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By accident or by design: Cape Town’s festival of invention

The naming of Cape Town as the World Design Capital may have been met with cynicism in some circles, but if you took a peek at this month’s Open Design Festival, you’d be forgiven for being swept away by it all. It’s crammed full of exciting inventions and is, to borrow a phrase from the writer’s children, ‘kak cool’. And you don’t have much time left to experience it, so you’d better get cracking. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Kitchen utensils you can use with one hand. (Invented by a designer whose disability left him one-handed in the kitchen. Imagine slicing, dicing, potato-peeling and grating with just five fingers at your disposal.) Walls built out of eco-bricks made from two-litre cooldrink bottles, trash and a wooden spoon. A fog-capturing water-saving mesh based on dew-catching fibres found in nature. A giant community theatre built from shipping containers. And possibly the most bizarre Playstation game ever invented, where one tries to knock a microphone out of your opponent’s hand without moving your own microphone, all while cavorting to the strains of Johann Sebastian Bach. What larks!

The theme for this year perhaps sounds a little uninspiring – “Design is Change” – but nonetheless the participants have delivered. The Open Design Cape Town Festival programme, open to everyone and their dog*, is a mix of 86 ticketed and free events, and is a collaboration between the City of Cape Town, the Cape Craft and Design Institute and the Cape Town Design Network. The programme is a weighty piece of work, with a number of talks and networking events running throughout each day.

Today (Friday) will see a talk and networking event entitled “Creative mornings” at the City Hall (08:30am) followed by a Designing Careers workshop for high school learners until 12:00 (also at the City Hall). The afternoon will have a free Talk100 Session with panel discussion on the topic “Street Culture, The Bloodline of the City” (speaker biographies are available at, while those interested in using flat substrates (aspiring pattern makers, seamstresses, fashion designers, architects, graphic designers and surface designers) may want to pop into the Maker Library Network Workshop (RSVP [email protected]).

And you might want to pop a cork back in that bottle of wine and save your usual Friday night plans for later, because the chance to do something really exceptional has just come up. Many will be familiar with Night of 1000 Drawings, which hosts drawing sessions in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, later selling the resulting artworks for R100 apiece and donating the proceeds to various charities all over the country. The last Cape Town session is being held tonight (Friday) from 19:00 – 22:30 at the City Hall’s OD Café, so take your pens and paints along and do something creative for a good cause.

Saturday’s programme includes a yoga demonstration; a speed mentoring session, which connects creatives from all disciplines with experienced mentors in a series of short, sharp sessions; a teacher workshop and, of course, a wrap party.

But if you can’t see your way clear to attend the events, it’s highly recommended to at least make a stop at one of the two main exhibitions – either Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive or else A Showcase for World Design Capital 2014 Projects.

Interruptions pays tribute to those who, during the 1980s and 1990s, took a detour from their daily lives to design posters that spoke truth to power at the height of Apartheid in South Africa. Sixty of these – all hand-made – are on display in Interruptions, at Cape Town City Hall until 23 August and curated by Emile Maurice on behalf of the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape.

It seems fitting that these posters should be displayed at Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his first public speech just hours after his release from prison,” says Open Design Cape Town Festival Programme Director Sune Stassen, adding that “Mandela took on one of the biggest and most renowned design projects to date – designing a democracy.”

According to Festival spokesperson, Lisa van Leeuwen, the poster project began when, after attending an arts conference in Botswana, a small group of artists decided to start a screen-printing project at Cape Town’s Community Arts Project (CAP), which launched in 1983. At CAP, anti-Apartheid activists could receive training from artists in silk-printing, then design and anonymously print their messages on posters, t-shirts and buttons. “It addressed the desire of people who had no voice to express themselves,” explains curator Maurice.

The exhibits for Interruptions come from the CAP Collection, which is housed at the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives, and consist of posters made by both amateurs and trained artists. Most of the posters were made in South Africa, but some also come out of the Dutch and British anti-Apartheid movements.

