Ikea Överallt collection is a colossal opportunity for African designers

Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo talks collaborating with Swedish furniture giant, Ikea, and how creatives could help the UN

24 February 2019 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER
Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo says 'the ultimate renewable resource for us as humans is ideas'.
Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo says 'the ultimate renewable resource for us as humans is ideas'.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

He founded the Design Indaba, but Ravi Naidoo won't define what this world-class event actually is. "Design Indaba cannot be distilled down to a single thing," says Naidoo, whose mind works like a labyrinth in motion. "We are not the 'how-to' conference. All we can do is share experiences, and people in the audience must make of it what they will."

Without a breath between words, he adds, "We do not like cheesy conferences with listicles." 

Instead, he is passionate about the complexity and eclecticism that touch every aspect of this annual event and will commit only to "emerging themes" if a journalist presses him to squish it all into a soundbite.

"You sit there for three days, and a consciousness develops. You join the dots yourself. If you bring a creative from Tokyo together with someone from Kigali together with someone from San Francisco, and they express themselves in some kind of way ... you can take out of that some trends and thoughts and concerns for humanity that exist right now."

Design Indaba tries to 'tap into the global zeitgeist as expressed by people in the creative industries'
Ravi Naidoo, Design Indaba founder

Ultimately, with no parameters, Design Indaba tries to "tap into the global zeitgeist as expressed by people in the creative industries," he says, perched on the edge of a fabulous couch at his offices in Gardens, Cape Town - until his next idea sends him walking across the room to make his point.

The premises, like everything else about Naidoo's work, are a vision brought to life.

Before he took hold of them, they were derelict and falling apart - an eyesore that he could see every day from his residential apartment across the road.

Today, each room is like a living exhibition as his team moves about on the polished wooden floors surrounded by glass dividers, exquisite art and large-pane windows that look onto views of the Cape Town city bowl and mountains.

IKEA ÖVERALLT COLLECTION

One of the highlights this year's Design Indaba is the launch by global furniture giant Ikea of its ÖVERALLT collection.

Two years ago, Ikea approached Design Indaba to learn more about the creative doers in several cities across Africa, recognising that creativity on the African continent cannot be pinned down to a "single type, style or moment".

Design Indaba chose 10 designers from places as far apart as Abidjan, Dakar, Nairobi, Cairo and Johannesburg. The designers were then teamed up with five Ikea designers and voilà: the collection will be launched on February 27.

ÖVERALLT bench of stained solid eucalyptus by B Rayner, N Biviji and M Axelsson.
ÖVERALLT bench of stained solid eucalyptus by B Rayner, N Biviji and M Axelsson.
Image: Supplied
ÖVERALLT easy chair in Birch plywood by Issa Diabaté and Kevin Gouriou.
ÖVERALLT easy chair in Birch plywood by Issa Diabaté and Kevin Gouriou.
Image: Supplied

"Ikea is the world's biggest furniture store so learning how to deal at scale to get the price point just right was an experience for us," says Naidoo.

Products at Ikea require, on average, about two million units per item.

Naidoo says that designers from Africa have never done something on such a colossal scale. All the products will be distributed globally.

Judging from the prototype we saw — the ÖVERALLT easy chair — visitors to Design Indaba can expect a collection that clearly reflects Africa, but is also a million miles away from the curio-shopped version of a homogenous African aesthetic.

The chair is simultaneously distinctly African, while being every bit the "less-is-more" product of the Scandinavian sense of design.

Another highlight of Design Indaba has a name that says it all: The Most Beautiful Objects in Africa.

This, says Naidoo, "honours personal freedom of choice and individual sensibilities".

Ten objects are each nominated by an industry leader, and the public then votes anonymously online for the best one.

This African bridal dress by Mzukisi Mbane is in the running to be crowned 'Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019' at the Design Indaba.
This African bridal dress by Mzukisi Mbane is in the running to be crowned 'Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019' at the Design Indaba.
Image: AFI
This copper and glass kettle by Ebert Otto is in the running to be named 'Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019'.
This copper and glass kettle by Ebert Otto is in the running to be named 'Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019'.
Image: Supplied

Naidoo says another of the "most anticipated events" at this year's Indaba is Li Edelkoort's trend seminars. Of particular interest to South Africans will be her analysis of whether "the cultural appropriation debate has gone too far".

BIG COLLABORATIONS

There are other big collaborations in the pipeline.

"We have been approached by the UN to do Design United. The idea behind this is that solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals can't just be done by policymakers. If you think about drinkable water, housing, cleaner oceans and so on, it is when the creative community and designers come together with the engineers that you see real change. It is not about the lone genius in the corner," says Naidoo.

"We have always dealt with change but it is coming faster than ever. We may not have the answers, but at least we know that the ultimate renewable resource for us as humans is ideas.

"When people tell me they are 'not a creative', I say that is impossible. It is a life force. It is like breathing. We all have it in us."

As we move into the next brave new world, artisans will be more valuable than ever, he says.

"The future is handmade and the future is robotic."

We have the advantage of leapfrog technology. Naidoo cites the commercial drones that fly over Rwanda.

A US company could not test their commercial drone prototype in America because of Federal Aviation Authority rules, so they tested their product in Rwanda instead.

As a result, medical supplies are being delivered to a network of clinics all around Rwanda in places that are difficult to get to by road.

"So, global innovation for drone use in commercial delivery service happened right here on our stoep and not in San Francisco where it was designed."

Just five days after the massive Design Indaba event - which draws more than 12,000 guests to the Artscape Theatre Centre in the heart of Cape Town - Naidoo dives headfirst into YPO Edge, another large-scale global event he is curating and chairing.

This international event for the Young Presidents Organisation is one of the largest annual gatherings of CEOs from across the world (around 3,000 attendees) and Cape Town was chosen as this year's host.

One might imagine that after Design Indaba, Naidoo would choose to rather decompress in front of his favourite television series.

Then again, one might imagine that in the days leading up to these two events, he is getting hardly any sleep. But he says otherwise.

"I sleep like a baby," he says, before passionately describing the history of the "hawker's bench" objet d'art in the office entrance hall.

• The Design Indaba will take place from February 27 to March 1 at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town. Tickets for the Cape Town conference and Johannesburg simulcast are available at Webtickets.

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