Seeing Things in Black and White

Black and White

WORDS Sarah Buitendach PHOTO Supplied


It’s the ultimate high-impact duo – in fact, this combo has been loved by the design world since the year dot. Here’s VISI’s guide to a graphic match made in aesthetic heaven.

A Bit of a Grey Area

The timeless black-and- white combination manifests in nature, creative endeavours and ways that help us make sense of our world. But zebra crossings, penguins, American cop cars and 101 Dalmatians aside, there’s slightly confusing theory that underpins the mix.

For starters, black and white are known as achromatic colours. By that we mean that they are without hue. Simple? Not so fast: some people think neither is a colour at all – black, they argue, is the absence of colour. Then there’s the camp who reckons both are only shades. It’s endlessly debatable stuff.

We commonly refer to black and white together as “monochromatic”. Monochrome means “one colour”, and all black-and-white images and items qualify here. But monochrome could also refer to an image that uses any mix of a single colour. A painting only made in shades of green? Yup, that’s monochrome too. Not so black and white after all…

The Write Stuff

The variance achieved by putting the two “colours” together makes a powerful statement. It’s also this high contrast that makes black ink on white paper or black type on a white screen the easiest to read. An entire world has evolved around creating typography – designing and arranging letters and text so that copy is legible and appealing.

At VISI, we use Codec and Bembo in our body copy, but globally, the most used font is Helvetica. Created in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger and entrepreneur Eduard Hoffmann, it is used in corporate identities, including those of Nestlé, Microsoft and BMW. It’s an example of a “sans serif” font which, as the name suggests, is a typeface that doesn’t have serifs or small lines attached to the letters. A serif font does – think classic Times New Roman, created in 1931 for the UK’s Times newspaper (hence the name).

The Soft Life

At first glance, black- and-white interiors may seem a balm to the colour-averse, but they offer so much more. The first win is that this approach can be interpreted in whatever way you fancy. If traditional decor
is your thing, there are timeless chequerboard floors and oversized couches with white slip-on covers. If minimalism floats your boat, sexy-lined pieces can be found at French brand Ligne Roset’s showroom in Kramerville. Go white-heavy in a space, or lean hard into black – your call.

The trick is to contrast the shades boldly, and add interest with textures, accessories (especially ceramics) and patterns. Think about painting walls or kitchen cabinets black, or going big with monochrome wallpaper. A black-and-white palette is especially effective on soft furnishings, and there is no shortage of exceptional fabrics that utilise this killer combo. French brand Pierre Frey, founded in 1935, is especially known for its showstopper, modern, painterly monochrome textiles, while British interiors stalwart Colefax and Fowler offers some great classic options. You’ll find both imports in SA at Mavromac.

St Leger & Viney also excels at monochrome softs, and brings in the fab Portuguese brand Aldeco, whose Decoupé Velvet in black reminds you what a statement fabric is. And remember: it absolutely works to introduce tones of grey and off-white, metallics and even the odd bright accent to an otherwise colour-free zone.

Ramping it Up

Has there ever been a modern moment when black and white wasn’t in fashion? Tuxedos, Vans slip-ons, a classic spotty frock – the pair can be graphic, elegant or edgy, and can work in any context. Every designer, from Christian Dior to Thebe Magugu, has given the combo a spin – but there are some couturiers who’ve made it part of their signature.

British designer and 1960s mod icon Mary Quant is celebrated for popularising super-short mini-skirts and dresses. She’s also remembered for bold, geometric monochrome outfits, with matching stockings and accessories.

Quant’s op art-like sartorial spin is juxtaposed with the sophisticated take on the topic by its undisputed queen, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The French designer famously said, “Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.” Adoration for the combo is clear in everything from Chanel’s minimal logo to contemporary interpretations of its founder’s famous suits.

A current exhibition at London’s V&A Museum, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, illustrates this brand mainstay perfectly.

Looking Through a Lens

Artists naturally tend towards black and white. From preliminary sketches in charcoal on paper to huge paintings like Pablo Picasso’s harrowing oil depiction of war, Guernica, it’s a relationship that goes back centuries. Photography is one of the more recent extensions of this dynamic, having only been invented 200 years ago.

South Africa has an impressive history of black-and-white photography – both as art and in the reportage sense. The photographers who worked for Drum magazine in the middle of the last century epitomised the latter. Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo, Jürgen Schadeberg and Bob Gosani were just some of the team who captured life under apartheid so evocatively for the publication. You can buy prints, notebooks and T-shirts featuring Drum’s famous covers from Shop BAHA at Johannesburg’s 44 Stanley.

The late David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng, Joburg-based Roger Ballen and Cape Town-based Jo Ractliffe are our most famous black-and-white art photography exports. Jo’s recent body of work, “Landscaping”, which showed at Stevenson gallery in Cape Town earlier this year, depicted images taken on the west coast of the country. These strong, unexpected expressions of terrain illustrate why her work is in such high demand. They are also a precursor (and inspiration) to several exciting young talents who are using this punchy medium.

Zimbabwean-born Tatenda Chidora is one example. A commercial, fine art and fashion photographer, his work was exhibited at the important 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London this year, with Joburg gallery BKhz. His creations are representative of what people call “new African photography”, and his fascination with light, portraiture and “beloved black-and- white photography” manifests as powerful interpretations of everyday urban life.

No Colour Block

It makes sense, given their propensity for order, balance and proportion, that architects would gravitate towards both the tonal harmony and the drama created by black and white. Canada’s Matière Première Architecture’s Dyptique project is the perfect illustration of this. The small Quebec firm made the most of the spectacular surroundings with this angular beauty – saltbox roof and glass walkway included. The black wood exterior and predominantly white interior emphasise the team’s precise design.

By comparison, US architect David Jameson transformed an existing house into a knockout home that uses white stucco, impressive volume, black window frames and what the studio calls “glass temples” as an offset to a particularly verdant site. This build is an example of what clever reinvention of space can achieve.

That said, our absolute favourite black-and- white residential building is undoubtedly local House 4AK, conjured by Swansilva Architecture. This Kleinmond gem is an exercise in welcoming contemporary design, with informal white bagged-brick walls offsetting a black roof and window frames. The combination results in a wonderful family home that seems to emerge from the fynbos.


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