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Cape Town's Rising Art Scene

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Photo: Dook

South Africa ’s finest style hour takes place every saturday morning on a fairly unstylish stretch of Cape Town’s Albert Road, the main drag in the cheerfully seedy but fast-gentrifying neighborhood called Woodstock. The area is separated by several miles (and social strata) from the more picturesque districts of beachfront Camp’s Bay or stately Oranjezicht, on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. But walk through the entrance gates of the Old Biscuit Mill, a once derelict factory complex restored in 2006, and suddenly you become part of a legion thronging a hundred-odd stands selling gorgeous food and even more gorgeous objects: fair-trade coffee and handmade silk-and-leather sandals; organic biltong (Afrikaans beef jerky) and block-printed cotton tea towels; Époisses and chèvre frais from Franschhoek, in the neighboring Winelands, and wafer-thin white porcelain tea services. There are bunches of tulips and loose teas piled high, and just down the aisle, artfully arranged, are stacks of brightly colored wool throws felted by hand. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more catholic cross section of people elsewhere in this country: kids in skinny jeans and Vans with asymmetrical haircuts chat with dreadlocked vendors over cups of rooibos, while trim, bronzed young mothers playing hooky from the monied southern suburbs mingle with Woodstock’s local population—many of them immigrants from Harare, Athens, or Mumbai. Carrying bowls of falafel or Cape Malay curry and sipping biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, they all browse and buy. Imagine a hybrid of London’s Borough and Spitalfields markets, sun-drenched and cooled by Indian Ocean breezes, with an occasional stream of Afrikaans or Xhosa cutting through a near-constant chorus of “raaaht!” and “yah!” and you’ll have an idea of the scene here at the Neighbourgoods Market .

Conceived and launched in 2006 by Justin Rhodes, a 30-year-old American, and his South African partner, Cameron Munro, who met and began dating in New York City in 2004, the market is an offshoot of Whatiftheworld , a design and art collective they founded in 2005. Headquartered in a reclaimed office building just two blocks from the Old Biscuit Mill, Whatiftheworld’s mandate is to cultivate a community among Cape Town’s young furniture-, product-, and fashion designers and aspiring collectors. It takes the form of shows held in Whatiftheworld’s gallery/work space in Woodstock (“We loved it here from day one; it reminded us of Williamsburg, circa 2002,” Munro says); come-one, come-all parties staged all over the city, from the colorful Cape Malay neighborhood of Bo Kaap to the up-and-coming style district of Waterkant; and, of course, the folksy-chic Neighbourgoods Market.

Rhodes and Munro also run the Whatiftheworld Design Studio, a small retail space in the nearby East City area that showcases a rotating collection of furniture, lighting, and other design products by a growing roster of emerging South African talents, some of whom have begun garnering praise beyond the country’s borders. Friendly and flawlessly well-mannered, looking like displaced GQ market editors with their tall, snake-hipped good looks and seemingly effortless way with slim trousers and tousled hair, Rhodes and Munro are the unlikely, but increasingly undeniable, impresarios of a developing Cape Town design scene. (Or perhaps not so unlikely: Rhodes actually earned his graduate degree in international political science and community leadership.) And their efforts—dovetailing as they do with a particularly receptive and enthusiastic moment in the city’s own culture—are transforming the way Capetonians view their creative place in the world.

This is not to say that Cape Town has been entirely off the radar of the design industry’s cognoscenti until now; in a very different context, it’s been a favorite destination of famous architects, furniture makers, and editors for years. Every February the Design Indaba Conference, founded by the well-connected local media entrepreneur Ravi Naidoo, draws an all-star lineup to the city for a several-day-long series of talks and forums. Paul Smith and Ilse Crawford have discussed trends; Basque furniture designer Patricia Urquiola has mused about the creative process; Financial Times columnist and Monocle editor-in-chief (and T+L contributing editor emeritus) Tyler Brûlé has lectured on taking fledgling brands global. Peruse the crowd at a welcoming party on Clifton Beach, and here are Tom Dixon, Hella Jongerius, and packs of other pale, prodigiously talented Northern Europeans, smiling weakly under the searing African sun. The conference overlaps for a day or two with Design Indaba Expo, a corresponding fair that features exclusively South African exhibitors. For some, this equals serendipity: in 2007, a porcelain collection by ceramist Michael Haigh caught the eye of Li Edelkoort, the then-head of Holland’s prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven; Haigh signed a contract with the Conran Shops several months later.

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