Best laid plans

Emma Wright describes what we're hatching for the Design Indaba Expo 2005.

First Published in

It's a couple of months on from the first Design Indaba Expo, where the finest in homegrown creativity gathered to showcase their good stuff. Our primary aim in year one was to get the South African creative industries together as a united front in a campaign to make creativity one of South Africa's hottest products.

Many working in this field had not put the words creative and industry together, and hadn't seen that beyond their chosen discipline were a bunch of likeminded people with a similar desire and vision - the creation of a South African visual language that speaks of our cultural mix in a new, internationally competitive, locally unique way. It was this energy we hoped to expose and nurture at Expo 2004 and over the days of the show the resonance, excitement and at times sheer disbelief at the positive response to the work on display became palpable.

Touching base with a few of our exhibitors now, we're happy to hear that the impetus has not slowed and fizzled, but is growing steadily. "I covered my costs at Expo," says local designer Heath Nash. "I made good sales at the show and made many new contacts but, more than the exact monetary value I gained, I earned the respect and direction that I'm currently enjoying in my chosen path." Urged on by Expo's international guests' presentations at the Exhibitor Indaba - an exclusive-to-exhibitors forum before the show opened which will continue at next year's Expo - and the debates they engendered, Heath is now collaborating with three other artists and making "things that speak of this country. Wire and found plastic converted into beauty and jobs, through human hands and minds. Exquisite flowers cut from old Virgin Cola* coloured plastic bottles, a bit of pink Vanish* plastic, a little Stoney* brown." Sounds good. (*International and local brands whose containers are recycled and used as materials. Stoney is a local brand of ginger beer.)

Philippa Green, who had more than a few famous names clamouring for her jewellery at Expo, has since opened a store on Heritage Square. "I've had a great response from Expo. I sold loads, which meant a great profit, and quite a few people came to see me afterwards for more jewels," she says. One of them is UK fashion designer Nicole Farhi, who flew to Cape Town for the Expo.

Africa Fair, a company representing local designers producing handmade product with a fashion bent, also had one of the busiest stands. Founder and owner Jennifer Fair has tended to focus internationally, but says that "a spin off from the show was that I realised there was still a large untapped local market." Africa Fair will, as a result, have a concession in the new Frock store to be opened at Jozi's hippest address, 44 Stanley Avenue, while Jennifer continues to pursue other exciting local opportunities. "Expo gave Africa Fair exposure to the local market place," she says, "which has led to new designers approaching us to represent them in the international market."

Multi-talented-and-tasking company Barry and Bester were one of the more difficult exhibitors at Expo 2004 to categorise as their work spans the creative industries in true Expo style. Their groundbreaking collaborative album The Thula Project: An Album of South African Lullabies is one of those pieces that is so right on in local-to-standard product terms that it's not surprising they sold out of every single one at the show. "In terms of intensity, it's the best we've sold in any 4-day period," says partner Hedwig Barry. "It was snapped up by the international guests and really confirmed that there is a market for quality, high-end products out there. In terms of the growth of client base, the manager from Exclusive Books in Constantia was at the Expo and developed a passion for the album. As a result, we've landed up in Exclusive Books stores countrywide - a great development!"

Suzette and Brendon Bell-Roberts of the Bell-Roberts Gallery are one of South Africa's more progressive gallery teams and their experimental approach has kept many an artist in rent over the years. An Expo is not generally associated with fine art but says Suzette: "It was perfect in terms of target market. Being in such close proximity to the top names in South African design was great. It meant exposure to new clients who wouldn't generally come into the gallery but do now and we did an excellent turnover in sales at the show too."

As positive as year one has been, there's nothing like a second time to improve and develop an idea and with the benefit of time and hindsight, Expo 2005 is underway. This time the focus will extend to the public in order to foster the development of a discerning consumer. Discerning consumers demand quality and innovation, and as innovation is a major factor in determining a nation's economic competitive advantage, this seems a worthwhile endeavour. With the relatively new tendency in creative circles to source locally ideas-wise and to develop these ideas into globally competitive product, the homegrown high-end group is still small. Expo 2005 will again be by invitation only, with a larger group of curators to ensure representivity across all sectors of the industry. Craft, fashion and décor, being the larger creative sectors at the moment, will form the bulk of the show. To date, it remains a bespoke offering filling Halls 1 and 2 of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, but there is an option to extend into Hall 3, provided the exhibitors fulfil the homegrown high-end criteria. This time it will run over three days with shorter running times from 10am to 6pm.

Quality over quantity and the development of a strong industry over the long term are attractive (and sensible) ideas to the industry and make immediate sense to an exhibitor desiring a strong standard of work surrounding them. However, the visitor who used to shop for tiles and pool paraphernalia at such events may find a carefully curated show lacking in interest. As such, Expo 2005 will endeavour to explain the principles of the show to the public through guided tours and will upweight visitor entertainment with the inclusion of a coffee lounge looking onto a high visibility and much larger fashion area.

A surprising number of youngsters attended Expo 2004, gaining access to South African creativity and brand names - a very positive step towards creating a lasting consumer base for South African goods. "I loved seeing teens and children at the shows," says Fair Lady's associate fashion editor and Expo 2004 panel member Jackie Burger.

As exhibitors such as Jennifer Fair will attest, having items for sale is a very effective way to attract visitors and cover costs, so exhibitors will be encouraged to sell off their stands next time around - low ticket or small items tend to fare especially well.

There is also an all-new, larger version of the film studio where the finest from the South African film and television industry will be screened daily. Attendance, all day if visiting film buffs wish, is included in the entry fee.

"Fashion is generally seen as an adult's domain, which is strange because the earlier you introduce the new generation to purer South African creativity, the more you cultivate its future."

International visitors for year one like Nicole Farhi and Lucia van der Post of the London Times were chosen for their capacity to leverage the local industry abroad. In 2005, opinion-makers such as these will be on the invite list and the number of international buyers will increase considerably to encourage better trade. As the Expo runs concurrently with the flagship International Design Indaba conference, international and local delegates, speakers and media attending the conference will also be spending time at the show. An extended lunch hour on the final day of the conference will allow more time for delegates to shop and sample without having to skip anything on the programme.

Speaking of shopping… an important part of Design Indaba's affiliated events is D-Day - South Africa's National Design Day - and the epicentre of this all-out celebration of local design is the Expo. On D-Day 2005, exhibitors will be encouraged to sell a few must-have bits of merchandise bearing the D-Day tag at a reduced rate. Those who didn't fall prey to Soli Philander's 'are you wearing local?' enquiries in February this year, can be sure to catch his amusing antics on the Expo floor in 2005.

The overall look of the show is also being revised and an exciting development here is the participation of our local architects and designers in the pavilions housing the various exhibits. So far, soundspacedesign, MMA Architects, Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects and Nucleus Design are on board to design the Creative Talent, Craft, Décor and Architecture and Publishing sectors respectively.

As the months roll on, there'll be more news on the Expo front so watch this space.

Watch the Talk with Heath Nash