Dezeen and MINI World Tour: earlier this month we kicked off our Dezeen and MINI World Tour at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town. Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs rounds up the highlights of the week.
Above: Dan Roosegaarde of Studio Roosegaarde was one of three Design Indaba speakers to receive a standing ovation
Cape Town is the most southerly destination on our Dezeen and MINI World Tour and the only one in Africa. Located at the southern tip of the continent, on the same latitude as Sydney and with empty ocean to the west, south and east, it is geographically remote but culturally better connected, being a relatively easy flight south from Europe that is without the disorientating time difference of most long-haul routes.
In terms of design, Cape Town has a small but growing scene – mostly clustered in the upcoming Woodstock district, which we featured in an earlier movie. This area is home to galleries and stores including Woodstock Foundry, whose Heavy Metal exhibition (below) was one of the most talked-about showcases of local work during our stay.
The city is set to raise its international profile next year when it serves as World Design Capital but, for now, Cape Town is umbilically linked to the rest of the world primarily through Design Indaba, which was the reason for our trip to the city.
An “indaba” is a gathering of Zulu or Xhosa tribal leaders and the word is used in South Africa to describe a meeting of minds. Design Indaba started out as a bi-annual design conference in 1995 but has grown to encompass an Expo showcasing South African creativity (and which this year featured the Li Edelkoort-curated exhibition Totemism: Memphis meets Africa, above) plus a music circuit (below) and film festival for after-hours entertainment.
All these activities take place concurrently each year at the end of the Cape Town summer. But for the international crowd, the Design Indaba conference (below) is the main event, attracting an unrivalled line-up of star speakers from around the globe and a sell-out audience of 1500 people per day, around 80% of whom are from South Africa.
The conference’s pulling power is largely due to the charisma and persuasiveness of Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo (below) who has long been on a one-man mission to diversify the South African economy away from commodities and tourism and towards the creative industries, as he explained as he gave us a tour of Cape Town on our first day in the city.
Naidoo has since managed to build his brand into a micro-economy of its own: last year the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business calculated that Design Indaba had added over $100 million to South African GDP over the four previous years, via sales of local products at the Design Indaba Expo and other visitor spending.
It can feel perverse to spend three days in the refrigerated bowels of the Cape Town International Convention Centre (above) rather than on the beach, in the wine lands or exploring upcoming city districts like Woodstock or Bree Street.
And without a theme, the conference is a somewhat random tasting menu of global creativity with web designers (such as Ben Terrett, above, head of design at the UK's Government Digital Service) following synthetic biologists and architects (like Asif Khan, below) giving way to advertising creatives. But the standard is high and the audience discerning, rewarding favoured speakers with spontaneous applause (the Design Indaba gold standard is a standing ovation) but punishing the unprepared or the cocksure with a deathly silence, a Twitter barracking or even a stampede for the exits.
Nine years ago I watched Ron Arad amble on stage, open his laptop and assume the crowd would love whatever he happened to find on his desktop. They didn’t and he spent the rest of the week apologising for his lack of preparedeness. The next speaker, a young Thomas Heatherwick, had spent the entire week rehearsing in his hotel room and he blew his former mentor off the stage. In 2010 the audience won its biggest scalp, laughing Martha Stewart off stage for delivering a sales pitch instead of a heartfelt design homily.
Design Indaba 2013 highlights
Nobody bombed quite so badly this year and there were three standing ovations (Naidoo says this is a record) as well as a notebook-full of tweetable quotes, which seems to be the measure of a good conference these days. “Creativity is a small, defiant act of misbehaving,” claimed graphic designer Paula Scher while Alexander Chen (above) of Google Creative Lab declared that “reducing is not a designer need but a human need” and that his goal with projects such as his work on Google Glass is to provide “less and less user interface”.
John Maeda (above) touched on a paradox when he said that “design as a discipline is not designed well to be understood” while Brazilian chef Alex Atala (below), in between explaining why his rainforest-inspired dishes often contained burned ingredients and showing some polished culinary videos (Naidoo tells me that some of the best speakers with the best visuals in recent years have been chefs), proclaimed that “crunchiness isn’t a flavour, it’s a noise. Noise is important for a chef.”