One of the CAP project’s founders was Lionel Davis, who served seven years on Robben Island and five years under house arrest as a political prisoner. “In the beginning, there were only about four or five of us, and we had no funding, so we had to scrounge around for equipment, going through waste heaps behind printing factories in search of ink,” says Davis. “It was several years before we had proper financing, which mostly came from overseas.”

CAP put word out to the anti-Apartheid movement to ask for assistance, especially in creating a training programme for other artists. “The posters, which were put up at night in communities, were a rallying call for people to meet to discuss issues like boycotts, forced removals and demands for better education. They helped keep the flame of resistance alive,” says Davis. CAP ultimately attracted designers, artists and activists from everywhere: from churches to unions. Amazingly, they did not experience intimidation from police or the government – presumably because, in Davis’ words, they worked hard to keep all their activities “above board” and legal – at least ostensibly. A similar organisation in Johannesburg, however, was not so lucky; the difference in their fates remains, despite Davis’ guess, ultimately inexplicable.

The second exhibition – that of the World Design Capital showcased projects – will require that you put aside a decent amount of time to explore it. Aside from the abovementioned projects that can be seen, you’ll also find a lightweight electric minicab, a revolutionary stroller to improve the lives of those living with disabilities, and a mobile app that provides up-to-the-minute public transport information. There are, in total, over thirty fantastic design ideas on display and you will need a good few minutes to engage with each.

“There are 460 World Design Capital projects, all of which use design to transform, and we were overwhelmed by the sensitivity, imagination, practicality and often simplicity behind all them,” says Open Design Cape Town co-founder and creative director, Y Tsai. “That said, for the Open Design Festival, we wanted to highlight the 33 projects that we felt had an immediate impact in 2014, in order to communicate to festival visitors that design is more than an idea; it is capable of creating much-needed change in the short-term.”

The idea behind Design for Change is the much bandied-about term of “transformation”, but for what it’s worth, the projects on display do seem to display a real passion for positive change. One designer has designed, simply, a large wall where she invites everyone to write down one idea to change the world for the better. Sentimental? Yes. But is it likely to deliver at least one good idea? Probably also yes.

Some of the other projects on display include the V&A Silo projects and Watershed, which are contemporary buildings built to fix up an area of the Waterfront that was falling apart – also, incidentally, amongst the few buildings in the country with a six-star green rating.

Smart Parks is a pilot programme that is trying to transform “hostile and barren” areas in South Africa into fun spaces with robust facilities that can withstand heavy-duty abuse (ahem, playing) by children all year round. The layout and facilities are determined with the help of the community. The first three Smart Parks are being built in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Blikkiesdorp. The problem, however, lies not only with the barrenness of the location, but with safety: how the designers of the parks plan to implement security measures for the children in notoriously dangerous areas remains unclear, but it is hoped that this will also find its way onto the agenda, or the project may end up – at a guess – derelict.

The Mellowcabs electric minicab is meant to provide taxi transport in cities, but with a twist: it’s made from recyclable materials and is 100% free of carbon emissions. It also solves congestion problems. Bingo! And then, of course, there’s Go Metro, the mobile app that draws on community participation to provide up-to-date transport information for Metrorail and other public transport services in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa.

Then, if you haven’t had enough yet, you can take the youngsters along to the World Robot Olympiad, where teams of learners will compete, building robots that will solve a set challenge (geek out) and to an interactive Play Room, where scholars can learn about and experience design as a potential career – as well as its influence on everyday life (architecture, 3D printing, digital gaming etc.) And lastly, there will be a series of Open Design Movies and a number of pop-up shops showcasing products made by young design entrepreneurs.

The Open Design Cape Town festival runs up to and including 23 August. DM

Read the programme on or find them on facebook Follow @opendesignct on Twitter.

* Okay, not really their dog.


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