Mash.T Design Studio x Houtlander: Hlabisa Bench

WORDS Amelia Brown IMAGES Brett Rubin

Award-winning local designers Thabisa Mjo of Mash.T Design Studio and Phillip Hollander and Stephen Wilson of Houtlander have come together to collaborate on the Hlabisa Bench, which was on show at Revelations Fine Craft and Creation Fair in Paris.

Thabisa explains that the shape of the bench was inspired by the three-legged pot that she saw her grandmother use when she visited her in KwaZulu-Natal. To her, this pot, which is a staple in many South African homes, represents the notion of home and hospitality.

In addition, the bench’s undulating silhouette references the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, a place that holds strong associations of home for Thabisa. Its unique shape was modelled in 3D before materials to complete the back were considered. This is a classic Houtlander approach: To develop furniture based on the principles of classic craftsmanship using high-end technology with a strong emphasis on a South African aesthetic or vernacular.

Following investigation and experimentation, its creators chose a basket weave. According to Stephen, the piece is “a juncture” that melds design and craft, technology and tradition. The weaving technique is both quintessentially South African and traditional, yet it holds the energy of an evolving craft.

The team had the challenge of finding a weaver that possessed the required skill and who could complete the project in six weeks in time for the opening of Revelations. The search led them to Hlabisa, a rural corner of KwaZulu-Natal – an appropriate location based on Thabisa’s connection to the province. It is home to a number of renowned South African master weavers, including Beauty Ngxongo, whose work has received international acclaim and is represented at the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Every master weaver has their own signature pattern and so, in accordance with this tradition, Beauty began the project using her distinctive motif. She had to fly abroad to attend an international exhibition, so the work was completed by another master weaver, Ma Ntuli. The result is that there are slight variations in the weaving pattern, which adds to the story and unique, hand-crafted aspect of the bench.

Stephen Hollander with Thabisa Mjo and master weavers Beauty Ngxongo and Ma Ntuli.

“It’s a living craft,” says Stephen of the centuries-old tradition of Zulu basket weaving. He’s enthusiastic about the blend of craft and design, and he and Phillip are eager to explore further possibilities.

Follow Mash.T Design Studio and Houtlander on Instagram for updates, and take a look at Houtlander’s Interdependence Bench II, winner of Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2019, here