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Quintessentially Joburg

It takes us a while to find a table that both husband and wife, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin of the multi-disciplinary product design company; Dokter and Misses (dam), can agree has the best ratio of sun to shade. We finally find ourselves a satisfactory dappled-light seating arrangement on the pavement outside the only restaurants open in the area on a Monday; a souvlaki take away joint run out of a shipping container, and a dessert shop in an old Ford truck that serves the traditional Afrikaans indulgence of coffee with condensed milk. In an effort to find Katy some lunch, we had made the move from their workshop space to Maboneng, a buzzing restaurant and artist district just a few blocks away. Legend has it that the developers in the area just casually one day renamed the district after the Sotho word meaning: «Place of Light», just because they thought it sounded better and safer than «Jeppe.» Joburg has a way of letting people do that, of doing what you want as long as it doesn’t really inconvenience anyone, or, to be perfectly honest, a lot of the time even when it does.

We catch up, and trade personal stories and anecdotes, in an attempt to warm up towards talking about work. We search in vain for a cigarette lighter, chat about the pros and cons of buying a waffle on a stick, and of how my new love interest wants to make a point of formally asking me out; a now out of date practice akin to teenagers from the 1950’s.

K: Riaan actually asked me out formally. After my twenty-first birthday, he asked me to be his girlfriend and I said yes! And that was in 2003.

And just like that, they became the duo that now sits before me almost 14 years later. In those early years, the pair would find themselves helping each other out with their studies and it was on one of these projects – in which Adriaan designed folded paper handbags for SA Fashion Week that were adorned in a print designed by Katy – that the name Dokter and Misses was born. But it wasn’t until Katy considered moving back from New York – where she had moved for a year to work as a graphic designer – that the pair decided to take their passion for collaboration and turn it into a fully-fledged business.

K: We never really thought that one day we were going to work together because I was in publishing and he was working for Gregor [Jenkin, a well established famous South African industrial designer], and then when I was away – I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want to be in branding, and I didn’t want to go back into publishing, and he had started making his own stuff. But once the space in 44 Stanley was available, and we knew I was coming back, then we started talking.

44 Stanley is a wandering space that acts more like a little village of shops and services than the usual mall life that often plagues South African cities. At the time, it was in the midst of a second mini revival with up and coming jewellery makers, talented hairdressers and experimental fashion designers starting to call it home. dam followed suit.

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A: It was really just a place to put stuff and make stuff. It wasn’t really a fully-fledged plan. We had no idea of how we were going to do anything.

K: I mean, we opened without any prices.

I remember that day and the excitement surrounding it. My friend had told me that it was the start of something important, that these new talented people were making ‘rad’ furniture and we should definitely go see it. Plus, there would be free beer.

It was a tiny space; tucked in a corner, crammed full of white minimal metal furniture pieces with occasional pops of bright yellow, bold graphic tees and wooden lamps in the shape of geometric dogs. All these cool kids with interesting haircuts spilled out onto the astroturf outside in the makeshift tiny courtyard, sipping the aforementioned free beer. It turned out that my friend was right.

A: 44 Stanley was a cool place, and at the time we were still making all our furniture out of our home in Brixton.

K: It allowed us, because the space was so small, to continue with that ‘oh, we don’t have a business plan’ approach because we didn’t have crazy overheads, we didn’t have to fill a massive store.

A: Yeah, we just lived in our house and made stuff in our garden flat and sprayed it in the backyard. It was a home job kinda vibe.

This is the very house that Katy and Adriaan still live in today. The space is light and welcoming, and adorned in incredible furniture and interesting art from friends. The garden flat, now free of furniture, has been transformed into a sound proof studio and practice space for Adriaan’s band, Zoo lake, which he plays in with fellow furniture designer, Joe Paine (drums), photographer Brett Rubin (bass), and graphic artist and otherwise solo musician, Givan Lötz (guitar and vocals). I’d like to think that Zoolake’s music could be considered grunge concrete surf rock, the type of thing that a bunch of rockers from the 1970’s would play in the 1990’s if they happened to be stuck in a city surrounded by dilapidated buildings 620 km from the sea.

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K: Our first quite big order was for Main Street Life [an apartment block and hotel in Maboneng, across the road from where we are sitting] that needed 70 shelves, 70 coffee tables, 70 bathroom mirrors and 70 wall hooks. And then we were screwed. It was the first order and the first time we realised we could not do this in our back garden.

