The Urbanative and design as a voice to tell our stories

By Malibongwe Tyilo 12 April 2020

Illustrative image by Leila Dougan and Malibongwe Tyilo (sources: Unsplash / Pxhere / pngwave / pinclipart / pngguru / pngwave / EPA/Kim Ludbrook / Mpho Vackier)

In this series, The Imaginarium, we talk to artists, creatives, designers, musicians about their work and what inspires them during these surreal times.

Image courtesy of Mpho Vackier
‘Thandeka server’ (Image courtesy of Mpho Vackier)

“I grew up wanting to be a creator and problem solver, and I guess I got to do that as a process engineer in the platinum mining industry, but I was yearning to be more creative,” says Mpho Vackier, a former metallurgical engineer turned founder of furniture and interior design brand, The Urbanative. After a decade as an engineer, Vackier took the leap and put herself through design school, where she fell in love with the technical aspect of product and furniture design. After graduating, she worked as an interior designer and got the chance to have a small sponsored stand at Decorex in 2016. Then she “had to design some pieces on the fly, and The Urbanative was born”.

Almost four years later, at 100% Design South Africa, held at Johannesburg’s Gallagher Estate in August 2019, she was awarded Designer of the Year, alongside fellow designer and sometimes collaborator, Thabisa Mjo.

The Urbanative’s aesthetic is a thoroughly contemporary take on African furniture, “differentiated by the juxtaposition of abstracted African cultural inspirations with the functionality and look and feel of modern materials, technologies and modern furniture silhouettes. The Urbanative team constantly explores the role of culture and cultural representations and visibility in modern societies, with the aim of telling contemporary African stories through furniture and product design,” says Vackier.

As part of our Imaginarium series, we invited Vackier to share an item from The Urbanative’s collection that has a special resonance for her during this time. “The Thandeka server is one of the first designs I did for The Urbanative in 2016, and every time I see it in my house or when we make one for a client in our workshop I fall in love with it all over again.  It feels like I am always discovering new things about it,” says Vackier.

“It’s an important piece to me because it represents the beginning of The Urbanative. It reminds me how valid each of our individual voices and outlooks are within a collective conversation, as well as how differing and juxtaposed ideas and inspirations can result in something that feels so natural. It also represents some of my favourite design elements such as a simple form, functionality without compromising aesthetics, balance of differing ideas, and most importantly, storytelling,” she adds, referring to the custom bamboo and timber storage unit, which can also be made with various stone tops.

Like the majority of businesses in South Africa during the current 21-day lockdown, The Urbanative team is operating remotely. Vakier is working from her home in Centurion, where she lives with her husband, child and their pets. “Our design, admin and accounting team members are working from their respective homes. Our workshop is closed for the lockdown. We are working on new concepts that we haven’t had a chance to work on during normal operations; in addition to that, we’re re-looking at our manufacturing and production recipes for all our existing products and looking for ways to manufacture these pieces efficiently and faster by making small changes to each piece without compromising quality and aesthetics.”

The team is also exploring sustainability in terms of manufacturing by relooking their current manufacturing waste and considering how that waste can be fed back into their processes to be used as input for component manufacturing of new and existing products. “This is great because I get to put on my process engineer hat and still design,” says Vackier.

The rise of design brands like The Urbanative not only gives us a peek at the developing product design landscape informing the elusive contemporary South African furniture and lighting design aesthetic, they also provide necessary employment in the small to medium business category. Something that Vackier is well aware of: “Now more than ever is the opportune time to discover and support local creative businesses, not only does it positively affect our local economy, but it keeps businesses like ours who albeit small, are directly providing employment to various crafts people, semi-skilled or unskilled workers, and indirectly assist the respective suppliers and contractors within our value chain also stay afloat.”

To mitigate the decrease in sales as a result of the lockdown, The Urbanative is running a lockdown special of 10% off all purchases during the period that they are closed. And through daily Skype and Zoom meetings, the team is making the most of this period, the team continues to take a closer look at how they run their business: “One of the things that gets look over when running a small business and you are working in your business is processes and procedures, but the lockdown has given us some time to look at our process and procedure documentation for the various aspects of the business; it’s not as fun as designing but super valuable once they are all in place, especially for a growing business,” says Vackier. DM/ ML

If you would like to share your ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

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