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African Style Makes its Bid to Refurbish the Global Design Palette

African design is undergoing a belated global reappraisal according to exhibitors and attendees at the Decorex 2016 Cape Town event, with the looks and styles that characterise the continent now seen as widely in demand beyond its shores.

Photo: Decorex: Where the world comes to glimpse the changing face of African design.
Decorex: Where the world comes to glimpse the changing face of African design.
Photo: Decorex: Where the world comes to glimpse the changing face of African design.
Decorex: Where the world comes to glimpse the changing face of African design.

One of the most exciting developments in the design industry of late has been the reappraisal of what could be termed 'African style'. Gone are the conventional rustic or overtly colonial-style offerings the market has come to expect of the continent's decor. Instead, materials and objects (some traditional, some contemporary) are being rethought, reworked and reinterpreted, resulting in interiors that are both site appropriate and exhilaratingly original.

According to South African interior designer Nicky Tyers, across the world, both fashion and interior design are becoming heavily influenced by the cultural diversity of the African continent. Highlighting this, she said: "Current African design is unashamedly modern and has seduced the west with its contemporary, sculptural and geometric signature qualities."

At this year's Decorex Cape Town event – Africa's largest design and decor expo, held in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban on an annual basis – many exhibitors and interior-design consultants were keen to showcase the underlying trends and themes that inform this new approach to African design.

Very much as part of this new thinking, traditional African production techniques are being restyled to address contemporary life. This approach was clearly evident in the Decorex 2016 African-inspired 'trend pods', dedicated zones that brought together an unexpected mix of materials, colours and textures.

The trend pod installations were intended to show just how the continent's transforming creative identity innovatively yokes high-tech design with traditional African craftsmanship, fusing them into an original, soulful execution. These installations certainly drew on the organic glamour of Africa, but reinterpreted it to display both an edgy now-ness of form and an ancient veneration for the materials used.

Designer Dorothy van't Riet, the creator of one of the trend pods, believes that African design is now globally positioning itself as a strong business proposition. She said: "African style harmonises design with the human element and the environment in perfect symbiosis. The international market is fascinated by the soul, colour, passion and rhythm of this sprawling continent, so steeped in tradition and culture. It is real – a rarity in this technology-driven world."

For her Decorex installation, Van't Riet drew inspiration from the art and craft of Rwanda and the colourful markets of Kigali, saying: "I was fascinated by the unique geometric patterning, and black and white motifs of the traditional Imogongo, an art form unique to Rwanda."

Explaining how her products could appeal to the Asian market, Gaby Beyers, owner of The Cecil Blake Collective, producers of digitally reproduced soft furnishings and printed upholstery fabrics, said: "Asian tastes are defined by a love for all things natural, organic and old, something that closely matches my design aesthetic. My designs are inspired by the small things you see if you look closely enough, such as organic desert life forms and the geometric patterns of nature."

Designer Tracy Lee Lynch was also looking to highlight the ways in which the direction and values of African design are acquiring a broad appeal among international buyers. Citing some clear local examples, she said: "The best of South African design has moved on from things like the ubiquitous terracotta pot. Today, it's defined by an eclectic approach. Uniformity is now out, and each object, whether it's woven or hand-painted timber, stands on its own merit within a space. In this way, the overall experience becomes more than the sum of its parts."

Asked just what is it about local design that is increasingly appealing to international markets, Abigail Bisogno, owner of The Trading Company, a South African retail design business, had a very clear answer. She said: "South African products are unique – they are imbued with personality and craftsmanship. When Asians visit my store, for instance, they tend to find South African design refreshingly new and different. You can also mix the styles – fusing traditional Zulu beadwork with a modern design approach, for instance. As a result, Asian buyers are looking to bring the confident colours of South Africa, animal-skin patterns and natural prints into their homes."

Future Trends

In the run-up to the event, Decorex's panel of design experts identified seven underlying global design and decorating forecasts that are set to inform the home of the future.

The first of these, dubbed All Things Considered, is a theme that draws on the Chinese principles of thought, restraint and intention – an abiding theme for the Year of the Monkey. This involves a considered approach to the art of decorating, with objects chosen on their individual merits alone, and no longer for their relationship to other elements in a composition. As such, they find their place in the greater scheme of things, with the overall look evolving through the layering of time.

Another trend, defined as Raw Edge, reflects a craving for organic materials. Concrete, stone, timber and fibres are sustainable and give interiors a textural, natural quality that cannot be easily simulated by manufactured products. Metals were also seen as likely to retain their popularity over the coming year.