Atala also said that his children’s plimsolls smelt the same as fine cheese, which chimed with a point made by Daisy Ginsberg (below), a designer working in the area of synthetic biology (and who confessed she received professional coaching to help her with her talk). “Could you make cheese out of human bacteria? The answer is yes,” she said, proving the point with images of cheese made of armpit, toe, hand and nose bacteria.
Advertising guru John Hegarty (below) closed the conference with an assured talk based on the notion that “cynicism is the death of creativity.” “If you destroy something you have to propose something else to take its place,” he said, summing up why he felt punk was an anti-creative movement as it proposed no alternative to the system it set out to destroy.
Hegarty also apparently spent days in his hotel room preparing his talk and counter-intuitively it seems that older, more experienced speakers work harder on their presentations than upcoming talents, who are more inclined to wing it. The explanation might be that they have less to lose.
The first standing ovation went to Johannesburg artist Nicholas Hlobo, the only South African on the big stage this year and the winner of the unofficial “best entrance” award. Hlobo descended slowly from the rafters inside a fabric cocoon to a live musical cacophony while a subtitled projection explained his work and its relationship to his Xhosa culture and in particular its rites of passage. It was a powerful, well-rehearsed and uncompromisingly African statement that thoroughly seduced a crowd that likes to see speakers make an effort.
The second ovation went to Dutch “artist and innovator” Daan Roosegaarde (pictured top) of Studio Roosegaarde, whose stage presence and design-can-change-the-world rhetoric was manna to the Indaba crowd. Roosegaarde’s roster of projects included clothes that become transparent when you become aroused (above) and a Smart Highway featuring solar-powered road markings, wind-powered lighting, surfaces that display warning patterns when the temperature drops below freezing (below) and charging lanes for electronic vehicles.
This was coupled with the observation that while design attention is lavished on cars, the roads they drive on are given virtually no thought at all, even though the highways network is the biggest manmade structure on the planet.
Architect David Adjaye (above) was the recipient of the third ovation and also the only speaker allowed to overrun the strict 40-minute time limit, since his discourse first on the geography and architecture of Africa (above) - drawing on 11 years of research that involved visiting every country on the continent and which culminated in his 2011 book Adjaye Africa Architecture (below) - and then a selection of his built projects, had the audience rapt.
Pulling him off would have sparked a riot, particularly as he saved his most resonant project until last: the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture (below) will occupy the last remaining plot on Washington’s showpiece Constitution Avenue and is perhaps the most significant cultural memorial to black history ever built anywhere.
Adjaye spoke at Design Indaba in 2006 but since then his ability to hold an audience has increased in line with his body of work and, as one of the world's leading black creatives, this felt like a triumphant homecoming for a London-based architect born in Dar es Salaam of Ghanaian parents.
It’s hard to summarise any conference in words but even harder to distill the essence of Design Indaba, since its greatest value lies not in the conference hall but in the collective experience enjoyed by speakers and journalists from the four corners of the planet. The Design Indaba “speaker bubble” is one of the world’s best and most hospitable networking opportunities for the design world and takes place against a backdrop of cocktail soirees, beach picnics, wine-estate lunches and gigs. These included an exclusive performance by legendary jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela in a tiny jazz bar (above) with Design Indaba's own fleet of branded MINIs on hand to ferry speakers and the media between engagements (below).
This sense of community, and the conference’s ability to make or break the reputation of speakers, means it's hard to argue with Naidoo’s claim that it is design’s answer to Davos and the biggest and best design conference of the world. And for speakers fortunate enough to get invited, the best advice is to prepare your talk as thoroughly as you can before you arrive, so you don't miss anything when you get there.
Above: Design Indaba 2013 speakers with Hugh Masekela (centre) and Ravi Naidoo (far left). Design Indaba photos are by Jonx Pillemer
Read more about Daan Roosegaarde's concepts to make highways safer here.