There's a serious side to Porky Hefer's outlandish seats

This famed artist explains how his imaginative chair designs - think a man-sized cowhide seashell or bird's nest - make an important humanist statement

14 September 2017 - 12:01 By Graham Wood
Artist Porky Hefer takes a load off in one of his whimsical seats.
Artist Porky Hefer takes a load off in one of his whimsical seats.
Image: Joe Kramm

Of course a man who designs and makes chairs in the shape of gigantic suspended leather fish with fearsome teeth and soft sheepskin tongues would be a romantic. And it's hard to tell which aspect of his designs is more important - the silliness or the seriousness. Or maybe it's the idea that they aren't such polar opposites after all.

The man, Porky Hefer, has earned some fame for his designs. He's had solo exhibitions in New York. He represented South Africa at the London Design Biennale, and was shown at Design Miami/Basel. The list goes on.

At his first exhibition in Joburg, at the Southern Guild Gallery in Rosebank, Hefer explained how his designs began with a simple question: why does a chair have to be a chair? The answer is, of course, that it doesn't. A chair can be a killer whale, a gigantic cowhide seashell, or a man-size bird's nest.

People like Robert Downey jnr, an unnamed F1 driver and a Google exec are among those known to have bought Hefer's works

On one level these designs are silly, fun provocations: diversions for the decadently rich. (People like Robert Downey jnr, a certain unnamed F1 driver and a Google exec are among those known to have bought them.)

But on another, they make a very serious, humanist statement driven by ideals closely tied to the Arts and Crafts movement that swept Europe and the US in the late 1800s. That movement was a resistance to mass industrialisation.

And there's something of that in Hefer's technique. He speaks passionately about the importance of handcraft, of human skills, artisanal production, local economies and individual lives. His method of production is an act of defiance to economic globalisation.

Porky Hefer's superficially crazy work is steeped in Arts and Crafts traditions.
Porky Hefer's superficially crazy work is steeped in Arts and Crafts traditions.
Image: Elsa Young and Ricardo Simal

At the exhibition launch, he related how he mimicked the pattern a weaver bird might use to make its nest - how far it would travel for materials and translated that logic into the production of his own pieces.

So, for the wickerwork for his human nests, he went to the Cape Town Society for the Blind. For the leatherwork, to Woodheads, a 150-year-old leather merchant in Cape Town.

He talks about the power of his works to help rejuvenate "ailing systems". Where, he said, the baskets made by the Society for the Blind were gathering a reputation for being cheap junk, the skills development that went into the production of Hefer's human nests elevated the whole system. A piece of theirs was recently acquired by the London Design Museum. Woodheads, too, has expanded.

The fantastical side of Hefer's designs grow from a new urgency, which he sees as threatening not just craft and human values, but human imagination itself.

He's spooked by the homogeneity which the algorithms that govern social media impose on how far our imaginations can wander before we're herded back to another cat video.

Porky Hefer gets cosy in one of his creations.
Porky Hefer gets cosy in one of his creations.
Image: Elsa Young and Ricardo Simal

These designs are about the importance of imagination and emotion. The time and care that went into their making is expressed in each chair, which is moving. The sheer audacity of their conception provokes delight. But perhaps the biggest thrill of all is that they remind us just how rebellious and subversive fun - serious fun - really is.

• Hefer's exhibit, 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious', runs until November 4 at the Southern Guild Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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