Q&A: Liv Design

The young Johannesburg studio employs local artisans to make “African design that’s not cliché.”

Liv Design’s AfroDutch chest of drawers

You can’t help but do a double take when Ewaldi Grové hands you her business card: a $200,000 Zimbabwean note with her contact info hand-stamped onto it. Given that the money is worthless, it makes sense that the young designer and her partner, Danielle Ehrlich—the founders of Liv Design, in Johannesburg—decided to repurpose it with a sense of humor. That playful reuse of materials and hand-made sensibility is evident throughout their first collection.

When the pair joined forces last year, they gave themselves a challenge: to create one new design per day for 30 days. In that month they repurposed scrap materials from junkyards and employed artisans whose traditional wire-art skills were being wasted on curios. The most successful piece, which has inspired a small collection, is the AfroDutch chest of drawers, a reinterpretation of the ball-and-claw bureau that is omnipresent in Afrikaner homes. AfroDutch was recently featured in the Africa Recycled exhibit at the Rockefeller Center, in New York, and Anthropologie has placed a small order.

Danielle Ehrlich (left) and Ewaldi Grové employed skilled wire artisans to make their Growing Chandelier and AfroDutch chest of drawers.

The global recession has certainly not spared the developing world; unemployment has increased in South Africa to 23.5% this year. Innovative entrepreneurship seems the only way to go—and Grové and Ehrlich have created jobs for themselves as well as for more than 50 people. “From the beginning we thought we were going to teach them design skills, but we’ve been humbled and learned from them,” Grové says. “Now, each time gets better and better. It’s amazing to see the progress.”

What inspired you to start LivDesign?

Ewaldi Grové: I was traveling through Nepal. She was in Israel. We had this idea of sustainable design, but we had the idea in an eco-village way. What we realized about living in Jo’burg is that we can’t go and become village people in the city. Jo’burg is a crazy city. There are really inspiring people. They come up with ways of building things for themselves: for shelter, to sell. There’s a lot to learn.

Danielle Ehrlich: Because we’re a third-world country, it allows us to think so creatively because we haven’t got everything all lined up. If we’ve got nothing and there’s a crate and a random other thing next to it, why not put them together and see what they can do?

How does being back in Johannesburg affect your process and outlook?

EG: I’m really grateful for where I studied. I still find that there’s a problem with the way we get taught at design schools in South Africa. We get shown the European model all the time, and that’s what we aspire to. What Dani and I are really trying to do is acknowledge where we come from. What is a contemporary African look of things? That’s not injection molding and it’s not slick design.

DE: [Our work] has a story. It’s so much easier to throw something away that comes from China and doesn’t have a story.

EG: I wouldn’t change it because it’s so interesting. Going into the middle of town—pimps, drug dealers, and in the midst of all that is this passion for art. People think we’re mad. We’re the only whiteys. We stand out like a sore thumb with our little dresses and heels.

How did the AfroDutch drawers come about?

EG: Our whole idea was to take founds objects and turn them into something else. [There was an] old little chest of drawers at my house. As designers, we know the tension about taking some things and turning them upside down, applying different processes to it. We looked at it: How can we make a contemporary rendition without injection molding? We can’t afford it and it’s not sustainable. How would Africa depict this? It questions the use of materials. We don’t need an excessive amount of materials.

DE: Also there’s the transparency. We can look right through it. It’s a form that exists on its own. Why are we trying to hide something? Maybe sometimes it’s great to be messy.

EG: Intellectually, aesthetically, it’s our strongest piece. Beautiful, so quirky, emotional. We want to take that idea and continue it in other pieces.

DE: We’ve already developed some for Design Indaba. The floor lamp. It’s important to create personality, little unique characters in the world we’re creating. It’s like merging design and animation and quirkiness.

How was it to exhibit your work at Design Indaba in Cape Town, rather than just attend the conference?

DE: Absolutely inspiring. The simulcast is full of design rock stars all talking about sustainability as well. South Africa is still quite a conservative country; sustainability is just hitting it. All the trendsetters are all predicting the same thing. “You’ve got crafts, you’ve got skills you’re not using.” It was an affirmation.

There’s such a strong push to appear green, that that’s all many companies are concerned about—appearing environmentally friendly.

EG: Our knowledge, our green thinking, comes from an emotional place. We want to actually reduce the amount of imports and exports. We have not been supported by the South African markets. All our clients are foreign. We have to put the challenge out there.

Why do you think foreigners are able to recognize the ingenuity in your work, but locals haven’t?

DE: There are crafts on every corner. They think it’s not design. People don’t take the time to appreciate the pieces for what they are aesthetically. People are just realizing, “Wait a minute-we don’t have to import things from overseas to have beautiful stuff.” Overseas, it’s different-it’s not what people have.

EG: Unfortunately, although we have a rich culture of craft, we’re still uneducated when it comes to design. It’s not that we’re unsophisticated. The market is flooded with a lot of European companies, and as South Africans we aspire to be more European. Walk into one of the most glamorous design shops and we want to fill our house with opulent, European models. There’s a lot of emphasis on maths and science, not so much on art and design.

Why do people look down on hand-made pieces rather than celebrating their uniqueness?

EG: We learned to do mass production. A lot of my old [university] mates said I’m going too much of a crafty way. “Yeah, it’s all cool but the novelty’s going to wear off.” However there are so many wire artists looking for work. A lot of people find that being associated with craft is not design. I disagree with that. We execute things by hand.

DE: This is African design, not just curios and lion heads. It can be this. African design that’s not cliché, that’s what we’re trying to do, to show diversity and turning design around in a completely other direction. New York exposes people to us. Most of the stuff is on the side of the street, a real showcase of talent.

EG: We’re playing with design, concepts, collaboration, community, environment, and the world around us.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist based in South Africa.

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