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Cape Town's Rising Art Scene

How does a place known for its beaches, mountains, and vineyards develop a progressive design scene? T+L looks at a collective of enterprising Cape Town locals who are turning this city into Africa’s creative capital.

By Maria Shollenbarger

South Africa ’s finest style hour takes place every saturday morning on a fairly unstylish stretch of Cape Town’s Albert Road, the main drag in the cheerfully seedy but fast-gentrifying neighborhood called Woodstock. The area is separated by several miles (and social strata) from the more picturesque districts of beachfront Camp’s Bay or stately Oranjezicht, on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. But walk through the entrance gates of the Old Biscuit Mill, a once derelict factory complex restored in 2006, and suddenly you become part of a legion thronging a hundred-odd stands selling gorgeous food and even more gorgeous objects: fair-trade coffee and handmade silk-and-leather sandals; organic biltong (Afrikaans beef jerky) and block-printed cotton tea towels; Époisses and chèvre frais from Franschhoek, in the neighboring Winelands, and wafer-thin white porcelain tea services. There are bunches of tulips and loose teas piled high, and just down the aisle, artfully arranged, are stacks of brightly colored wool throws felted by hand. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more catholic cross section of people elsewhere in this country: kids in skinny jeans and Vans with asymmetrical haircuts chat with dreadlocked vendors over cups of rooibos, while trim, bronzed young mothers playing hooky from the monied southern suburbs mingle with Woodstock’s local population—many of them immigrants from Harare, Athens, or Mumbai. Carrying bowls of falafel or Cape Malay curry and sipping biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, they all browse and buy. Imagine a hybrid of London’s Borough and Spitalfields markets, sun-drenched and cooled by Indian Ocean breezes, with an occasional stream of Afrikaans or Xhosa cutting through a near-constant chorus of “raaaht!” and “yah!” and you’ll have an idea of the scene here at the Neighbourgoods Market .

Conceived and launched in 2006 by Justin Rhodes, a 30-year-old American, and his South African partner, Cameron Munro, who met and began dating in New York City in 2004, the market is an offshoot of Whatiftheworld , a design and art collective they founded in 2005. Headquartered in a reclaimed office building just two blocks from the Old Biscuit Mill, Whatiftheworld’s mandate is to cultivate a community among Cape Town’s young furniture-, product-, and fashion designers and aspiring collectors. It takes the form of shows held in Whatiftheworld’s gallery/work space in Woodstock (“We loved it here from day one; it reminded us of Williamsburg, circa 2002,” Munro says); come-one, come-all parties staged all over the city, from the colorful Cape Malay neighborhood of Bo Kaap to the up-and-coming style district of Waterkant; and, of course, the folksy-chic Neighbourgoods Market.

Rhodes and Munro also run the Whatiftheworld Design Studio, a small retail space in the nearby East City area that showcases a rotating collection of furniture, lighting, and other design products by a growing roster of emerging South African talents, some of whom have begun garnering praise beyond the country’s borders. Friendly and flawlessly well-mannered, looking like displaced GQ market editors with their tall, snake-hipped good looks and seemingly effortless way with slim trousers and tousled hair, Rhodes and Munro are the unlikely, but increasingly undeniable, impresarios of a developing Cape Town design scene. (Or perhaps not so unlikely: Rhodes actually earned his graduate degree in international political science and community leadership.) And their efforts—dovetailing as they do with a particularly receptive and enthusiastic moment in the city’s own culture—are transforming the way Capetonians view their creative place in the world.

This is not to say that Cape Town has been entirely off the radar of the design industry’s cognoscenti until now; in a very different context, it’s been a favorite destination of famous architects, furniture makers, and editors for years. Every February the Design Indaba Conference, founded by the well-connected local media entrepreneur Ravi Naidoo, draws an all-star lineup to the city for a several-day-long series of talks and forums. Paul Smith and Ilse Crawford have discussed trends; Basque furniture designer Patricia Urquiola has mused about the creative process; Financial Times columnist and Monocle editor-in-chief (and T+L contributing editor emeritus) Tyler Brûlé has lectured on taking fledgling brands global. Peruse the crowd at a welcoming party on Clifton Beach, and here are Tom Dixon, Hella Jongerius, and packs of other pale, prodigiously talented Northern Europeans, smiling weakly under the searing African sun. The conference overlaps for a day or two with Design Indaba Expo, a corresponding fair that features exclusively South African exhibitors. For some, this equals serendipity: in 2007, a porcelain collection by ceramist Michael Haigh caught the eye of Li Edelkoort, the then-head of Holland’s prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven; Haigh signed a contract with the Conran Shops several months later.

