Design Journey: Tonic Design

Tonic Design

WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly PHOTOS Supplied

Joburg designers Greg Gamble and Philippe van der Merwe are celebrating Tonic Design’s 21st birthday this year. Known for its refined craftsmanship, the brand is as sought-after now as it was two decades ago.


We met while studying interior design at Wits Technikon, and later decided to start a business together. The first Tonic studio was a tiny shop next to Fournos at Dunkeld West Centre. We began with the interiors of News Café and Mimmos restaurants, but then decided to start designing furniture – beautiful pieces proudly made in South Africa. The Alpine cabinet was one of our first designs. We wanted to create furniture that could be passed down through generations. People labelled us “retro” at the time, because the things that resonated most with us were the craftsmanship and construction of furniture from the 1950s through to the ’70s (which we felt was missing in the ’90s). It took us a long time to shake that off.


Since 2008, we’ve been designing airport SLOW Lounges, and our approach has remained the same from the start – rational, functional planning with an aesthetic that derives from that. We don’t try to force an aesthetic on a space. Instead, we respond to the environment and function while exploring various materials. A lounge is not just a place to sit and drink; it’s also a place in which to relax and have your senses stimulated.


Pieces of furniture we designed when Tonic began are able to sit alongside pieces that we’ve just released. Our furniture is timeless because we don’t follow trends. We launched the coffee table (above left) at Design Indaba in 2011, the year we spoke at the conference; it’s an abstract piece of solid oak, and had us playing around with just one material. The 2015 Lobby server, on the other hand, is about material contrast: hard steel and warm walnut. We also love its juxtaposition of clean lines and ridges. In 2017, we designed the Facade unit (above right), a Brutalist piece made of sandblasted aluminium, inspired by brise-soleil façades that shield buildings from the sun. Architecture is a big reference in our furniture.


The Garden Café at The Newt in Somerset in the UK is owned by Babylonstoren’s Karen Roos, so we knew it wouldn’t be just another little café in the countryside. We had to deliver something exceptional; at the same time, it needed to be understated. This contrast plays into much of our work. We believe our environment is there to enhance an experience, not to be the experience. We designed the café to make the most of the garden views, and to celebrate the way the food is made with an open kitchen. It’s restrained but with considered details, such as the washbasins in the bathrooms that reference old drinking troughs on the farm.


We expanded our Kramerville showroom last year, to coincide with Tonic’s 20-year anniversary. There are references to Joburg in things such as the textured walls and the earthy space with elements of high gloss. It allows us to showcase our furniture in an interesting way, creating architectural environments with zones for visitors to journey through. We’re so fortunate to still be doing what we do – being creative and playing.