Heavy Metal: Behind the Medium

WORDS Jo Buitendach PHOTOS South African Tourism (Mapungubwe Rhino),  Mcghiever (Weisman Art Museum), Supplied, Hayden Phipps

Metal is used to craft the most delicate jewellery, yet it’s so robust it can hold up a towering skyscraper. practical and beautiful, it inspires creativity, invention and pushing design limits.

An excavation into the world of metal is so complex, it could have you digging for years. Iron, steel, copper and bronze – the list goes on. Take gold: it alone is a material that has built nations, ruined empires and been the cause of colonisation and hardship. Being able to extract metals from the earth and fashion them into new shapes for countless uses has changed the way we live. Metals have forged the development of society, with the Bronze then the Iron Age – and even the digital age, with its reliance on substances such as cobalt and gallium. And just try surviving Stage 6 loadshedding without a lithium battery!

The Golden Rule

Found in a royal burial site, the Mapungubwe rhino is made of wood covered in thin layers of gold foil.

In the 1930s, an ancient golden hoard was found in the Limpopo province. This royal burial site included a carefully crafted gold rhino, sceptre and bowl. Known as Mapungubwe and dating back to the early 13th century, this civilisation not only mined gold, but also had the metallurgical skills to smelt and fashion it. Today Mapungubwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


While humans have been utilising metal for thousands of years, initially it was only used as a small element of construction. As methods and quality improved, so did the ability to use iron and steel in large-scale construction processes, influencing the way we build and live. In the late 1800s, steel skeleton frames began to be used widely, making buildings taller and, eventually, skyscrapers possible.

Built to house the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Crystal Palace is a striking iron-and-glass structure.

If there is any doubt – and there shouldn’t be – that metal can be beautiful, just look at the Crystal Palace. Created to house the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, this jaw- dropping iron-and-glass structure aimed to show off the technological advancements of the time. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, it embodied the spirit of British innovation and consisted of 1 000 iron columns and 84 000 square metres of glass that took five months to put together. It was a true celebration of technology and design.

The Fluidity of Metal

Designed by Frank Gehry, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis illustrates the architect’s mastery of metal as a building material.

Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is known for his alchemy with all things metal. Not afraid of experimentation, his groundbreaking designs – which include the Dancing House in Prague and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – almost undulate and flow. Thanks to the stainless-steel building skins he introduced, some have gone as far as to say he reinvented the art of metal cladding. His eye-catching Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis in the US, built in 1993, uses 22-gauge cladding with denting that creates a mirrored effect, letting the building reflect the world and sky around it.

On the International Front

The award-winning Lone Oaks Farm Hunter Education Station in Tennessee uses both cypress wood and ribbed metal cladding.

Lone Oaks Farm Hunter Education Station was the grand award winner at the Metal Architecture Design Awards in 2022. Owned by the University of Tennessee in the US, the 485-hectare site was envisioned as a centre of hospitality, agriculture and youth education. Tasked with the project, cross-disciplinary studio El Dorado took architectural cues from the existing buildings on the farm, and was primarily inspired by local barns. The result is a simple yet ingenious design of cypress wood, contrasted with a protective ribbed-metal exterior cladding.

Closer to Home

Taking its inspiration from a historic Iron Age settlement, Phase 2 of the Freedom Park project is clad in copper.

Freedom Park is a heritage site that sits on a hill in Tshwane, and tells the story of liberation and human spirit. Phase 2 of a wider project known as !Xhapo (which includes a museum, a Pan- African archive and a study centre), it was a collaborative design effort between MMA Architects, Mashabane Rose Architects, and GAPP Architects and Urban Designers. “The Freedom Park heritage project took a lot of inspiration from Mapungubwe, the Iron Age settlement famous for its gold collection and situated on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe,” says Mphethi Morojele, managing director of MMA Design Studio, of their striking red-brick-and-metal design. “Copper was chosen for the cladding of !Xhapo because it’s a metal familiar to, and commonly used by, the people of the region, and also for its aesthetic and enduring qualities.”

Domestic Leanings

House Schalkwyk in Pretoria features a contemporary steel addition that was used to link two vastly different existing structures.

Drawbox Design Studio’s House Schalkwyk in Pretoria comprises a contemporary steel structure that links two vastly different existing buildings – one a Tuscan home, the other a traditional thatched-roof building. The new vertical steel addition, which also includes a bedroom and extension to an entertainment area, is suspended above the ground and nestled into a forest. The architects aimed for as little disturbance as possible to the site, which contains endangered trees. The unique home has been nominated as ArchDaily’s building of the year for 2023.

Put the Pedal to the Metal

Johannesburg furniture and product designer Joe Paine is known for his inventive, fun designs. Of his penchant for using metals, Joe says, “Steel and aluminium are extremely versatile. Depending on how you use them, they can be both strong and soft, warm and cold, or heavy and light. Personally, when I see raw exposed metal, I strangely feel like I want to chew it – like a gold prospector or a Bond villain!”

Joe Paine’s Marlena candleholder seems to levitate despite being made of solid aluminium.

One of Joe’s latest creations is the very glam Marlena candleholder, quirkily named after Marlena Evans, a lead character in the iconic soap opera Days of Our Lives. And just like Marlena was once “possessed” and levitated, this elegant candleholder seems to float too. Despite being made of solid aluminium, the mantle moves slightly upwards as the candle burns. joepaine.com

Another local design studio that pushes boundaries with metal is Cape Town’s NØDE, the brainchild of Gerrit Giebel and Charles Haupt. NØDE focuses on aluminium, and on using industrial manufacturing methods to expand what was thought possible in metal design, texture and colour. The work encompasses the electro-chemical process of anodising, which creates a hard honeycomb structure in the aluminium surface, making it scratch-resistant and possible to dye various colours. “Working with metal comes from our background in blacksmithing and bronze casting,” Gerrit explains. “This passion is extended with our new venture into aluminium, a highly recyclable metal known for its high strength-to-weight ratio and non-rusting attributes.”

Using an electro-chemical process, design studio NØDE can create a honeycomb structure in aluminium, then dye it in a variety of colours. Their INTERMISSIØN bench and CØNGREGATE table had Design Miami talking.

NØDE has many great products, from wall hangings to vases – but it’s the studio’s collaborative range with Southern Guild gallery, seen at Design Miami, that has everyone talking. The CØNGREGATE table is an eye-catching piece that, as its name suggests, brings people together. Brutalist in style, it weighs 250 kilograms and measures three metres in length. It may have a simple shape, but the machining of the aluminium pieces has to be completely accurate to ensure it holds together.

The INTERMISSIØN bench is a single piece of airplane-grade aluminium, worked at 450°C and shaped using an 80-tonne press. The shape and texturing of the bench meant many hours of hand-carving by Gerrit. Its name “alludes to the moment of pause and tactile curiosity that the object invites”.

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