But Design Indaba, as successful as it is, remains a conference for global stars that happens to take place in Cape Town, rather than a forum for Capetonian designers to explore their place, and the mark they want to make, in the international design community. And it’s this distinction that’s putting Whatiftheworld on the map. For years, Naidoo’s twinned events have strived to manufacture a design identity for South Africa from above, as it were, by importing global glamour and coupling it with a call to exercise social conscience. By contrast, Rhodes and Munro’s efforts to simply give good-looking, well-made local design a place to be seen and appreciated have percolated up from the underground, gained a local fan base, and now placed Cape Town on people’s radars in a whole new way: as home to a small tribe of designers making world-class furniture and products—no further agenda required. As Haldane Martin, arguably the country’s best-known furniture designer (his iconic Zulu Mama chair, a tall, elegant form on angled steel legs with a deep basket-weave seat in plastic, is a fixture in showrooms from Los Angeles to Dubai), says, “There’s definitely nothing else like it happening in South Africa.”

Unlike the world’s established design capitals—Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or London—Cape Town, and by extension South Africa, lacks almost entirely the traditions of teaching and sponsoring modern furniture and product design for its own sake (not surprising for a country that, until 15 years ago, had rather more pressing goals, like achieving democracy); and despite a millennia-old heritage of craftsmanship, it still lags far behind Europe and the United States in mass-manufacturing knowledge. As a result, until recently it has had no coherent design identity to show the world, beyond what could be inferred from a steadily exported stream of vaguely ethnic Africana—variations on the motifs of basketry, beadwork, and woven textiles.

But Rhodes and Munro tapped an ideal moment to launch their venture. “The generation of South Africans we’re working with may be the first to be really in touch with international trends and design,” Rhodes says. “As the country has matured, they’ve begun having different conversations, thinking beyond just the sociopolitical implications of their work.” The locally made aspect is still crucial; but “not everything has to look ‘African’ to be African. Not everything has to have that exotic element to it,” Rhodes says. Above all, “our designers—and we—are interested in making products that stand alone on their aesthetic value: timeless, beautiful design.”

The Whatiftheworld poster child is Liam Mooney, a slight, dark-haired 26-year-old industrial-design grad whom Rhodes and Munro signed two years ago to be the design studio’s creative director. Elle Decoration South Africa named him Lighting Designer of the Year in 2009, and several international editions of the magazine also ran items on him. His furniture is clean-lined and understated: Rhodes is especially fond of his Charming Tressel Table, made from two carved and cantilevered South African–pine bases and a glass top. But Mooney is best known for his Arc Lamp, a double-jointed wood-and-steel floor lamp that’s both refined and ingenious (and sold overseas—and frequently sold out at Whatiftheworld). Mooney has in turn signed young talents with a like-minded aesthetic, which he and Rhodes characterize as “clean, handcrafted, often modular, usually wood.” Among them are 27-year-old Adriaan Hugo, a strapping native of Bloemfontein, in the Free State, who builds tall, slim benches and tables of indigenous cork and white steel as well as graphic storage systems inspired by 1930’s textile prints. Another rising star, the Cape Town photographer and furniture designer Xandre Kriel, produces high-concept, low-tech plywood benches and chairs that recall both Donald Judd and the Eameses. Stop by his stall at the Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday and you’re likely to find him with his Potlights lamp, which he’s just begun producing exclusively for sale there.

Whatiftheworld’s current focus is making the Neighbourgoods Market experience more exclusive and trader-centric—bringing in items like Kriel’s Potlights. “There’s a studio-visit appeal to that experience we want to build on,” Rhodes says. “You deal directly with the designer, you’re getting something that’s handmade and limited-edition; it feels both thrifty and insider-y.” Some of the smaller traders at Neighbourgoods have even stopped selling in boutiques to focus entirely on the market, both for the gratification of direct interaction and for the higher returns (Rhodes and Munro charge a flat fee to traders, in lieu of claiming a percentage of profits).

The fact that all of these young designers are gaining traction (and a devoted client base) in Cape Town isn’t that surprising, once you’ve touched down and felt the undeniable buzz here. It’s sometimes labeled the least “African” of African cities (enthusiastically or disparagingly, depending on the labeler). But whatever the opinions or disputes about the authenticity of its current culture, the city’s radiating a palpable hum of cool.

