Ardmore continues to raise the global profile of collectable African craft globally
Something of an anomaly in the craft industry, Ardmore has elevated itself to luxury status on the design landscape locally and internationally.
Founded on the Ardmore farm in KwaZulu-Natal in 1985 by ceramic artist Fée Halsted, Ardmore had the humble beginnings of a solo studio. But when Bonakele (Bonnie) Ntshalintshali joined Halsted for an apprenticeship at the age of 18, it became a celebrated artistic duo.
"Ardmore became a success because of Bonnie's craftsmanship, skill and meticulous attention to detail,' says Halsted. By 1992 the team had grown to nine and by 2004 it was 70 strong.
This continued expansion can be attributed to the global appeal and the artistry and authenticity of the designs, which reference African culture, folklore, and wildlife in a joyful celebration of colour, form and narrative.
Considering herself the equivalent of a conductor of highly talented musicians, Halsted guides the artisans in creating elaborate works of ceramic art, and intricate textile designs. Her approach allows each artist's personal style to come to the fore, leading with a conceptual theme and then encouraging them to run with their creative ideas.
The designs and patterns are recognisable as uniquely African, but never seem clichéd, nor do they venture into the territory of "curios". Instead they're luxurious and covetable, showing extreme skill and an expert execution of the universal themes of flora and fauna.
Many of the predominantly self-taught artists, mentored by Halsted and her team, learnt to work with river clay as children making toys.
This personal touch has ensured that each piece is unique, crafted by someone whose handiwork you can see. The artists who produce these labour- and love-intensive works are recognised as fine artists and are part of the fabric of the company itself. "The Ardmore brand is rooted in family, and this family extends to its artists and all who work with us. We all have a sense of belonging and pride in being part the brand," says Halsted.
In 2011, the company branched into textile and interior products under the same banner, starting with a standalone collection and expanding into its own brand. A host of exotic and evocative prints, limited-edition furniture and homeware emerged as Ardmore Design, with seasonal editions and colourways keeping the designs up to date.
International acclaim has followed the studio. In 2003 Christies hosted an auction of Ardmore pieces, declaring them modern collectibles, and cementing their status worldwide as a producer of covetable artwork. The spin-off from this has been exciting international projects.
With collaboration a core value of the company, partnerships with brands such as French luxury house Hermés and British textile house Cole & Son have taken place. Hermés' series of silk scarves based on designs by Sydney Nyabeze marked the first time any South African company has partnered with the 182-year-old company.
Says Halsted: "These houses have exposed us to the international market and given us great gravitas as a luxury brand."