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Rich Mnisi on making the shift from fashion to furniture design

The renowned designer says it's been 'creatively freeing' to turn his hand to crafting chandeliers and console tables for his ‘Nyoka’ exhibition

07 November 2021 - 00:01
Fashion designer Rich Mnisi explores the world of furniture design in his latest exhibition.
Fashion designer Rich Mnisi explores the world of furniture design in his latest exhibition.
Image: Ricardo Simal/Southern Guild

In October, celebrated local fashion designer Rich Mnisi unveiled his first solo exhibition at Southern Guild. Derived from the Xitsonga word for snake, Nyoka is a collection of bold furniture pieces.

We spoke to him about his shift to designing furniture, the pieces for this exhibition, and how this feeds into his future plans.

What inspired the name of the exhibition?

This started with a nightmare. My mother dreamt of a snake on her back. When she turned to look at it, she saw an intense green creature, frightening and fluid, dangerous and beautiful. My journey started here, and led me to Congo’s Bushongo mythology and its creator god, Bumba, the god of vomit. He vomited up the sun, Earth, moon, and stars, and then the rest of the natural world from that acidic pain and discomfort. Unlike most of our world’s origin stories, this one proposes that the beauty and life of our world was purged instead of birthed.

Rich Mnisi’s Nwa'ntlhohe (Pure Beauty), a rug made with karakul wool and mohair, which features in his latest exhibition.
Rich Mnisi’s Nwa'ntlhohe (Pure Beauty), a rug made with karakul wool and mohair, which features in his latest exhibition.
Image: Christof van der Walt/Southern Guild

What themes did you want to explore with this exhibition?

Fluidity and form are two things that always inform my work, be it fashion or furniture design. These influences are elements to which I’m naturally drawn, as they’re an extension of me. I also play a lot with colour, proportion, and texture, as well as the idea of duality.

And why the shift to furniture? Is it something you had always planned on doing?

In 2018 I was asked to be part of a group show at Southern Guild called Extra Ordinary, and this is when I designed the Nwa-Mulamula’s Chaise sofa and Nwa-Mulamula’s Tears stool.

They are organic-shaped pieces that are an extension of my Nwa-Mulamula fashion collection, which pays homage to the memory of my late great-grandmother: an ever-present guardian whose teachings have lived on in my family through storytelling, generation after generation.

Rich Mnisi's Nwa-Mulamula's Chaise from the ‘Extra Ordinary’ group show in 2018 and Vutlhari (Wisdom), a chandelier from his 'Nyoka' exhibition.
Rich Mnisi's Nwa-Mulamula's Chaise from the ‘Extra Ordinary’ group show in 2018 and Vutlhari (Wisdom), a chandelier from his 'Nyoka' exhibition.
Image: Hayden Phipps/Southern Guild
Furniture designs from Rich Mnisi's 'Nyoka' exhibition: Vumboni I & II (Testimony), two low-hung sofas, and the Nyoka (Snake) console.
Furniture designs from Rich Mnisi's 'Nyoka' exhibition: Vumboni I & II (Testimony), two low-hung sofas, and the Nyoka (Snake) console.
Image: Christof van der Walt/Southern Guild

It’s just been a natural progression from that point, really, as I’ve broadened my design scope. Venturing into furniture design has allowed me to explore the same design approaches but in a new way and context, using different materials and techniques.

Are you planning on doing more furniture pieces going forward?

Most definitely! The furniture design journey has been such a fulfilling and interesting experience, and I’ve really enjoyed being exposed to new materials and different processes. It’s been a learning opportunity as much as it’s been a creatively freeing one, so I for sure see other furniture pieces in my future. 

How does this form of design differ from fashion design? Do you prefer one over the other?

The truth is they’re both approached in the same way: it’s about dressing the body and addressing the human form as well, and how it interacts either with the clothing or the furniture.

Furniture designs from Rich Mnisi's 'Nyoka' exhibition: Rivoningo (To Reflect) mirror, the Nwa’Ntlhohe (Pure Beauty) rug, and Nwa-Mulamula's Embrace armchairs.
Furniture designs from Rich Mnisi's 'Nyoka' exhibition: Rivoningo (To Reflect) mirror, the Nwa’Ntlhohe (Pure Beauty) rug, and Nwa-Mulamula's Embrace armchairs.
Image: Christof van der Walt and Southern Guild

The two have a great relationship with each other because, ultimately, they inform each other. Whilst the execution may differ in terms of technique and the materials used, the vision, intention, and approach are the same. So no, I don’t prefer one over the other — I enjoy them both equally for different reasons.

Tell us about the collaborations you undertook with the creation of these works?

Promoting craft and South African handwork has long been a passionate interest of mine, so it was a natural decision to enlist the talents of local artisans in bringing my vision for Nyoka to life.

Working so closely with the various beaders, weavers, designers, and sculptors gave me a newfound appreciation for their level of dedication and bona fide craftsmanship. It was a privilege to get to work with the wonderful people from Monkeybiz (the console), Coral & Hive (the rug), and Bronze Age Studio (chandelier).

I firmly believe that ideas evolve when you collaborate, with the collaboration itself being very empowering, mainly because people don’t often get to see their work in different contexts.

Rich Mnisi collaborated with Monkeybiz, an economic upliftment project dedicated to reviving the traditional craft of African beadwork, to design his Nyoka console.
Rich Mnisi collaborated with Monkeybiz, an economic upliftment project dedicated to reviving the traditional craft of African beadwork, to design his Nyoka console.
Image: Bruce Buttery/Panga Films

What are you going to be working on next?

There are some very exciting things in the pipeline, but unfortunately, nothing I can elaborate on at the moment — you’ll just have to stay tuned.

• 'Nyoka' will be running at Southern Guild in Cape Town until February 4 2022.


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