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DESIGN INDABA 2019: From pit-latrines to algorithmic silkworm fabrication: Up-cycling, down-cycling, re-use and re-cycling dominate in an utterly African / Global Collaboration / Celebration.

- By Kathy Berman -

In a week when South Africans were focusing on church congregants rising from the dead – or not – the 2019 Design Indaba Conference, at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town to Friday 1 March 2019, dished up everything from seaweed packaging and biodegradable coffins, to living cyborgs, and a pile of offerings that certainly challenged traditional imaginations. Much more than an esoteric mingling of aesthetes and hipsters, this annual celebration of global innovation once more focused on the art of the possible and the interrogation of the improbable – including up-cycling, re-cycling, re-use, and down-cycling.


While South Africans still debate what to do with that ubiquitous ‘National Flower’, (in the words of former Environment Minister Mohamed Valli Moosa), the plastic carrier bag, and other petroleum-derived, non-degradable plastic products that pollute our land and seas, inventor/designer/architect/engineer, Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez showcased his sea-weed-derived plastic substitute – edible and biodegradable. Gonzalez’ Skipping Rocks Lab has evolved a commercial and sustainable solution to the global pandemic of plastic packaging – manufactured from farmed and upcycled seaweed – suitable for everything from foodstuffs to cosmetics. Clear, taste-less, bite-sized capsules of water were on offer for delegates to pop into their mouths, chew on, and swallow. Skipping Rocks has commercialized their ‘ooho!’ product with stores and pop-ups in the UK. They also sell the machinery to manufacture their revolutionary packaging solution.


And while not a miracle, certainly a life-saving marvel of modern technological innovation, is the Zipline drone delivery service. The much-publicised service for blood delivery to remote and inaccessible areas of Rwanda provided pure spectacle as founder Keenan Wyrobek crossed live to headquarters where the audience witnessed the thrilling launch of two deliveries of blood.

And on the issue of human biology, but testing credulity, are human cyborgs, Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, co-founders of the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation that aims to defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art. Cyborgs, according to its exponents, are the “union between cybernetics and organisms”. Despite media hype around the dude with an antenna implanted in his skull, Neil proved disarmingly engaging and witty. Born with colour blindness, Neil resolved this with
his antenna implant, which allows him to perceive visible – and invisible – colours across the spectrum via audible vibrations in his skull. In short, colour can be heard as music. And sounds can be translated into visual art works. And it doesn’t end there: He is also able to perceive colours from space. Moon, who has implants in her feet, perceives seismic movements – to which she responds with dance. Neil, whose passport photo desports his (non-removable) antenna, believes he is eligible for Swedish national recognition, given that his skull incorporates Swedish parts.


And from people bearing antennae to algorithmic silkworms: Markus Kayser’s PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab resulted in spun giant lampshades – The Silk Pavilion – produced by silkworms, initially leveraging algorithms mimicking silkworm spinning cycles, ultimately completed by organic algorithmic worms. Specifically as described on his website, Kayserworks: “The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales…Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to generate a 3D cocoon out of a single multi-property silk thread (1km in length), the overall geometry of the pavilion was created using an algorithm that assigns a single continuous thread across patches providing various degrees of density.”

And while on worms: ‘Leaves’ is a biodegradable coffin devised by Shaina Garfield whose awareness of her own mortality arose as a result of a lung disability. The earth-friendly structure is created from ropes and materials which are infused with bacteria that allow for non-toxic decomposition.

Talking toxic: Pit Latrines are still a tragic reality of our local landscape. President Ramaphosa, in the 2019 State of the Nation address, committed to eradicating these deadly “conveniences”. A Zimbabawean-born, Canadian-educated architect, Nicole Nomsa Moyo, presented a solution that extends beyond contemporary ablution facilities to community-inclusive structures – providing shelter and interaction – that are powered by energy created from human waste. She still has to prototype her Ukubutha community hub.


And then there were urban design and architectural projects that have already materialized in other parts of Africa: South African trained architect, Tshepo Mokolo, was so impressed by the work of Chinese-trained Rwandan architect, Christian Benimana when he attended a previous Design Indaba that he promptly signed up to join the first cohort of ten at Benimana’s African Design Centre in Rwanda. There they designed and built a low-cost school using local materials and crafts people – and incorporating creative construction elements designed to encourage creative exploration in the young scholars. New-York-based architect, Annabelle Selldorf, with 60 volunteers from her 70-strong firm has recently completed a primary school in rural Zambia. She was brave enough to raise the thorny issue of imposition of style and technology – no matter how altruistic – versus local collaboration. And to leave the questions unanswered.

Providing a deep, moving and provocative homage to the distressing timeless universality of forced migration, human rights violations and destruction of the sanctity of being and right to personal space was the performance by one of South Africa’s multitude of creative migrants: Mural artist Faith XLVII.


Blazing the trail for the underlying theme of ‘Celebrating Africa’ (by Africans) was highly awarded Niger architect, Marriam Kamara, who was mentored by David Adjaye in a Rolex programme, but has forged her own path in creating intrinsically local architecture through her Atelier Masomi integrating traditional vernacular-style structures of Niger with materials such as concrete and reinforced brickwork outlasting the ochre red sands and the corrosive weather of the desert environment.

This message of local celebration was repeated in many presentations and in as varied forms as there are communities in Africa: The breathtaking, stridently-coloured fashion of LVMH awarded Nigerian designer, Adebayo Oke-Lawal, was as proudly African as it was androgynous, while African celebration and LGBTI pride is a resounding theme from Kenyan film-maker, and co-founder of the ‘fun, fierce and frivolous’ Afrobubblegum creative studio, Wanuri Kahiu, whose film, Rafiki featured at the Festival.

