Blueprints for a better world

Candlestick holders crafted from roof sheeting; a bucket geyser for heating water; a red plastic chair held together with stitches – all caused a stir at Cape Town’s sprawling Design Indaba Expo recently. Hordes of local visitors to the International Convention Centre pored over the items, which had been sourced from nearby townships for the Yenza project, which, say its founders, celebrates “self-made projects from self-made homes”.

The team behind Yenza – a group of likeable young professionals comprising two architects, an art director and a stylist – are clearly evangelical about their project. They have partly funded it themselves, bartering for items from makers, exchanging tins of paint and “sometimes hard cash”.

“Our objects have been curated over eight months of visiting townships. Through our exhibition at Design Indaba we hope to bring established South African designers closer to township makers, an area where there is currently not much exchange,” says Lucie de Moyencourt, a member of the Yenza collective.

The endeavour could be construed as self-aggrandising, but the group insists that there is no commercial agenda behind the scheme, which has nonetheless led to a blossoming of business opportunities. The man behind the meticulously crafted, makeshift candlestick holders seen in churches across the Khayelitsha township is known only as “Marvellous”; he will now supply two retail outlets in Cape Town.

Yenza is an official project of the World Design Capital (WDC), a hugely ambitious biennial initiative founded by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid), a Montreal-based non-governmental organisation. Under the umbrella theme “Live Design. Transform Life”, Cape Town has embraced the social, economic, cultural and branding opportunities that come with the title.

About 450 officially recognised cross-disciplinary projects – from heritage preservation schemes and urban regeneration blueprints to design festivals and fairs – should encourage “understanding of the multi-faceted nature of design”, say the organisers. Community-led programmes are also up and running in the City’s 111 wards (districts).

There is certainly a public appetite for the ideas, ventures and solutions put forward by the WDC proponents. Visitors to the teeming Design Indaba Expo, which included 450 exhibitors, clamoured to hear about the “community upliftment” projects that demonstrate how design-led thinking is changing the city. People queued at a telephone bank to hear testimonials from Capetonians, who, via voice recordings, extolled the benefits of an integrated transport system, improved recreational facilities and social housing rental units.

The City of Cape Town has established a non-profit, independent agency, Cape Town Design, which will implement, run and wind down the 2014 programme. In 2012, the council awarded R60m (£3.3m) over three financial years to the new organisation. A common gripe is that this pot of money should go towards essential public services, maintaining the infrastructure of the metropolis.

A South African designer, who preferred to remain anonymous, says: “The event is a behemoth, and it all feels a little forced and choreographed.” But Johan van Niekerk, a lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, disagrees: “The argument often heard is that the funding [for WDC] could be used in a better way. But this is what’s in front of me right now, so why stop the momentum?”

Niekerk is responsible for one of the most innovative and far-reaching WDC projects, The Design Garage at the university. The hub, which launches later this year, will bring together young designers and potential clients, retailers and producers in a meeting of minds from industry and academia. “Through these partnerships full commercialisation of designs will become possible,” says Niekerk. Significantly, his enterprise was funded internally and through a local crowdfunding set-up.

WDC has also provided a new impetus for established bodies. The FoodPods mission, which builds sustainable farms in townships, was established in 2011. Earlier this year, the organisation was named a WDC project and the for-profit business subsequently gained traction.

“It gave me the opportunity to phone the chief executive of a company and say, ‘Listen dude, this is World Design Capital and you have an opportunity for your company to be seen promoting food security,’” FoodPods chief executive Peter Shrimpton told the Cape Times.

“People here have been empowered like never before, through various community-led projects. Remember, also, that everything organised here is either a social or political commentary; we’re a young state, with only 20 years of democracy,” says Trevyn McGowan, co-founder of Guild, billed as Africa’s first international design fair, which was held last week.

The small event, located at the Lookout on the V&A Waterfront, included five commercial galleries and a selection of non-profit organisations and institutions. Participating heavyweight dealers, such as Rossana Orlandi of Milan and New York’s R & Company, believe there is mileage in South Africa. “There is not really a market here yet, but it could be huge,” says Zesty Meyers, co-founder of R & Company, which is showing works by the Los Angeles-based artist David Wiseman and the veteran New York glass blower Jeff Zimmerman.

But what happens next? A persistent criticism of events on this scale is that external luminaries drop into a city, pay lip service to its culture, patronise the local people and then disappear. Legacy is always a thorny issue, but previous WDC programmes give grounds for optimism: the 2012 event in Helsinki, for example, has sparked social and economic development, says Pekka Timonen, chairman of the city’s International Design Foundation, which now aims to help cities across Finland use design in more effective ways.

There is no denying, meanwhile, that the Yenza project is thriving. At the Design Indaba stand, a student from Cape Peninsula University of Technology is inspired by the objects on display and reflects on why the WDC matters. “It’s the potential of what could happen afterwards,” she muses. Behind her, the congregation in the Convention Centre is still mulling over Marvellous’s candlestick creations.

Gareth Harris travelled courtesy of South African Tourism,

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