Luckily, in down town Braamfontein several spaces had begun to grow out of the discontent that used to plague the area near Wits University. Property developer mastermind, Adam Levy, began to offer affordable spaces to young artists, restaurants and independent retail stores, and it was here that Katy and Adriaan founded co-op: a street level showroom that they shared with the Cape Town based gallery, whatiftheworld, which came with the added bonus of having a small upstairs space that acted as a new studio away from said back garden. After about a year, as the gallery decided that ‘the city that doesn’t care if you sleep’ was not a good fit for them, dam found that they were stable enough, and had enough products, to fill the space themselves. So they stayed put, turning the downstairs parking lot into a bigger workspace.

It was here in the studio that dam would forge ahead and become more bold in their exploration and started playing with patterns on metal sideboards, taking on more commissions and play around more with wood. It was this freedom, and a randomly found photo, that would lead them to create what is arguably their most famous piece to date, the Kassena Server; a solid, rounded wooden sideboard wrapped in painted patterns inspired by the houses made by the Kassena people of Western Africa.

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K: My sister is an art historian, so she told me what the buildings in the photo were. And we became consumed by this idea to make something that was inspired by these pictures that were just so striking. We couldn’t get it out of our heads.

A: As a start off point, we always made stuff that is inspired by architecture. And we always worked with stuff that is informed by 2d patterns. We didn’t over think this thing; it was just something that we felt like making. We had a reason to, but it wasn’t very specific, we just felt we can do this and it would be fun.

The reason was that they were approached by The Southern Guild – a platform showcasing the very best of South African Design from the most respected designers and artists in the country – to make something for a show in 2012, so the couple decided to tackle the image that haunted them.

A: No client, no trends. Passion project.

And oddly enough, no one really noticed it the first time around.

K: We painted the first one with Indian ink. We wanted to use that as it sunk into the wood and didn’t lie on top. But people didn’t pay it much attention.

They then repainted the pattern with paint and re-showed it at Art Basel in Dubai, in 2013, and people couldn’t stop noticing it. It birthed a wave of national and international interest and gave birth to the Kassena Town series, four pieces that were made in a similar style for the Grains of Paradise exhibition at New York design gallery R & Company in collaboration with Sothern Guild, which showed contemporary work by four African design studios.

The four pieces were selected from a group of maquettes, little wooden makeshift sculptures that were more the idea of shapes than the promise of being future functioning objects.

«When people look at the pieces it sparks their imagination and they draw their own links to what they might see in the work; be it a unicorn, a sombrero or a cactus.»

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K: They’re odd. When we made these shapes they were never made with a purpose in mind. They were all just random shapes with completely different proportions and we took some of those that we liked, and Riaan drew them into more proportioned pieces and things that could have a function without labouring too much about the function.

A: We then really focused a lot on the shape and the sculptural quality of it, and how the pattern would integrate.

K: And then you make them, and only once they are made and you can pull the draws out and you flap the desks down they become these completely different looking pieces, they start taking on these weird personalities of their own. Sometimes you look at it and it’s a face or mouth with a tongue sticking out. And they become animated and alive.

And personalities they most certainly do have. The Horseman would probably ride off into the sunset if it weren’t so comfortable sitting solidly and majestically in the centre of a room – sometimes in New York at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Beauty – Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial exhibition, casually being photographed by Beyoncé – looking glorious and radiating with a black geometric pattern that took two and a half weeks to paint. But my favourite by far is Sleep, the drinks cabinet whose rounded horn-like top, although inspired by an African headdress, reminds me of the clay oxen that I would play with as a child, a toy that has a great significance and long time history across the continent.

Those clay oxen, as beautiful as they are, fulfil the basic needs of what needs to be done. African design as a rule doesn’t normally come from frivolity; it comes from the necessity of using what you can and what’s available to fulfil a function. But on the other hand, they’re quite decorative, which gives way to a sensibility that – although the object «must work» we may as well make it beautiful – a sensibility that dam strives for.

K: At the time, we were invited to be a part of the Design Network Africa and it was the first time we started focusing on Africa and less on what Europe thinks design should be. Instead of looking to idols overseas we found inspiration here through meeting these incredible African designers. We created a community and it felt like something special that we should focus on rather than trying to be something that we’re not.

