Theme: South African Essence

If there is one design that truly represents a South African design aesthetic it is the Hlabisa Bench. A sublime blend of cross-cultural storytelling, traditional skills and technology, it invites people (in times of non-social distancing) to sit intimately for a chat. It is an embracing experience thanks to the undulating curved back inspired by memories of Thabisa Mjo’s childhood visits to the hills of KwaZulu-Natal. When the renowned designer set out to create the bench with the award-winning duo, Stephen Wilson and Phillip Holland of Houtlander, she wanted a design that had a strong sense of home. The quirky legs, for instance, were directly inspired by the potjies in her grandmother’s house. Her creative storytelling was in perfect alignment with the arts-and-craft signature style of Houtlander, whose sustainably sourced hardwood chairs are designed and engineered to be made by CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines, with a precision that ensures no nails or screws are used in the joinery. But having designed the frame, the threesome struggled with how they were going to weave through the back spindles, and experimented with several ideas until they realised that they needed highly developed skills to create an elegant pattern. And the answer was right in Mjo’s childhood stomping ground. Deep in KwaZulu-Natal is a group of master weavers lauded the world over for their unique and exceptionally beautiful basket weaving. Using natural and dyed ilala palm in tight coiled formation, each weaver has her own style of repeat patterns. For the original Hlabisa bench, Beauty Ngxongo led a group of eight weavers. It took 1,300 hours of intricate work to create the exquisitely patterned back. The Hlabisa bench is a seminal collectable piece destined to sit in a museum one day. It is no wonder, then, that when it made its debut at the Revelations International Fine Craft and Creation Fair at the Grand Palais in Paris, in 2019, a member of the esteemed Hermès family bought the original for their own collection. Because of the woven back, each bench is guaranteed to be a totally unique work of art and a great investment. Two five-seater booth versions will be on their way to Washington DC when businesses reopen, and a chair version is soon to be revealed. 

100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.