The Curator Q&A: Mpho Vackier and Thabisa Mjo


INTERVIEW Amelia Brown PHOTOS Lutendo Malatji

We caught up with award-winning designers Mpho Vackier of TheUrbanative and Thabisa Mjo of Mash T. Design Studio who recently won the 100% Design South Africa Designer of the Year award.

Did you always know design was in your future?

MV: I’d always dreamt of pursuing a creative career and 10 years ago I made the leap of faith to quit my job as a metallurgist [metal engineer] to study interior design. The ability to connect people through design has always been a goal and being able to create amazing products/spaces that make people’s lives better is wonderful.

TM: I just wanted to tell stories and I stumbled upon design. When I won the Nando’s Hot Young Designer competition [for the Tutu 2.0 pendant light], I didn’t even know I had this gift. That’s been the best thing that came out of that experience.

Can you describe something that you grew up with that means a lot to you and had a significant impact on you as a designer?

MV: My grandmother’s coffee set. It’s really not the cutest ceramic set, but I love it because my grandmother did. It’s an heirloom, which reminds me that the work I do may one day be an heirloom – for my son and, hopefully, other people’s kids – and a way for me to honour and relay stories from all our wonderful cultures.

TM: The potjie pot. When we’d visit my gran as kids, she’d bring out that pot to prepare a feast. It represents family, togetherness, serving. It was the inspiration for my Potjie Server design.

Is there an object that you don’t have that you wish you did?

TM: I had a pink Disney Princess TV. It was my favourite thing ever. I just threw it out recently and I already regret it!

Mpho Vackier

What drives you?

MV: When I started TheUrbanative, I identified that one of the guiding core values of what I was trying to achieve is that “we believe in authentic design”. There’s always a personal opinion or standpoint with my work, be it Ndebele graphics or the magic and politics of African hair. We all have a valid point of view and we can add to the conversation. Everyone I have collaborated with comes with their own unique way of looking at the world and when we add all these viewpoints together, we create work that is truly unique.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

MV: Before I start a collection, I have to listen, tap in, explore, research, read, investigate and meditate. I’m inspired by how people live, history, heritage, culture, travel, societies, art, design, technology, engineering, nature… I’m inspired by how culture defines where we place our value and by the possibility of connecting differing people/societies/culture through the stories we tell with our products and furniture.

TM: A recent discovery is the Phansi Museum in Durban. It’s a gem, a treasure; everyone should visit.

Describe your design aesthetic in three words.

MV: Functionality. Craft. Story.

TM: A pure delight!

Your greatest achievement to date?

MV: This has been a year of growth. Having our Nenzima desk nominated for the Design Indaba Most Beautiful Object of the Year award by Donald Nxumalo was the most amazing feeling. Winning – again really unexpected – the 100% Design SA Designer of the Year award was the coolest moment and it has energised us as a team. More than anything, I’m proud that at 30-something I dared to start TheUrbanative with no previous knowledge of design or the industry, coming from an engineering background to a totally different career. The fact that our work continues to connect, inspire and make people happy is very rewarding.

TM: I’m just getting started! In addition to the recent recognition with the 100% Design SA award, we got to showcase our collaboration with Weylandts at the show. I was invited by the retailer to work with fellow female designers Mpho and Monique Vee on The Theatre of Sleep. For the collab, we created pieces related to the act of sleeping and dreaming. It demonstrates that handcrafted furniture can be scalable and mass-produced.

Thabisa Mjo

Which designers do you admire?

MV: Right now, I’m in love with Malene Barnett’s textile and ceramics and Marie Burgos furniture and lighting. Their work is bold, sophisticated and intended to connect.

Other all-time favourites are Kelly Wearstler – I love how multifaceted she is as a designer – and Jaime Hayon, who designs with humour and emotion and draws from his Spanish heritage.

In addition to Thabisa, locally I love Atang Tshikare, The Ninevites, Peter Mabeo, Monique Vee, Ditiro Mashigo, Renée Roussow, Rich Mnisi, Thebe Magugu… Their work is constantly pushing the boundaries of what African design is and the stories behind their designs are resonating with people, which is the important bit. That connection is why most of us do what we do.

Is there an artwork of a piece of design that you covet?

MV: More art by Anastasia Pather and Sakhile Cebekhulu.

TM: A Serge Mouille 6-Arm Rotating Ceiling Lamp, a David Krynauw Haywire Chandelier, a Dokter and Misses Kassena Town cabinet, oh, and a Hermès Birkin bag for good measure.

Is there a building that stands out for you?

MV: Syddansk Universitet communications and design building in Kolding, Denmark, by Henning Larsen Architects. It’s fitted with climate-responsive kinetic facade that regulates interior temperatures. I love it because I believe that as designers we should always endeavour to create products that are multifaceted and solve the ever-evolving problems of the user.

TM: The High Line in New York.

What are the items you’d save in a fire?

MV: My dogs, my sneakers, a rug from the Ninevites, an artwork called Haberdashery Warrior by Anastasia Pather, TheUrbanative’s first-ever Thandekile server, my laptop, and my collection of crown hair accessories.

TM: I’m a bit of a fashion girl, so my sneakers and my Tongoro snakeskin bag handmade in Senegal.

Words of wisdom for your younger self…

MV: Relax, it’s all gonna work out…

TM: …and it’s not that serious. (I still need to hear it!)

Follow Mpho (@theurbanative) and Thabisa (@mashtdesignstudio) on Instagram to keep up to date with their latest news.