Review: Design Indaba

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Stefan SagmeisterCape Town’s annual Design Indaba is a celebration of design excellence and innovative thinking. Created to showcase some of the finest and most imaginative ideas in the design world under one roof, it comprises the conference – during which global speakers take the stage and share their creative visions – alongside an exhibition of South African designers and their wares.  Over the years, Design Indaba has also grown to include music events and a mini film festival (ten films in ten days at various original locations in Cape Town).

For the general public, the expo was, as always, the biggest draw. This year’s expo had 450 exhibitors, all proudly South African. Many of them, however, can be found at trendy markets throughout the Cape and in hipster stores in Woodstock.  I was not alone in wishing that more space had been devoted to the emerging creatives, of which there seemed to be only a handful. After all, this is where the future of South African design lies and surely greater effort should be taken to nurture these talents, or the expo runs the risk of falling prey to the critics who label it as ‘elitist’ due to the high price of the stands, and ‘boring’ because we’ve seen it all before.

The conference – aimed squarely at die-hards – is both exhausting and exhilarating. One is immersed in creative concepts and imaginative ideas for three long days, literally eating, breathing and sleeping design (case in point – I dreamed about Dave Hakken’s edible pen).  My scribbled field notes are an indication of the breadth of the topics covered – cowboys, chefs, storytelling, art, music, happiness, politics, Danish design, mobile phones, word games and umbrella stands. All are shot through with the golden thread of ingenuity.

Much has been written, posted, tweeted and instagrammed about the speakers, and their transcripts, biographies and projects are all available on the Design Indaba website. I would therefore like to highlight three speakers who were extremely impactful and whose words lingered long after the final applause had died down and the last ‘send’ button had been pressed.

The common strand linking these three diverse creatives is the passion they evidently feel for their professions and the dedication they show in pushing creative boundaries. They do not merely think out of the box, they transform the box into a multi-coloured mandala.

First to make a mark on me was a collaboration of three graphic designers: Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dungen who collectively form the Dutch design agency Experimental Jetset, based in Amsterdam. Apart from being funny and resourceful, they also snatched one of the most coveted design jobs from the claws of bigger agencies – creating the new graphic identity of the renowned Whitney Museum in New York.

Focusing on printed matter and site-specific installations, Experimental Jetset is best known for typographic solutions, and is featured in hip documentary ‘Helvetica.’ (“It was a part of our everyday vocabulary, but we didn’t like to be defined by Helvetica. We have however ourselves to blame. By appearing in the documentary, we signed our own death sentence – in Helvetica of course.”)

The theme of their presentation was simple, but fresh and inspiring. Using each letter of the alphabet they illustrated their inspirations and the work that resulted. Whilst most designers allude vaguely to certain ‘influences’, preferring to project an image of total originality, the members of Experimental Jetset are far more transparent. It was fascinating to see how inspirations as diverse as the Beatles, a Dutch anarchist movement, the film Blow Up and posters from the 1960s, have all manifested in their projects.

The next speaker needed little introduction.  David Goldblatt, the famed South African documentary photographer, confessed he was overawed and intimidated by the level of the previous speakers and felt himself a mere “plodder” in comparison. From someone described by the Wall Street Journal as producing “…images of great beauty and the most profound humanity,” these were humble words indeed.

Goldblatt – an honorary fellow of The Royal Photographic Society in 2007, the recipient of numerous lifetime achievements awards and one of the few photographers to have a solo exhibition at MOMA in New York (1988) – then talked through a selection of his photographs, giving deeply personal insights into the stories and circumstances behind them.  He described his work as possessing “convoluted complexities” and spoke of how he often strives to take a photograph devoid of political undertones – “purely lyrical” – yet never achieves it. The work he chose to show included portraits of Apartheid stalwarts as well as their victims; images captured with compassion and dignity.  All too soon he concluded, receiving a well deserved standing ovation from the riveted audience. I was left feeling that in the beauty of David Goldblatt’s photographs, lay the shame and regret of our past.

Labeled the ‘rock star’ of designers and a regular TED speaker, third speaker Stefan Sagmeister has won practically every important international design award there is to win. He formed the New York-based Sagmeister Inc in 1993 and has since designed for clients as diverse as the Rolling Stones, HBO, and the Guggenheim Museum.

His presentation at the Design Indaba was focused on his exhibition, ‘The Happy Show’ and his documentary ‘The Happy Film’, which aims to highlight the different levels of happiness and show how people can determine if they are truly happy or not. Visually lush and exciting, the presentation was infectious and uplifting.

Design Indaba Conference 2014 ended on a high note with “#happy” trending on Twitter and the audience belting out Sagmeister’s ode to clients to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ‘Ode to Joy’.

There may be room for improvement (not all the speakers were mind blowing and the sessions ran horribly late) but one thing is for certain – right now our cups runneth over with inspiration… enough to last until they are refilled next year.

Samantha Reynolds

Design Indaba 2014 ran at the CTICC 26 February to 2 March 2014.

Samantha Reynolds is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on art and travel. More of her work can be found at goldendreams.me.

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