John Vogel on expressing what it is to be South African through furniture design

04 August 2019 - 00:00 By Julia Freemantle
John Vogel is famed for his modern African aesthetic as can be seen in his Angama Table and Nguni Heads.
John Vogel is famed for his modern African aesthetic as can be seen in his Angama Table and Nguni Heads.
Image: Supplied

The concept of modern Africa in design terms is something relatively new - and hard to define. For so long, African countries mimicked the rest of the world, and increasingly, as designers find ways to express their identity outside of this paradigm, we're finding out what being African can look like.

John Vogel has been straddling this line since he began to design furniture. "I enjoy giving expression to the experience of being in Africa. There's an indefinable quality to it - I try to capture something that feels familiar to South Africans," says Vogel.

The designer's Swiss and African heritage gives him a unique perspective and growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, exposed to a lot of craft (especially Zulu sculpture), informed how he sees the world and creates in it. "I try to tie together what I see around me," he says.

A trained architect, he believes he would have expressed this sense of being African via the built world too. "When I graduated we were just beginning to ask what it is to be South African - how we design our lives and claim our individuality in a way that's no longer trying to be acceptable to the rest of the world," he says.

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, John Vogel was exposed to a lot of craft which is evident in his modern furniture designs.
Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, John Vogel was exposed to a lot of craft which is evident in his modern furniture designs.
Image: Supplied

He developed a signature style, driven by his African identity but also by an inherent desire to get to the core of things, and an impatience for superfluity. "I don't like unnecessary decorative layering. I like to break things down to the essence - get to the skeleton," he says.

Accordingly, there's a simplicity to his work - in terms of its form sure, but also in the fact that you can see immediately how it's made. "For me design must be satisfying to touch - its tactility is important. It's important for me to make things that are comfortable to be around," he adds.

A lot of this comes down to skill and craft - this is where the refinement lies. Reinterpreting, borrowing from and modernising craft - using new materials - is how Vogel ensures the pieces remain contemporary while being rooted in tradition. "They have a connection to that craft, just one step removed," he says.

While most of Vogel's work is functional, this sense of the poetic is very apparent in his more art-oriented pieces, which he sees as an opportunity to be more playful.

SEE VOGEL'S WORK AT 100% DESIGN SA

For August's 100% Design SA exhibit in Johannesburg, Vogel will further celebrate this idea of a modern African aesthetic. For the show he is putting together 100% Dine - a sophisticated sociable space celebrating craft and culture - together with creative jack of all trades Tracy Lynch and furniture designer Sifiso Shange.

John Vogel's Nguni dining chair is a contemporary take on traditional riempie seating.
John Vogel's Nguni dining chair is a contemporary take on traditional riempie seating.
Image: Supplied

"We chose to do a round table because it has no hierarchy, it's an equaliser," says Vogel. Inspired by a wooden SA headrest, the tabletop will sit on a pyramid-esque form with a bowl-like dip in its centre, a nod to Africa in the most poetic way, albeit with functionality at its core. The space will also feature woven wall cladding (a signature skill of the studio's) designed by Shange.

• 100% Design SA is located within Decorex Joburg, which is taking place from August 7 - 11 at the Gallagher Convention Centre. Visit 100percentdesign.co.za