Designer-maker spotlight: TheUrbanative

…There was a metallurgical engineer who followed her heart and became a designer. She formed her own company, TheUrbanative, with the aim of telling African stories through modern furniture and product design, and within three years became SA’s Designer of the Year. Meet the heroine of this story, Mpho Vackier

Designer-maker spotlight: TheUrbanative

Interview: Lin Murray

Portrait of Mpho Vackier by Lutendo Malatji

Three words to describe TheUrbanative?

Functionality. Craft. Story.

Tell us more about that, about story?

I believe representation, and the stories that mould us, are important – there is value in seeing yourself represented, it elevates you. Also, one of TheUrbanative’s core values is authentic design. When I approach any of my work, it’s from a personal standpoint on a specific subject – Ndebele graphics, for example – and not because everyone else is doing it. Everyone I have collaborated with also comes with their own unique way of looking at the world, and when we add all these view points together, it creates work that is truly unique and special.

From engineer to designer – how did that come about?

I grew up wanting to be a creator and problem solver and I guess I got to do that as a process engineer in the platinum mining industry, but I was yearning to be more creative. After 10 years, I finally had the means to go to design school, which is where I fell in love with the technical aspect of product and furniture design. After graduating, I worked as an interior designer and got the chance to have a small sponsored stand at Decorex in 2016 – then I had to design some pieces on the fly, and The Urbanative was born!

Can you describe your design process?

Again, for me it begins with, what story am I telling? And because I’m a contemporary designer, what new innovative technologies, materials and ways of thinking can I employ in order to have the work relevant to the modern client/user/viewer ie the urban native? I love the visual tension created by contrasting elements, materials and ideas, and the result thereof. I’m also inspired by patterns in everything and I love translating those patterns into functional 3D products. Most of my collections have begun with just a collection of sketches like line work, pattern play, differing shapes inspired by whatever it is I’m exploring and researching. I also believe you have to be plugged into the world around you, the conversations happening both on a local and global scale. Our Crown collection, for example, was inspired by African hair…

Why African hair?

There’s been a lot of conversation in pop culture globally about the politics of African hair, but also its magic and mystery, and even cultural significance in ancient civilisations, and I wanted to add to it. We often hear in mainstream media how stubborn and unruly African hair is – even I, as an African woman, struggled to fully love my hair until my late 20s. I wanted to offer an alternative view, to celebrate its beauty. So in a way, the collection is a kind of love letter to my own hair, but what’s been so amazing for me is how people from different backgrounds have really connected with it.

Where else do you turn for inspiration?

Everywhere, be it art, travel, everyday life and how people live – history, heritage, culture, societies – but also technology, engineering, nature…

What are your favourite materials to work with?

At the moment, I’m obsessed with cord, woven rope and woven details, as well as terrazzo and terrazzo-esque stone. But more than anything I’m excited by unexplored technologies that elevate materials, such as Dutch company Plasticiet’s man-made ‘marble’ from discarded plastics.

What does being named Designer of the Year alongside Thabisa Mojo at this year’s 100% Design mean to you?

The announcement was such an unbelievable and unexpected moment! I think because I came from an engineering background with no experience of the creative industry but a desire to learn and create from the heart, I’ve sometimes seen myself as an outsider. But the more we create and put work out that has meaning, and the more people connect with it, the easier it gets for me to believe that I am actually doing exactly what I ought to be doing with my life.

What are the challenges of being a designer in SA?

Establishing any new business is challenging; being an entrepreneur is a hard journey. I think more than anything, especially in a world that celebrates and sees the beauty in something for five minutes, you cannot do it for the accolades – you have to have a driving purpose that is not fuelled by the outside, but something deeper. But it’s not just about creating pretty things… the minute you have staff and people depending on your dream to succeed, it becomes more about the business of design, and how to sustain it. I wish more colleges prepared their students to run businesses on a more practical level.

What’s your best piece that you’ve made?

[Laughs] I have a few, but I guess if I had to nail it down it would be the Oromo chair and the Nenzima server. I’m a huge fan of form when I design because I believe if the form is resolved then the piece can live forever. The fun begins when you start playing with various materials and you get a glimpse of the different ‘faces’ of the piece. The Oromo chair can be made to exude an array of look and feels, fitting into muted interiors or vibrant ones, and the same can be said of the Nenzima server. Additionally, when we’ve applied certain minute changes in terms of proportion and scale to both the pieces, they’ve managed to give birth to two or three more iterations of themselves – and that’s cool!

And if there was one SA design piece you wish you could have made…?

The Shongololo couch by Haldane Martin – because of its resolved form, the versatility of the design, and it’s fun! I first came across it whilst studying interior design and I think at some point most of my school design projects had a Shongololo couch in them…

Queen Nenzima server TheUrbanative. Picture by Apricot Studio

What excites you most about SA design right now?

All the new fresh talent that’s bubbling on the surface – I am inspired so much by it and how all these amazing voices will shape and add to the SA design landscape. I love the stories and energy behind locally designed products; the vibrancy and authenticity and the fact that there’s a ‘community’ culture wherein designers come together and feed off each other’s energy. The result is original products that have a unique global appeal.

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