“I feel more like a storyteller than a designer. But I use design to tell that story.”
Thabisa Mjo is an award winning designer from South Africa whose pendant “Tutu” lamps can be found in Nando’s restaurants across South Africa. Most recently, her work is in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Unfortunately, opening dates are uncertain due to France’s COVID-19 shut down, but ARK Republic journalist Monica D.Brown interviewed this remarkable designer during the first lock down in 2020 to learn about the inspiration for Thabisa’s unique design aesthetic.
ARK: Tell me about your sources of inspiration? Is this nature, traditions in your community, your own imagination?
TM: I wanted to tell stories and design is the medium I chose to tell those stories.
My studio’s philosophy is to: create a contemporary South African design aesthetic by melding traditional crafts and technology; to share Black, South African culture and heritage using the medium of design; and to create income generating opportunities for the craftspeople we work with.
The Tutu light, so called because it resembles a ballerina’s tutu, is the very first product I’ve ever designed and it simply came about because I was trying to gain entry to the design industry. At the time, my interest was more in interior design, as I had majored in production design at AFD (The South African School of Motion Picture and Live Performance). I came across Nando’s Hot Young Designer search and the brief was to design a pendant. Nando’s would then buy 100 units of the winning pendant. I didn’t care about winning, I didn’t think I would win, but I just wanted to get their attention, and so I sketched “the Tutu” and submitted the drawing. And I won, to my surprise! Not only did I get their attention, but I discovered I had this gift of telling stories, [and] using product design as the medium—a gift I didn’t even know I had.
ARK: Are you most fascinated by form, texture or color?
TM: Form, definitely. When I started practicing, I thought color and print mixing were my strengths, but now I realize that it’s actually form.
ARK: What accounts for your choice of design as a career choice? Was this a dream, a teacher, a relative?
TM: I [have] loved storytelling for as long as I can remember. History was my favorite subject in school. After high school, I enrolled at AFDA, a film school where I majored in production design. As a production designer, you create the visual world that the story takes place in. I then started noticing spaces in the real world in a way I never had before. I’d go to a beautiful restaurant and would wonder why I wanted to stay there longer. [I asked myself] what about the way the space was set up made me feel good? [While there], I’d notice the furniture and think about who are the people who made that? Who are the people who put this together, [because] THAT’S what I want to do.
ARK: What are the traditions of craftsmanship in your community which find expression in your own work?
TM: The spirit of collaboration, first and foremost. And then the use of beads, weaving, using fashion as an expression; a lot of my silhouettes are inspired by fashion.
ARK: In working with a client how do you allow the client vision to drive the project and still allow your own creative ideas to be expressed?
TM: Yes, client leads and we follow. We’re not making the work just to please ourselves, we’re making it to be used by real people. We’re making it to meet our client’s needs.
ARK: Your work with Nando’s is well known. What are you most proud of with this global client?
TM: Winning that Nando’s Hot young designer competition changed the trajectory of my life. More than winning the competition, what was most important was that they helped me discover that I had this gift of product design that I never knew I had actually.
ARK: Explain the name of your business, MASH design studio.
TM: It was for a school project, it’s my nickname, Tash, and first letter of my surname, Mjo. And it just stuck. A friend actually came up with it. I suppose it’s also a play on “mashing” mine and my clients ideas to come up with the right solution for them.
ARK: Are you unique in South Africa as an interior designer who is a woman?
Hmm, this is a good question. My personal experience is that I am not. However, there are very few Black, female practicing furniture designers.
ARK: How do you use your business as an interior designer to inspire other upcoming designers in South Africa?
TM: We don’t focus on interior design in our studio, as that is a whole other skill set. We focus on creating products and furniture. In terms of inspiration, sometimes I think simply existing in a space that has not been accessible to Black people is an inspiration in itself because other young black people can dream that dream for themselves too, representation matters. I think also just being transparent about the fact that I don’t have all the answers, I am not afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help. I am not afraid to try something and if it fails, I try again and now I just know one more way of not doing it.
ARK: If your work is your professional signature, which project or piece best exemplifies this signature and a South African design aesthetic?
TM: This would be the Hlabisi bench. The Master weaver was Beauty Ngxongo.
As a kid, over the summer holidays, we would drive to KwaZulu Natal, a province in South Africa. My maternal grandmother’s home was nestled in the rolling hills so synonymous with this province. Even as a child, there was something so romantic and even nostalgic about driving slowly through the meandering, undulating hills; on our way to visit our granny. That’s where the undulating backrest of the bench came from. When we’d arrive, she would always be cooking up a feast over an open fire in her 3-legged cast iron pot popularly known as a “potjie.” The legs of the bench are inspired by the legs of this “potjie” pot.
Me and the head designers at Houtlander; Stephen Wilson and Phillip Hollander, wanted to create a piece that felt communal, that encouraged conversation, a cocoon. The piece had to honour both Mash.T and Houtlanders values. We knew the bench was not complete without the Zulu basket weaving on the backrest. So we reached out to master weaver, Beauty Ngxongo. Beauty is one of the foremost weavers in the world with work at The Met and the Smithsonian. She led a team of eight weavers to weave this backrest. It was the first time they had adapted their technique to work on a furniture piece, which was such an incredible honour for us.
ARK: In 2019, Cloe Pitiot, Curator, Modern and Contemporary Collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts, saw Thabisa’s work on display at the Bonne Esperance Gallery in Paris. I asked her to describe her response to the pieces and explain why the Musée des Arts Décoratifs purchased them for its permanent collection
TM: When we saw Thabisa Mjo’s work with my colleague Marianne Brabant, it was evidence that it had to be in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. I was just coming back from a journey in South Africa and her work was really a new expression of South Africa culture, crossing design, craft and tradition.
ARK: The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris has been acquiring pieces of South African art for several years now. What makes Thabisa’s work so remarkable?
TM: Her work is based on a reflection about the history of South African objects or traditional objects. Her capacity to transcend them, to combine them with new uses is very interesting. She is also playing with the notion of scale with her light Tutu 2.0 and this is very interesting. The idea of upcycling a traditional dress to create a light in huge dimensions questions our links between forms and uses.
ARK: I lived in Paris for 4 months and never visited the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Why is it a ‘must see’ on our next (Covid-19 permitting) visit to Paris?
TM: The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, located within the Louvre Palace of Paris since 1905, was created in 1882 in order to promote the applied arts and develop links between industry and culture, design and production. The museum preserves around 800,000 artworks from the French national collections including glass, ceramic, gold and silverware, jewellery, design, fashion and graphic design.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is “the” museum of the History of the objects. Our collections tell about life, uses, forms of the objects. The dialogue that the curators are creating between them reflects a great variety of views on the world, mixing different periods, cultures, traditions.
ARK: Describe yourself, Thabisa, in three adjectives.
TM: Hardworking. Visionary. Eager.
ARK: What’s your vision for your design company, MASH design studio?
TM: To build a sustainable, scalable business that will outlive me. To be at the forefront of establishing South African design as a category brand and to use our platform to create income generating opportunities for craftspeople.
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