And what these two are – besides talented – is fun, ever curious and experimental. This is something that shines through perfectly in their newest furniture and rug collection, Foreva xxx, which would sit quite comfortably in any 1970’s executive office in outer space.

No, really.

It’s an offbeat, energetic break away from the previous collections that started out as sketches and thoughts on material exploration, and have resulted in cloud-like concrete bases, floating half spheres on glass, rounded stone cone monoliths and hanging leather storage hammocks.

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K: The collection is almost borderline ugly and not tasteful. We’re consciously treading that line, which we quite enjoy.

The collection, which debuted this year at 100% Design, South Africa’s leading local and international design exhibition, and where dam took centre stage as the exhibition’s Featured Designers, has a distinctive style which was inspired by the «sculpture-for-use» philosophies of Japanese American artist and industrial designer, Isamu Noguchi, the distinctive marriage of lines and materials found in Brazilian modernist furniture and a handful of carefully selected emojis.

A: We tried to use forms in an unconventional way so that when people look at the pieces it sparks their imagination and they draw their own links to what they might see in the work; be it a unicorn, a sombrero or a cactus.

What you are left with is a heavy – not necessarily very commercially viable – fun collection that begs for you not to take it too seriously. From space.

And speaking of space, the duo found that they needed more of it once again as they started to receive orders for larger scale projects, not to mention navigating a crane while it holds a one of a kind piece of sculptural furniture art on the busy, social streets of Braamfontein was fast becoming a laborious task. So they bought an old printers workshop in Jeppe, the same parallelogram building that we started this journey at. Double story, white and airy with touches of aqua and pink, and not of a single 90-degree corner in the whole place – not even the stairs, my favourite stairs in all of Joburg as they sit at a 76-degree angle to the wall.

It is the perfect environment for the team – which now has expanded to include another graphic designer and additional master craftsmen – to create bolder and bigger projects, not to mention house one of the best warehouse parties I have ever been to.

One of these bolder and bigger projects is in fact another building. A three story pink tiled building down the road from their current showroom space in Braamfontien, which once renovation is finished mid 2017, will house their new showroom; space for other designers and retailers; a restaurant and possibly a gallery or a bar.

The building is the collaborative vision of developers Play Braamfontein, Consolidated Urban and dam, and comes with all the glorious amenities that one would expect of a space designed when you have an experienced industrial design tenant as their own landlord; such as a goods lift, your own tiny kitchenette and a really nice looking toilet roll holder. But most importantly, the pair hopes to give other designers the opportunity that they were afforded when they moved into 44 Stanley all those years before; the promise of an affordable, beautiful space in the small corner of well-established district with the added bonus of being across the road from a German bakery.

K: We want some cool tenants to make this a cool building as with any building it’s a lot about the tenants. And from our side we want to offer something that is doable so that people can feel: «Ok, I can do this.»

The story of Dokter and Misses is one of movement; not only in terms how often they have physically moved across the city of Johannesburg to find more accommodating spaces to fit their every growing business, but also in their continuing efforts to move forward and pursue bigger projects, design collections and ambitions; a trait that only an unforgiving metropolis built in the pursuit of gold can appreciate. I remark that they seem to have quite a big love affair when it comes to Joburg (as do I).

A: Our approach has been quite «do it yourself.»

K: Which is quite Joburg

A: Whenever you work for yourself, you do it in your own environment and you get to know how to utilise something to it’s max, you know, and then you move onto the next thing and the next thing. Joburg has always offered us the next thing. So maybe at some point it might get boring and it might not have the next thing.

K: Maybe the next thing is to live by the beach or use super high tech production methods.

A: Joburg is rough and sometimes it gets to you. But it has allowed us to be who we want to be within the space, and the people we are dealing with are cool.

K: It hasn’t been like Cape Town who told us that we had to pay a scrutiny fee for us to erect a sign outside our shop, which was in the exact same place and the same size as the previous one, just with different lettering. Just for them to look at your application because apparently the sign was not applied for. After doing business in Joburg for years, putting up many signs. This process carried on for a long time and when we eventually closed the shop, they sent me a letter that said: «Don’t worry, the sign is not there anymore, just forget about it.» So we came back and put the sign up here.

As we sit and continue to chat, behind me flaps another sign that was probably put up without a scrutiny fee, a string of lights and letters dangling between two buildings that make up the word Maboneng. The very sign that taught people to call this area by a different name, just quietly reminding us that legends are made here.