The story behind West Elm’s South African Collection – their latest and biggest-ever collaboration with artisans from Cape Town and Johannesburg. The collection feature pieces by 16 South African artisans.
The Brooklyn-based brand have worked with faraway artists (from Los Angeles to London) before, but this is their first time working so closely with the design community of one country. This speaks to how passionately the West Elm team feels about South Africa. “It’s amazing how varied the voices are there,” says Creative Director Vanessa Holden. “There are influences from so many different backgrounds layered on the foundational African culture. I love the idea of those multiple points of inspiration coming together. It makes for a real melting pot point of view.”
The full collection varies from furniture, like John Vogel’s woven seats, to bright pottery by Mick Haigh, and unique lighting such as artist Shirley Fintz’s Delft-inspired elephant table lamp. As Holden puts it, “We felt so strongly about South Africa, we wanted people to be able to sit on it, eat out of it, and observe it.”
It all started with Trevyn and Julian McGowan of Source introducing Holden and her team to others within South Africa’s design community. “People are often awestruck by how layered and complex our country is,” says Trevyn. “The people are warm and welcoming, there is reference from dozens of historical backgrounds, and this feeds into creating a vibrant and textured environment.” Fittingly, all the artists welcomed West Elm into their studios and homes—often to inspiring results. “When we met with Gemma Orkin one afternoon, she’d just come back from surfing with her kids,” says Holden. “The lifestyle there is very integrated with being outside, with being convivial and social, and folding your work and creativity into the way you live.” She adds: “It’s certainly a life I’d like to live.”
Many of the artisans look outdoors for inspiration for their work. “I enjoy creating connections between nature and our living environments,” says Vogel. “My favorite piece from my West Elm collection is the dining chair because it successfully bridges functionality, organic form, and local weaving techniques.” Chris Silverston from Potter’s Workshop also sites bright sunshine—“which brings out good humor and happiness,” as a main inspiration for her company’s ceramics.
“When a design object makes you stop and look again, you start to figure out the various layers of meaning. We’re inspired by design that continues to grow on you, so your appreciation and enjoyment deepens,” says Source’s McGowan.
The Source bench is an update of a historical South African iconic piece.
Loren Kaplan dinnerware.
The Masai beaded choker on a black stand - one of the found pieces the team brought back from South Africa.
“My work is a balance between modern design principles, organic form, and handcrafted workmanship,” says Vogel. Here, his Mantis lounger, pictured with a Source lamp.Vogel’s dining chairs and bench.
Gemma Orkin’s whimsical serving bowls.
Pillows by Gemma Orkin.
“In South Africa, there is so much raw energy in creativity—people are not hampered by preconceptions,” says Silverston of Potter’s Workshop. Here, her black and white dinnerware.
A stacked elephant table lamp by artist Shirley Fintz.