A new kind of business

South African furniture designer Haldane Martin chats to Design Indaba about how he has adapted his business through a shift in focus and new collaborations.

Since 1994 Haldane Martin, a trained industrial designer, has been working in the furniture design industry in South Africa. Over the years he has produced iconic and award-winning designs such as the Zulu Mama Chair, Songololo Sofa and New Slant shelving system, under his eponymous design range, Haldane Martin.

Over the past few years Martin has increasingly become involved in interior design projects, moving away from purely furniture design and manufacture.

"The furniture business, to be honest, took a knock when the recession started and it’s been a tough few years. We started doing interiors as a way to keep afloat,” Martin explains.

According to him the furniture business is a tough one everywhere in the world but South Africa has several unique challenges.

“In the last few years there has been a huge influx of imported furniture and really inexpensive copies that are being made almost as well as the originals.  For products, like chairs especially, it has become incredibly competitive and the prices that you pay for the cheap imports are usually less than I could buy the raw materials for in South Africa.” 

This combined with the relatively small local market that appreciates design and can afford to purchase it as well as the fact that South Africa is far removed from other major import markets, makes it difficult to reach mass-distribution. 

The benefit of many of the imports is that they have the advantage of economies of scale. “My business got itself into a corner where I could not mass-produce nor did I have the mass-distribution that is required to compete with the imports.”

Martin did however spot a niche – the need for small-batch production, upholstered furniture that could be customised: “Importing large upholstered pieces are difficult. Not only are they big and bulky so expensive to ship but customers also like to customise their pieces.”

This has resulted in a new collaboration between Martin and upholstery business LEON At CCIX, officially launched at the 12 Rooms exhibition at the LEON At CCIX showroom in Woodstock Cape Town on 29 May. They have teamed up to sell, under licence, Haldane Martin’s existing collection of furniture, as well as creating a special new range of furniture to be launched later this year.

“My studio is becoming more of a design studio rather than a production house. Through being involved in more interior projects it has informed how I look at furniture design. I would spend a lot of time designing this amazing form but when it came down to a customer buying it, it depended on the material it was made of; the tactile aspect of the design," he says. "For me coming from an industrial design background where it is all about function and form of the design this was a new learning."

I have increased my focus on materiality and the atmosphere it creates within a space. – Haldane Martin

He also relishes the opportunity to work at a larger scale beyond just individual objects and also the opportunity to create iconic pieces. A recent interior project for BOS Ice Tea spawned the Tesla chandelier – named for Nikola Tesla – on show as part of the 12 Rooms exhibition on at the LEON at CCIX showroom. 

During the office renovation project they created these big hemispheres made out of bottles attached to a geodesic dome structure that they adapted to fit the new screw-top plastic BOS bottles to.

These structures inspired the large-scale Tesla chandelier (see the photo) made from brass-plated stainless steel fitted with Edison vintage bulbs from Hoi' Ploy. 

“Interiors also afford me the opportunity to design iconic pieces that can become focal points of a space,” Martin concludes.

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Watch the Talk with Haldane Martin