Making the Market

Appealing to local and international market tastes

Having sprung to life in a humble 2 meter x3 meter cubbyhole of an office back in 2001, the Cape Craft and Design Institute (CCDI) has, over the past 10 years, grown into a vital engine driving design originality in the Western Cape.

Eager to grow the region’s slice of the multi-billion dollar global craft market, the Western Cape provincial government joined forces with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and national government to create the CCDI, which started from a base of 63 craft producers and now provides support and services to over 2,500 creative enterprises, providing jobs and income to over 12,000 people.

“We’re a catalyst and we try to help people to create a vision and a trajectory to follow, but ultimately they’re the ones running their businesses and creating the jobs. That’s where the sustainability lies,” says executive director Erica Elk, sipping on a cappuccino at Field Office, a design-forward café on Cape Town’s eastern fringe, featuring innovative recycled furniture pieces and other wanna-have products by local designers Pedersen + Lennard. The CCDI’s expanded offices are located just around the corner, slap-bang in the middle of the design district, which will be playing a key role in shaping the city’s profile as the spotlight is turned on it for World Design Capital 2014.

The CCDI has two distinct constituencies, Elk explains—those who have had some form of design education, whether tertiary or not, and those who haven’t. The career trajectories of those who’ve benefited from further education tend to be much faster and further reaching. It’s not just about education, she explains, but about access to resources, networks, contacts and opportunities, which people often acquire while studying in an institution.

“A lot of the people we work with might have been designers or artists had they had the opportunities and the schooling to go that route, but instead they’ve been relegated to a life of a production. A lot of crafters, who haven’t historically had access, are strongly focused on making without necessarily thinking enough about how their product might meet the tastes and demands of the market,’ she says. ‘Our programs are aimed at encouraging people to think of design as an integrated process rather than just the act of creating an object.”

But in a postcolonial, post-apartheid context, there are some tricky aspects to this mediator role between maker and market. “The concept of the designer as the skilled originator who comes in to an unskilled producer to impart his genius and knowledge to the maker as passive recipient is very problematic for us,’ she says, pointing out the pitfalls of an approach that is weighted with a tainted legacy of grossly unequal power relations. ‘A lot of what we’re trying to do is break down and reshape that dynamic. So our methodology is more focused on good design as a process than on the designer as the sole source of it.”

Elk is also in advanced discussions with CPUT about piloting a diploma in applied arts for mature students. People who haven’t necessarily got a Matric qualification will be taken through a “recognition of prior learning” process and given credit for what they’ve learned through life experience, enabling them to register for a three-year year diploma (featuring night classes). The plan is to develop a scholarship and bursary program to support those who can’t afford the fees.

But in the meantime, the CCDI’s successes were recently showcased in An Imperfect Beauty – a juicy full-color coffee table book that celebrates the work of many of the amazing design projects that are linked to its networks and programs. From the muted hues and gentle organic shapes of Vuyisa Potina’s ceramics to Mielie’s popular range of handbags and homeware items to Willard Musarurwa of Feeling African’s bright and weightless sculpted wire tables (developed in tandem with New York designer Stephen Burks as part of an Aid to Artisans project), the publication gives an immediate sense of the great diversity and quirky splendors of contemporary design work emerging out of the Western Cape.

“One of the problems when we first started was that there was too much too much copying or repetition in the products being made,’ says Elk. ‘We saw this as a function of people not being exposed to new ideas or having the skills to generate fresh ideas themselves. But when that began to happen [via the CCDI’s product support programs], people quickly started coming up with products that are more reflective of themselves and their immediate contexts.’

Rather than adapting their products to the tastes of the Western market, local designers started making products that make sense to themselves – and because these objects have integrity, foreign buyers have been responding keenly. People abroad respond well to the idiosyncratic quirks and local flavor of recent designs, says Elk.

Unlike a province like KwaZulu-Natal, where the traditional and social base is stronger, in the Western Cape a lot of historically inherited skills or traditional knowledge systems have been wiped out by migrancy and displacement. But on the positive side, the cosmopolitanism and heterogeneity of the region has fueled creativity. “Because we haven’t been steeped in tradition, there hasn’t been that need to hold on to it, which has freed people up to explore new and contemporary ideas,” says Elk.

A few key retail outlets have also played a crucial role in the success of Western Cape design. Based on the stereotyped view that it’s the middleman who exploits the maker and makes all the moolah, retailers have tended to get a bad rap. But shops like Heartworks, Africa Nova, Kalk Bay Modern and Montebello, as well as the Spier Wine Estate’s market access program, have made a huge contribution to the desirability of local design by fashioning themselves as appealing, experience-based outlets – each with its own unique style. And the CCDI has followed suit by creating a craft-shopping map (downloadable at www.ccdi.org.za), to help grow the market by developing routes between these various outlets.

When visiting Cape Town, you don’t have to work too hard to figure out why the city was awarded the honor of being World Design Capital 2014. The fresh tenor of the design field is an immediately tangible aspect of being here and the city’s evolving 21st identity can be read through the inclusivity and inventiveness of its creative practices.

For more about design in the Western Cape, visit: The Cape Craft & Design Institute: www.ccdi.org.za.
Heartworks: www.heartworks.co.za
Africa Nova: www.africanova.co.za
Montebello Design Centre: www.montebello.co.za
Kalk Bay Modern: www.kalkbaymodern.com
Spier Wine Estate (hotel shop and craft market): www.spier.co.za/what_to_do_at_spier/arts/

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