After operating for about 20 years as a wholesaler, it has in recent years opened its doors to the public as a shop as well. Its rooms are lined with a breathtaking array of baskets from every part of the continent.
Binky Newman, the founder, describes herself as a product developer and entrepreneur. She travels all over the continent seeking out people who are still doing very old weaves and stitches. Usually these traditional baskets are not produced for a commercial purpose but for the maker’s own use, or perhaps to barter with a neighbour. Often the designs would not translate easily to a contemporary market and Newman’s entrepreneurial guidance and design brilliance has played a critical part in developing this work into income-generating enterprises for the weavers.
CityLife visited on a Thursday, lucky timing in that it is the day a group called Dunoon Urban Weavers regularly work on the premises. Eunice Magwa, one of the weavers, explained how their group had come into being. After Newman was asked to do a basket-weaving workshop in Dunoon in 2012, they had formed a lasting partnership. The group works with traditional Xhosa materials and methods, learned by many from their mothers. Imisi reed, found in rivers and vleis, is softened in water and expertly made into a beautiful, nubbly weave.
They are now applying their technique to new forms – practical items such as waste paper baskets as well as vessels of a sculptural nature. Large-scale long-necked baskets, some made of plain grass and some decorated with plastic threaded through in subtle stripes or blocks of colour, are among the most gorgeous and covetable items in the shop.
There are certain projects in which an external design template is imposed on traditional crafters in a way which seems to freeze creativity and rob the work of life. This is not the case with Design Afrika. There is a collaborative spirit here and a heightened sensitivity to what Newman calls the fine line between adhering to the traditional and making products more contemporary.
“We don’t want to lose the traditional culture, we want to maintain the heritage and build on it.” Alongside contemporary products, the shop sells a fascinating and rare collection of traditional baskets from Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, and many other African countries.
The collaborative spirit between designer and crafters allows space for accident and experimentation, a wonderful example is the organic range of gourd-shaped baskets woven by Tonga basket-makers from the Bulawayo area in Zimbabwe. Newman presented this group, whose precise and symmetrical work is well known, with the idea of making a large basket inspired by round clay pots.
Working without a frame, the weavers were initially distressed to see their baskets emerging with undulating, wobbly variations in their form – but to her, their beauty and appeal were immediately apparent and she encouraged them to keep going. The resulting baskets resembled giant heads of garlic, though that description hardly does justice to their loveliness as they have proven to be an international best seller. Design Afrika sells half of its wares to international clients, while the other half is enjoyed by local enthusiasts.
Visitors come away with new awareness and knowledge about African basketry, its materials, stitches and traditions. The shop in Hares Avenue, Woodstock, is open from 09:00 to 17:00 Monday to Friday and till 14:00 on Saturdays.