But Design Indaba, as successful as it is, remains a conference for global stars that happens to take place in Cape Town, rather than a forum for Capetonian designers to explore their place, and the mark they want to make, in the international design community. And it’s this distinction that’s putting Whatiftheworld on the map. For years, Naidoo’s twinned events have strived to manufacture a design identity for South Africa from above, as it were, by importing global glamour and coupling it with a call to exercise social conscience. By contrast, Rhodes and Munro’s efforts to simply give good-looking, well-made local design a place to be seen and appreciated have percolated up from the underground, gained a local fan base, and now placed Cape Town on people’s radars in a whole new way: as home to a small tribe of designers making world-class furniture and products—no further agenda required. As Haldane Martin, arguably the country’s best-known furniture designer (his iconic Zulu Mama chair, a tall, elegant form on angled steel legs with a deep basket-weave seat in plastic, is a fixture in showrooms from Los Angeles to Dubai), says, “There’s definitely nothing else like it happening in South Africa.”
Unlike the world’s established design capitals—Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or London—Cape Town, and by extension South Africa, lacks almost entirely the traditions of teaching and sponsoring modern furniture and product design for its own sake (not surprising for a country that, until 15 years ago, had rather more pressing goals, like achieving democracy); and despite a millennia-old heritage of craftsmanship, it still lags far behind Europe and the United States in mass-manufacturing knowledge. As a result, until recently it has had no coherent design identity to show the world, beyond what could be inferred from a steadily exported stream of vaguely ethnic Africana—variations on the motifs of basketry, beadwork, and woven textiles.
But Rhodes and Munro tapped an ideal moment to launch their venture. “The generation of South Africans we’re working with may be the first to be really in touch with international trends and design,” Rhodes says. “As the country has matured, they’ve begun having different conversations, thinking beyond just the sociopolitical implications of their work.” The locally made aspect is still crucial; but “not everything has to look ‘African’ to be African. Not everything has to have that exotic element to it,” Rhodes says. Above all, “our designers—and we—are interested in making products that stand alone on their aesthetic value: timeless, beautiful design.”
The Whatiftheworld poster child is Liam Mooney, a slight, dark-haired 26-year-old industrial-design grad whom Rhodes and Munro signed two years ago to be the design studio’s creative director. Elle Decoration South Africa named him Lighting Designer of the Year in 2009, and several international editions of the magazine also ran items on him. His furniture is clean-lined and understated: Rhodes is especially fond of his Charming Tressel Table, made from two carved and cantilevered South African–pine bases and a glass top. But Mooney is best known for his Arc Lamp, a double-jointed wood-and-steel floor lamp that’s both refined and ingenious (and sold overseas—and frequently sold out at Whatiftheworld). Mooney has in turn signed young talents with a like-minded aesthetic, which he and Rhodes characterize as “clean, handcrafted, often modular, usually wood.” Among them are 27-year-old Adriaan Hugo, a strapping native of Bloemfontein, in the Free State, who builds tall, slim benches and tables of indigenous cork and white steel as well as graphic storage systems inspired by 1930’s textile prints. Another rising star, the Cape Town photographer and furniture designer Xandre Kriel, produces high-concept, low-tech plywood benches and chairs that recall both Donald Judd and the Eameses. Stop by his stall at the Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday and you’re likely to find him with his Potlights lamp, which he’s just begun producing exclusively for sale there.
Whatiftheworld’s current focus is making the Neighbourgoods Market experience more exclusive and trader-centric—bringing in items like Kriel’s Potlights. “There’s a studio-visit appeal to that experience we want to build on,” Rhodes says. “You deal directly with the designer, you’re getting something that’s handmade and limited-edition; it feels both thrifty and insider-y.” Some of the smaller traders at Neighbourgoods have even stopped selling in boutiques to focus entirely on the market, both for the gratification of direct interaction and for the higher returns (Rhodes and Munro charge a flat fee to traders, in lieu of claiming a percentage of profits).
The fact that all of these young designers are gaining traction (and a devoted client base) in Cape Town isn’t that surprising, once you’ve touched down and felt the undeniable buzz here. It’s sometimes labeled the least “African” of African cities (enthusiastically or disparagingly, depending on the labeler). But whatever the opinions or disputes about the authenticity of its current culture, the city’s radiating a palpable hum of cool.
You see signs of this, of course, amid the colorful side streets of Woodstock near the Old Biscuit Mill, where bungalows that once leaned perilously, shedding curls of fuchsia or turquoise paint, now glow from the attentions of recent renovations; and where freshly converted warehouses fly the banners of boutique Web agencies, pioneering antiques dealers, and some of the designers Rhodes and Munro patronize—including Chloe Townsend, a leatherworker trained at London’s preeminent Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, whose Missibaba line of belts, bags, and clutches is one of the city’s most sought after; and Stiaan Louw, whose unstructured, billowy menswear recalls Yohji Yamamoto.