In Studio with… Laurie Wiid van Heerden

COMPILED BY Kerryn Fischer/Frank Features PHOTOS Luanne Toms/Frank Features

We caught up with the creative force behind innovative furniture brand Wiid Design to find out more about his approach to design, and his studio space.

Walking into Laurie Wiid van Heerden’s Cape Town showroom, with its views of Table Mountain, is like stepping into a cabinet of curiosities, where the temptation to touch and feel is as critical as sight. As a self-taught furniture and product designer, Laurie has been reimagining wood, clay, glass, steel, terrazzo and, of course, cork for more than a decade under the auspices of Wiid Design.

How he learned his craft

Before Laurie started Wiid Design, he was an apprentice to various artists and craftsman, learning skills from cutting and kiln drying the timber to manufacture furniture pieces. Assisting artist Wim Botha, he also worked on large scale projects that entailed steel, fine carpentry, joinery and prepping various materials for carving.

“As a designer, you have to understand materials and various software prior to designing a product. I had to experiment with cork for over 10 years in order to fully understand the various properties. When I initially opened Wiid Design, it was only myself and Sam (my first employee) who physically manufactured everything for more than 5 years in a small workshop in Woodstock.

“Having the knowledge to communicate to engineers, carpenters and suppliers in the correct way is one of the most important factors of being a designer and running a design business. It involves lots of research and trial and error, and it takes experience. It also allows you to push boundaries and perhaps adapt and modify designs in ways you might not consider if you were only outsourcing or if you do not have the correct amount of experience.”

His approach to design

His sensorial touch is evident in an impressive collection of bespoke products and designs that explore the tension between the natural and man-made and put him at the intersection between art and interior design.

“The essence of what we do at Wiid centres around a passion for materials and the tradition of craft, a curiosity for experimentation and revealing the artisanal soul and intimacy of the handmade. For me, the power of the collective means fewer boundaries, more opportunity and learnings and the excitement of building momentum together as a creative community.”

“Design to me is not just about function; it’s about how it makes you feel. So, instead of a piece of cork, a lump of terrazzo, or a dollop of clay, I try to use these materials to convey a feeling in all who come across them. That feeling, for me, is a successful design.”

The space, why he choose it, and how it’d evolved

His studio, workshop and factory in Cape Town’s Woodstock is a place where Laurie’s ideas take form; from giant cork pendants that draw the eye upward to hand-blown amber glass tumblers designed to cradle perfectly in the palm of one’s hand or the raw glamour of handmade ceramic tabletops glazed to perfection in an ombré of autumnal shades. It’s a space resplendent in Laurie’s love of art, colour and collectables.

“We bought the building in 2014. I loved the 90’s double-volume structure with its simplistic grey face brick facade. It is an industrial building with massive volumes, parking and most importantly it was not a heritage building, which meant I could  make changes to suit our needs without going through drama regarding certain regulations.

“We had to do quite a lot of renovations  make it work for my business. We gutted all the offices to make it more open-plan, installed a new roof, an oak floor, two skylines in the showroom, cast all the floors in a gloss grey epoxy resin, and painted the facade black. We painted the interior walls in a crisp white to create a clean canvas, and then also included grey and black detailing all over to create a uniformed clean/ contemporary look.

“The natural light in the showroom allows for a calm green space with oversized plants in an almost tropical conservatory setting, where I can showcase not only the work we do, but also the things I collect.

A typical working day

It’s a full working day for Laurie and his team – he gets the factory every day at around 8.30am and leaves around 6:30 / 7:00pm. First up is to do the rounds downstairs in the factory side, greet the staff and double check what’s on the production schedule, what needs to go out and what needs to be ordered.  

“Monday’s and Friday’s are more intense due to the week’s planning and general collections and deliveries. I’ll head up then to my office to have a coffee or two, scan through emails, and go through my to do lists. I am very hands-on, particularly with managing projects and our production. I therefore constantly move between my office and the factory overseeing progress, quality and timelines with the team. Or I could be out doing an installation (which is often the case).

“It’s my job as the owner and creative director to keep track of all the various stages of product development and manufacturing from start to scratch. This includes design work, presentations, quotations, invoicing, product development, production schedules, timelines, packaging layouts, exports and delivery schedules.”

He still make time for design

As the business has developed, much of his day is now absorbed in the studio/factory management and admin, but Laurie still makes sure he’s in touch with his roots, where designing new collections and experimenting is what makes him happy.

“I have a very capable team whom I personally trained over the years. It is however important for me to be hands-on when it relates to new products we are prototyping, especially with regards to the ceramics. Though we have various collections that we constantly manufacture on a daily basis, it’s the new products and the mix of incorporating new materials with the old that excites me. When we do a new product, I am always involved in development and, once the new product or collection has been trialled and tested, I will hand it over to our team for production. I’m constantly trying to find more time to do design new work … I love making new stuff and getting involved in the process.”

The art hanging on the studio wall and the stories behind them

Laurie has loads of art and collectibles – it’s been a passion of his to collect and trade from a young age. The professional trading spark happened when he worked under Otto du Plessis from Bronze Age, as he was the first person to teach Laurie the value of trading. 

“Currently I have pieces by William Kentridge, Wim Botha, Conrad Botes, Jillian Lochner, Frank van Reenen, Lionel Smit, Otto du Plessis, Ceramic Matters, Nicolaas Maritz, Lakin Ogunbanwo and Barry Salzman to name a few. I also have a passion for collecting plants such as cacti and various rare specimens, natural history, furniture, walking sticks and antique plant stands.“

Laurie Wiid van Heerden

Laurie’s favourite and most treasured art pieces include:

  • Vases sculpted by the late Anthony Harris from Ceramic Matters – “He was like a father figure to me and my best friend, we often traded and the various vases I have collected from him over the years  are priceless to me.“
  • Charcoal and ink sketches by Wim Botha – “When I apprenticed Wim at his studio in Kommetjie he was well aware of my passion for collecting art and gifted me these artworks to say thank you after we completed exhibitions.“
  • Small Ink drawing by William Kentridge – “William was staying in the old slave cottage in Simon’s Town (back then part of Bronze Age) I walked to him and provided a small leather bound book with handmade paper including a quill pen – I then ask if I can have his autograph, he smiled and said, ‘what a beautiful book and pen‘ he drew me a small bird and provided his signature underneath.“
  • Oil Painting by Lionel Smit “untitled” – “I have known Lionel for more than 12 years and we have collaborated on numerous hand painted benches, I have traded with him many times but this special painting is something I treasure“

New products/ranges in the pipeline

Currently almost 60% of Laurie’s business relates to custom products designed and developed for lodges, boutique hotels and private homes locally and abroad.

“We are therefore constantly developing new pieces, but with tight deadlines it is often very difficult to professionally document these pieces and place them on our website or market places. We are however focusing on launching new ceramic tables, ceramic vessels including tableware, glassware and fun sculptural structures similar to our birdhouses.“

We are also in the process of developing new lights and furniture pieces from moulded cork and not machined and hand-finished cork. All our cork is already recycled cork, but the moulded element will add just another sustainability factor to our production process whereby we will not only reduce costs but also be able to produce products quicker from locally sourced recycled wine corks and offcuts from our standard production process. 

“Lots to keep me busy… but unfortunately the realistic thing all relates to time and our limited hours a day. I love what I do but it’s difficult to make time for the new and fun projects if one is constantly running a business with a busy production schedule.“

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