Artists We Love: Nehanda Designs

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr PHOTOS Supplied

Local design studio Nehanda Design specialises in bespoke and custom mobiles, perfect for a nursery, children’s room or just for the young-at-heart. We chatted to Nehanda Magan about where the idea came from and how each custom piece is born.

How did your passion for mobiles develop?

Completely out of the blue. I did not see it coming at all. In 2019 my cousin asked me to make her a baby mobile for her firstborn as she couldn’t find exactly what she wanted in South Africa. She sent me a reference photo and asked me to add African Animals to the design. At the time I was freelancing at an Industrial Design Studio full-time and making handbound sketchbooks as a side hustle. I had always enjoyed working with fabric and doing handcrafts, but it had been a while. I had NO idea how I would make this mobile, however, the wonderful internet of people and tutorials on Google and YouTube are excellent ways of developing new skills. After a month or three, and many late nights on the couch after work, my very first baby mobile was created. It had a giraffe, lion, zebra and rhino with some trees, mountains and our signature Table Mountain. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about doing another mobile but my cousin hinted that this was a need in South Africa. As soon as I posted it on my Instagram, a friend asked me to make one with Proteas as she needed a baby shower gift. A brief and a much tighter deadline than the last. Now, that’s how you get me going. I couldn’t find any references or examples of Proteas and sunbirds online which sparked my creative juices to create patterns and this is where the passion started. 

Nehanda Design’s first mobile.

What keeps your creative juices flowing?

It’s very rewarding to form a flat piece of fabric into a 3-dimensional flower or animal. After figuring out how the felt works and how to manipulate the felt to get the best out of it. It’s a fun thought process to quickly visualise how I would make a handstitched version of a flower or animal that I see while hiking through Cape Town mountains, or when a friend asks me to add a Gatsby to their mobile design. To answer your question, what keeps my creative juices flowing is spending time in nature, ideas shared between friends and believe it or not, the custom requests from clients. I could never have thought of all the mobile designs we’ve created in the past 4 years. People are filled with amazing, wacky ideas and it’s so rewarding to bring these ideas to life. The wackier the better, as this usually sparks conversations in the studio about ideas for new products and designs. 

Do you prefer commissions or coming up with your own ideas?

That’s a tough one but I think I definitely prefer commissions. I usually enjoy other people’s ideas more than my own. I enjoy the problem-solving involved in getting an unexpected commission and having to figure things out within a time frame. Funnily enough, more often than not, I get commissions for ideas I’ve been wanting to create for a few months beforehand. YAY! Those are the commissions I’m most grateful for. An example of this was 2 or so years ago, I started collecting driftwood to start creating some new products (still in development) and a few months later, I got a super unique commission to create a driftwood mobile with ocean elements. I wasn’t able to take any good photos of it at the time but that was one of my favorite commissions to date! 

What’s the wackiest mobile you’ve ever made?


What is the process for producing a mobile?

We start by prepping the bamboo hoop. This involves drilling eight evenly distributed holes, threading the holes and glueing beads onto the hoop. A day later, once the glue is set, we can then balance the hoop by tying the 8 threads together a few inches above the centre of the hoop, making sure the hoop is level and the threads are all evenly tensioned. Then we move on to creating the elements for the mobile. I design new patterns on graphic design computer software and use the Cricut Maker (a true game changer in the world of craft and design) to cut the felt into the shapes we need. Maimoona who has been working with me for the past year and a bit – learning the craft of hand-stitching – then embroiders peaceful faces onto the animals, plaits their tales, paints details onto the felt, stitches the felt together before carefully stuffing, closing and adding finishing touches like ears and noses to the little creatures.

Finally, I assemble the mobile with pom-poms (that we make in batches beforehand) and felt balls that we buy from a local supplier. To finish, I package the mobile into a fabric drawstring bag with a little ‘Take Care’ note, and an anti-tangle disk before sending it off to its new home. Phew! 

Who are they marketed toward?

Our mobiles are marketed to best friends, aunties, grandmas, and husbands looking for the perfect gift for their pregnant loved one who’s in the process of nesting and creating the perfect space for her new little love. Also, soon-to-be moms who would like something specific for their little one’s nursery. These mobiles make lovely combined gifts between a group of friends too. They are truly special keepsakes that are made to last for generations. They can be appreciated throughout the development from a baby to a toddler by initiating story time and learning about whatever it is that’s in the mobile. They just need to be elevated a little higher year by year, to keep out of reach. A friend I gifted a mobile to recently, said to me, with tears in his eyes when he pulled the mobile out of the packaging, that it was as precious as the blanket his grandmother crocheted for his baby boy. Proud and humbling moment! 

What’s a mobile you’ve always dreamed of making?

Driftwood draped in local felt foliage and flowers inspired by Western Cape mountain ranges. For Maimoona, a Studio Ghibli mobile. 

How many people do you have on your team or are you a 1-woman show?

We are a two-woman show with an extra woman helping on the sidelines every now and then. Maimoona spent 9 months doing an internship with me, learning the ins and outs of every process involved in designing and making the mobiles. She now works with me on a part-time basis helping stitch elements together for the mobiles. 

What does a regular day look like for you?

First things first, I wake up anywhere between 5:30 am – 7 am depending on my partner’s work schedule, say good morning to Gia Jane our beautiful overzealous doggie, and I think about doing yoga and meditation. Sometimes I actually do it, sometimes I don’t, and nap for another 30 minutes. Head to my studio at 196 Victoria Road, Woodstock. It’s in a big beautiful orange, Victorian-style building with a peaceful courtyard in the centre. Walking into this space in the mornings is truly one of my favourite things about each working day. I answer emails and any mobile enquiries. I do a session of social media marketing, checking news, and the inevitable scrolling that comes with it all. I then get straight into a few of the following tasks: managing workload for Maimoona, cutting felt for stock elements, designing new patterns for commissions, assembling mobiles, photographing mobiles, editing photos of mobiles, taking behind the scene photos of us in studio, designing and creating samples of new product ideas, taking videos for content creation, checking and updating product costings, reaching out to possible retail partners, content creators or anyone else who might be interested in working with me. A quick lunch, back to the never-ending to-do list, and then a final goodbye, farewell and see ya later before heading home anywhere between 4 pm – and 8 pm to eat, sleep and repeat. 

What are your plans for the future?

Future plans involve expanding the Nehanda Design product supply to more retailers and customers in Europe, the UK and Australia. Employing more Cape Townians to help in the production and management of the business. Grow our product range to include more home and nursery decor and furniture products.  And have the individual capacity to take on more exciting commissions and art projects that possibly involve working on a bigger scale and with different materials. 

Interested in a mobile? Visit their website, here.

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