Touch of madness adds edge to Design Indaba’s barrage of beauty

The constant barrage of creativity and beauty at the Design Indaba conference, held for three days every February in Cape Town, is exhausting.
Marian Bantjes
Marian Bantjes

Halfway through, it’s easy to reach saturation point. “Oh God, not another perfect, glorious idea translated into another perfect, glorious chair/light/table … ” But then flashes of genius burst out, breaking all those perfect resin moulds, delighting the audience and reaffirming my belief in the value of creativity.

Day three at the Cape Town International Convention Centre proved to be a showcase for artistry, passion and more than a touch of madness. Here are a few of my personal highlights and notes from the final day of creative mindblow:

Marian Bantjes: This illustrator and typographer from Canada proved my personal hero of the conference. Showing her exquisite, ornamental and obsessive drawings, she spoke of moving from mediocrity to magical meaning. Ten years as a typesetter and another good few years of running her own letterheads and brochure studio, left her feeling like she wasn’t creating anything worthwhile: “I recognised my own mediocrity.” So in 2003 she started a process of making things that were much more artistic and personal. After a year of hard work, but no income, she landed a cover job for Details magazine — just “in the nick of time”.

LOVE (and its twin sister, obsession) are important threads in all her work: from her 150 hand-drawn darling Valentines to her maxim: “It’s better to work for love than money.” It may sound like a glib statement that could only be made by someone who has tasted deep (and rich) success, but who does not recognise the disappointment and hardship of a job taken only for the money? As Bantjes reminded the audience: “The things I do for love sometimes magically turn into money.”

Taped to her desk is a small square of paper. On it are the criteria she uses to judge work — including her own:

  • Does it bring joy?
  • Is there a sense of wonder?
  • Does it invoke curiosity?
  • Could it inspire?
  • Is it unusual?

Nobumichi Tosa of Maywa Denki: “I am an artist, not a designer.” Delightful, surprising and unbelievable genius! Dressed in a light blue electrician’s overall (with a shirt and tie), Tosa and his alphabet of nonsense machines and musical instruments invigorated the Indaba and shot it into the genius stratosphere. It answered, in the most deliciously eccentric Japanese manner, all of Bantjes’ criteria listed in abundance: joy and wonderment, curiouser than Alice could ever imagine, 100% inspirational and absolutely the most unusual display of how Tosa uses art, electronics and design as an “interface” to understand his world. It’s pointless trying to explain. Rather check him out in this recording from a live show, which showcases the eccentricity.

Revital Cohen: Asking the question whether animals can be transformed into medical devices, this understated English student’s work explores the use of transgenic animals as alternatives to inhumane medical therapies. Here, Cohen explores using animals, such as sheep, as life-support “devices” for renal and respiratory patients. So, essentially, the sheep’s kidneys do the work of a renal dialysis machine. Yip. Make of it what you will but don’t tell me it hasn’t made you think …

Javier Mariscal: Live, self-directed animation with this mad Spaniard as puppet master, lighting designer, musician and narrator? Though Mariscal’s “Indaba TV” ambition was a little dented by a few minor technical glitches, it was a brilliant performance which held the audience spellbound. And, perhaps, Mariscal’s words are the ones worth walking away with: “Don’t worry, take it easy. You will see … ”

Did you notice…

Making it personal: This year, most of the speakers and presenters included personal photographs in their presentations. There were the drawings they did as young children, the family holiday on the ranch, the awkward teen … I’m wondering if this introspection is not an indirect result of the global economic crunch, forcing people to re-examine what they do and why they do it? While I’m at it, anyone else notice just how many times the word “fuck” was used by the speakers? There seemed to be quite a lot of swearing going on this year — and not only because of the tech …

Now you’re smoking: Feeling like a paparazzo, I was amazed (and a little thrilled as a regretful non-smoker) to watch El Bulli genius Ferran Adriá light up a cigarette. But I reckon a man who takes five minutes to take a sip of water may just need some help in taking the edge off his taste buds.

Un-digital design: The Cape Town International Convention Centre is a fabulous venue and the conference ran extremely smoothly. My gripe, as always, is with the information on the conference and the lack of a comprehensive, up-to-date digital presence. I find it really strange that so little is written about the conference: a handful of blogs and almost nothing on Twitter. I find it even stranger that the designers don’t choose to showcase their websites or blogs. Where is web design on the programme anyway? I also can’t help feeling that Interactive Africa, the company that organises the Indaba, is missing a real opportunity of “spreading the word” by not live streaming the conference or, even, providing TED-like videos. Speaker after speaker praised Ravi Naidoo and recognised the Indaba’s role as an important international conference. But there are very few ways for the rest of the world to participate in it.

Content by

Watch the Talk with Marian Bantjes