You see signs of this, of course, amid the colorful side streets of Woodstock near the Old Biscuit Mill, where bungalows that once leaned perilously, shedding curls of fuchsia or turquoise paint, now glow from the attentions of recent renovations; and where freshly converted warehouses fly the banners of boutique Web agencies, pioneering antiques dealers, and some of the designers Rhodes and Munro patronize—including Chloe Townsend, a leatherworker trained at London’s preeminent Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, whose Missibaba line of belts, bags, and clutches is one of the city’s most sought after; and Stiaan Louw, whose unstructured, billowy menswear recalls Yohji Yamamoto.

Creative energy is also more prevalent than ever along perennially chic Upper Kloof Street, in the well-heeled Gardens district—now positively awash in precious bio-organic cafés whose magazine racks burst with copies of Visi, South Africa’s own design bible, along with the odd issue of V, BlackBook, or Case da Abitare. Lilliputian storefronts sell designer bikinis and handmade jewelry (and, for good measure, Adidas Originals and a smattering of Japanese selvage denim).

And it’s gained much ground in the area around Heritage Square. There’s Caveau , for example, the three-year-old, warren-like wine bar with an intimate courtyard, where Rhodes, Munro, and their friends like to convene, along with Cape Town’s emerging visual artists and prominent art dealers, for generous pours and small plates. The kitchen offers dukkah-rubbed ostrich or braised springbok shank if one’s in the mood for something with regional bona fides; or more standard global fare, like seared tuna in citrus sauce or a lamb tagine (both delicious, as is everything on the menu). Around the corner is Birds Boutique Café , a favorite spot for coffee or a quick lunch: the Namibian owners, a mother and her two daughters, prepare all-organic baked goods; the younger daughter, Frauke Stegmann, one of Cape Town’s emerging graphic designers, creates the whimsically decorated ceramics on which the food is served. Just up the road is Brewers & Union , a beer bar–charcuterie opened in January by the people behind Vida e Caffé, a slick, mini-chain coffee bar with a zealous fan base. Brewers & Union’s terrace out front fills quickly in the after-work hours with small tribes of hipsters who pair the microbrewed ambers and ales with Madeira-wine salami wrapped in butterfish carpaccio and grilled chili-chocolate beef sausage.

As of last January, though, the best place for visitors to Cape Town to experience the Whatiftheworld effect may well be at the Grand Daddy , a new hotel a few blocks away on Long Street, refurbished by the owners of the city’s long-standing cult favorite B&B, Daddy Long Legs . They approached Whatiftheworld last August to create a collection of mobile “penthouses”—bespoke Airstream trailers with tricked-out interiors featuring all the modern conveniences—originally intended for use as mobile hotel rooms. But when the owners acquired the bigger, more boutique-style Metropole Hotel, which became the Grand Daddy, Rhodes, Munro, and Mooney were commissioned to create an entire “trailer park” on the hotel’s roof—comprising several new tongue-in-cheek themed Airstreams, like Afrofunked (unreconstructed teak paneling, low-slung sofas recalling a 70’s conversation pit) and Love of Lace (a Priscilla Presley–esque fantasy of quilted pink satin and chandeliers), complete with landscaping, bar and barbecue areas, and white mailboxes posted outside each of the seven trailers. “We’re not really going to be tagged to do some sleek, rich bachelor pad on the waterfront,” Rhodes says. “This hotel was great for us because it’s a public, interactive, freethinking space that’s very Cape Town.” Meanwhile, the Grand Daddy’s owners have plans for several more Airstreams, to be made available for VIP events and short-distance road trips—down the Garden Route, say, or out to the up-and-coming artist communities in the Karoo desert.

Rhodes and Munro take a measured—and modest—view of the success of their efforts, deflecting much of the credit to the people and culture they’ve chosen to be part of. “This country, from a visual, creative standpoint, is like a teenager,” Rhodes says. “It’s emerging, and not quite knowing, so this is a key moment. We work with artists and manufacturers but also sometimes with farmers who happen to have great ideas.” It’s this most of all that, to them, represents the fruits of their efforts: a community that’s a genuine meritocracy, based on good work for good work’s sake. “There’s so much talent in Cape Town; we saw that from the beginning. And everyone wants the right image of South Africa out there in the world; everyone wants the best of it to be seen.”

Maria Shollenbarger is Travel + Leisure’s Europe and U.K. editor.