampshades and bags. Currently working on a "resort collection" targetted at the hotel industry, Botha is already exporting his products to the US and UK and is, again, eyeing the Asian market.

Another company with ambitions in Asia is Barrydale Hand Weavers, a weavery in the Western Cape Province. The company produces rugs and other soft furnishings from pure cotton, with many of its items ingeniously recycled from a cotton waste product that is discarded by industrial manufacturers. This is then re-spun before being woven again into its new form. Carol Morris, the owner of the weavery, said the company is slowly beginning to export and she will be attending several international interior-design shows in Europe and beyond with a view to developing her export market.

Summing up the outward-looking ambitions of many exhibitors at this year's expo, Morris said: "Our products are made by trained weavers in our local community. The cotton we use is all spun in South Africa, so we are doing our bit to bring back the local textile industry to this country. We can ship to any destination."

Photo: Furniture re-purposed from upcycled wood.
Furniture re-purposed from upcycled wood.
Photo: Furniture re-purposed from upcycled wood.
Furniture re-purposed from upcycled wood.

Homemakers Expo is a multi-venue event, held annually in South Africa's five major urban centres. The 2014 show marked the 19th occasion the expo has been staged in Cape Town. The 19th Cape Homemakers Expo was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from the 4-7 September 2014. The event attracted 37,500 visitors and 350 exhibitors.

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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