Wanuri’s was not the only Kenyan voice this year. Co-host, along with the gracious Queen of the South African Word, Lebo Mashile, was bubbly Kenyan, Patricia Kihoro – also music supervisor on Rafiki. They were joined by the irreverent Belgian comedian and social commentatior, Lucas De Man where the banter kept returning to the profane and the sacred of our socio-geographic mind-space. And while Afro-futurism featured last year, it was in a two-year-long collaboration between the global Swedish furniture retail behemoth Ikea’s collaboration with 10 top African designers, in the Överallt project – which debuted at this year’s Design Indaba.- that the true spirit of African-global collaboration came to the fore. Not that this collaboration was incidental:

Behind every object, exhibitor, corporate intervention and speaker at every Design Indaba, is the visionary orchestration of the founder of the almost quarter-century-old Design Indaba Conference, Festival and Exhibition, Ravi Naidoo.


While Naidoo magics up a dazzling array of design and social impact projects annually, it is the “upcycling” of the projects that forms the lasting legacy of the Design Indaba. Be it the conception of the Zeitz MOCAA museum; the iconic public Arch for the Archbishop in the Cape Gardens; or a Faith XLVII mural incorporating lights denoting installation of lights in Langa township, Naidoo brings creatives together, and steps back as projects gain a life of their own. And from one year to the next, annual Design Indaba devotees observe the progress: Seven years ago, South African fashion and design knitwear sensation Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa made his debut on the Design Indaba stage, a talented design graduate from the Eastern Cape. Today he is a globally celebrated, Masters graduate of Central St Martins UK, and recipient of numerous prestigious global awards. The dedicated, humble artist, whose family works with him in his burgeoning business, was one of many Design Indaba alumnae who took to the stage for the debut of the Överallt collection – months before its retail launch.
Since its appearance as maker/exhibitor at the Design Indaba 2017, Ikea has worked with Laduma and fellow African-born global design luminaries and Design Indaba alumnae, Selly Raby Kane (Senegal), Bibi Seck (Senegal), Sindiso Khumalo and Renee Rossouw (London/South Africa), Issa Diabaté (Ivory Coast), Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji of Studio Propolis (Kenya) and Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad of Reform Studio (Egypt) on this thoroughly African range – available at Ikea stores world-wide from May 2019. Including furniture, fabrics, blankets, bags and rugs, sustainability, African expression, and local sourcing feature strongly. Signature Laduma and Rossouw and Khumalo designed cushions, blankets and throws provide geometric accents, while the highly versatile wooden benches of Studio Propolis, will join affordable chairs and loungers by Seck and Diabaté on the shopfloor (for those aficionados of Birsel + Seck’s iconic range for Moroso: Now is your chance to own one!). And talking sustainability are the sparkling hybrid fabric rugs and bags forged from ingeniously transformed chip packets by Hazem and Riad. Complementing the range are culinary vessels from Studio Propolis and the 3D-doodlesque sculptural containers of the statuesque Selly Raby Kane.


But the Överallt project was not the only celebration of African excellence. The annual Most Beautiful Object in South Africa (MBOISA) competition provides an opportunity for users of design to nominate the most beautiful object to be produced locally in the past year. The winner this year for its sleek slithery lines was an azure blue bench, Interdependence II, first produced by Houtlander first for Southern Guild and award winner at 100% Design 2018.


It is in the annual Creative Village featuring the Emerging Creatives exhibition in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture that take-home products of African/global collaboration are on offer – some are still emerging or prototypes, proudly showcased alongside more established products.

And in tune with the notion of “up-” or “re-” cycling – or simply an eco-system at work: Whereas furniture designer, Mpho Vackier of Urban Native appeared at Design Indaba as an Emerging Creative (an exhibition dedicated to first-time exhibitors), this year her mid-Century African modernist desk was one finalist in the MBOISA competition, while her fellow alum from 2016, textile designer, Ditiro Mashigo, of Serati Le Kgakana, a finalist in the Nando’s Hot Young Designer competition 2018, is exhibiting with collaborative partner, and winner of the 100% Design Surface Design Award in 2018, Zydia Botes of Something Good Studio. Their beautiful hand-woven blankets served as gifts to speakers.


Just as Emerging Creatives provides a first platform for many designers to the industry, the Nando’s Hot Young Designer competition is a regular exhibitor in the Creative Village. 2018 winner, Agrippa Mncedisi Hlophe graced the vibrant stand this year, which included spectacularly patterned lampshades – applications of the 10 winning patterns will be incorporated in chairs and other surfaces in Nando’s outlets globally. A true example of holistic African experience – from the food to the furniture, Nando’s is a champion of (upcycled) exceptional African taste globally!


And for those for those FOMOed-out graphic design buffs who just could not make it there this year, there is a give-away: a unique typeface designed for Design Indaba by NM Type, in collaboration with local hearing-impaired dancer, Andile Vellem, and tracing his fluid movements shaping each letter of the alphabet. It is available for download on

Kathy Berman lecture on, workshops, and writes about art, design an, primarily, innovation. Describing herself as a ‘wrinkly millennia’l, Kathy’s career has meandered from television print and radio production and journalism – from news to art – through to corporate finance and strategy consulting and on to public sector and finally social impact and innovation work. She is at her happiest forging ideas, collaborating on community projects, and activating for change. Her most exciting corporate innovation project was the conceptualization, creative direction, strategic design and management of the GE Africa Innovation Centre. Her previous Design Indaba summaries can be
found here: