2015 Emerging Creative Bonga Jwambi is a furniture designer and artist who specialises in creating trendy and affordable upcycled furniture using materials like pallets and box plastic strapping. Jwambi, who lives in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, had no formal training in art or design, but feels strongly that “art is something I can say I was born with”.
The realisation that he wanted to be an artist came to Jwambi while he was still at primary school: a Scottish Catholic nun doing community work in the area saw his work and commissioned him to draw Christmas cards for the organisation she was working with. It was a moment of revelation for him; the moment he realised the potential to make a career out of art.
Jwambi’s current range consists of chairs and stools and he plans to expand it to include small two-seater benches and lamps. His pieces have a clean, minimalistic aesthetic. We talked to him about where his inspiration comes from and where he hopes to take his design in the future.
Were you born in Cape Town?
I was born in Cape Town in an area called Crossroads, but my mother was removed from there to another area called Mfuleni. And then they were moved on to where I currently stay in Harare, Khayelitsha.
What sparked your interest in design?
I always thought I can produce better designs than the other designs that I see out there. And then I saw people throwing away stuff that I saw as reusable.
How are your designs succeeding at being better?
The clean cuts, different shapes of the wood and the comfort that the string brings to the designs. And I always experiment.
You sound like you have some diverse skills. What do you enjoy most?
What cool projects have you been involved in?
Renovating pre-schools and schools that are in need in the township and informal settlements. I do structural work and a friend does painting.
You shadowed visual artist Garth Erasmus while he painted a mural celebrating the jazz legends of the Western Cape. What did you gain from the experience?
It was the day of the launch of Open Design in Harrington Street and organised through VANSA (Visual Art Network of South Africa). I learnt that every time you are doing an art work, you must be aware of the surrounding and how it will affect it in a positive or negative way.
Does public art and mural painting appeal to you?
Yes, because of the impact it has on people and how much they appreciate it. And people having conversations because of what you created. For me that's a good feeling.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My work is clean, simple, classical and comfortable. And it fits every environment you place it in.
What motivates you to upcycle otherwise discarded material?
The idea is to reuse the stuff that other people see as rubbish, and show the public it can still be useful by giving it another life.
What materials do you use?
I use pallet wood, box string, wood glue, screws and wood stripes.
What processes do you use?
I clean the wood by sanding it, cut it into the right sizes; then I use wood glue and screws to assemble the chair and put on the string.
How did your idea for the chair start?
I just wanted to design a chair that had never been designed before. I don't draw on paper, I just start building and experimenting.
What inspires you?
People who struggle but keep on going with a smile on their faces.
Who inspires you?
My late mother.
What's the best piece of advice you've been given?
Don't listen to people who tell you you are not good enough.
Are you going to pursue crowd funding to continue with your furniture?
Yes, I want to set up a workshop to produce more furniture. At the Design Indaba Expo I'm going to have some sample products – a bedside light, a standing lamp, a key holder - that you can preorder, and that will be given as a reward for backing my ThundaFund campaign.
If you could be someone’s apprentice for a day, who would you choose?