With the rapid rise of the global population, space is now more at a premium than ever, with the efficient use of that space now pretty much mandatory. With this in mind, the Sacred Space trend prescribes that every square inch of the home should be considered as valuable real estate. In line with this, functionality is crucial, with areas of the home repurposed to do double duty with, for example, formerly overlooked nooks beneath staircases or cavities above cupboards exploited for the extra space or storage they provide.

Photo: Striking wall-hangings.
Striking wall-hangings.
Photo: Striking wall-hangings.
Striking wall-hangings.
Photo: New colour trends for 2016.
New colour trends for 2016.
Photo: New colour trends for 2016.
New colour trends for 2016.

Another theme, Above the Line, signals that black is back – but this time its use is more judiciously applied. No longer relegated to a support role, black is the star of the show when used to portray compositional elements and silhouette their graphic lines. Black serves as both anchor and frame in the interiors of 2016.

The subtle pinks and purples, blues and yellows that are refracted through the kaleidoscopic facets of a diamond are introduced as part of the new season's all-white schemes, adding iridescence – a trend described as Pearl Ardour. Here, pastel-stained glass and Perspex are leveraged for their reflective qualities.

With the Tribal Rights theme, the Mother Continent is seen as continuing to seduce in 2016. With this, the rich patterning and saturated colours of African wall art enter modern interiors, with the emphasis on symmetry and repetition. Bright geometrics and monochromatic stripes zigzag over walls, blurring the boundaries between floor and ceiling.

Finally, with the Cue Colour theme, nature serves as inspiration for the next season's colour cards. At the juncture between lemon and lime, zesty citron is used to bring the freshness of early summer, especially when mediated by white, while yellow lends a distinctly retro edge. Coral pink is smartened with accents of teal and marsala, then combined with traditional blue and white for a modern interpretation of beach-house chic.

As well as informing the overall design direction, the Decorex event helps to position African interior design as a marketable value-add for the international trade. Indeed, the organisers pitch the expo as a strategic business platform for local and international industry trade professionals and design pace setters.

According to Sian Gutstadt, Portfolio Director of Decorex, 86% of the industry professionals who visit the show come with the specific intention of sourcing the very latest products and services.

She said: "Members of the trade rate this show highly as a destination for local and international products and service sourcing. We market extensively to global trade visitors and Asia is one of the regions we actively promote the event to.

"Visiting the expo presents an opportunity for international designers, decorators, hospitality buyers, retailers and architects to engage in targeted business-to-business trading. Decorex is also an opportunity for the trade to learn which direction their industry is – and isn't – going in."

At the Johannesburg edition of the event – scheduled for August this year – the organisers are planning to introduce a ranges of services developed specifically for trade buyers. These will include a trade-only morning, a business matchmaking service and a networking function. At present, several of the exhibitors at Decorex already have commercial ties with Asian retailers – and many are eyeing China in a bid to develop their businesses.

A good example here is Zulu Hides, a company that produces and sells rugs and other products made from cow hide. The company uses only Nguni cattle skin, a breed unique to southern Africa, which offers an array of colours and patterns that can complement the decor of most spaces. The company is certified for export to several countries. With a declared interest in developing leads from Hong Kong stockists, Owner Ryan Thompson says: "The Chinese are very interested in our products – business is certainly picking up there for us."

Heather Moore, Owner of Skinny la Minx, a South African home textiles manufacturer, exports her printed fabrics all over the world. She already has several stockists in Asia, including a retailer in Hong Kong. She describes her products as Scandinavian-inspired, with Japanese influences in the pattern and colour, with a dose of African chic thrown in. Now looking to work with independent retailers, she says: "It's important we have a close relationship with our international stockists – they need to be able to share our enthusiasm for our products."

In terms of unusual artisanal giftware with a strong African personality, Durban-based Mninizo Trading produces handwoven objects from telephone wire to create Zulu-inspired designs in kaleidoscopic colours. The company describes itself as "export-ready".

According to the organisers, international trade buyers at Decorex come to source high-end African textile products, craft items and furniture. With the South African Rand falling to a record low against the US dollar in January 2016, such products clearly provide exceptional value for the international trade.

Photo: A 2016 trend pod.
A 2016 trend pod.
Photo: A 2016 trend pod.
A 2016 trend pod.
Photo: Curated textiles on show.
Curated textiles on show.
Photo: Curated textiles on show.
Curated textiles on show.

Decorex Cape Town 2016 took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 29 April-2 May. There were 36,123 visitors, of whom 14% were trade buyers.

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Cape Town

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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