Houtlander co-designers Phillip Hollander and Stephen Wilson. Picture: SUPPLIED
Houtlander co-designers Phillip Hollander and Stephen Wilson. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Design Indaba’s annual search for the Most Beautiful Object in SA has thrown up diverse winners in its 13 years of existence. It started in 2007 with a condom applicator — a device designed to end slippery fumbling in the dark — and has moved on to celebrate items from furniture and a frock to a tourist attraction.

The 2019 winner is an oak loveseat that curls from chair to bench, named Interdependence II. Made by Houtlander, it’s painted blue, hinting at flowing water. Public votes put it top of an eclectic list of 10 objects that included a wedding dress, a self-help app for cancer patients, a copper and glass kettle and a sculptural wind chime.

Houtlander co-designer Phillip Hollander thinks people liked the way the bench “challenges perceptions” of an ordinary, familiar item. However, it’s an experimental, limited edition piece and not set to go into production.

Interdependence II by Houtlander. Picture: SUPPLIED
Interdependence II by Houtlander. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Most Beautiful Object (MBO) competition was created to popularise SA design in the then tiny local market. “It was always supposed to play on that old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Lauren Shantall of Scout PR & Social Media, who was Design Indaba Expo manager at the time. It celebrated form and function, social responsibility and luxury. “We wanted to worm good design into the hearts and minds of ordinary people and erase perceptions that it was only elitist and expensive and intimidating.”

Nowadays, local designer items can be found in dedicated high street stores as well as malls, expos and markets.

The process of selecting the MBO has also evolved. At first, expo curators (design specialists and experts) would nominate the finalists; the first winner was chosen by Dutch product designer Jurgen Bey. Public voting was later introduced to boost participation and interest. Now, the finalists are nominated by public figures including TV presenters and style gurus as well as design insiders — a more “egalitarian” approach, says Shantall. In 2019, all 10 had to nominate more than one object to broaden the final selection.

Winning the competition catapults designers into the spotlight. In 2010, Anatomy Design’s Lab Light claimed the title. They had just four in stock. Now, about 250 of the lamps sell monthly, it has been stocked by international retailers such as the Conran Shop and graced top destinations like Babylonstoren.

“It required that we started a retail store! Just to manage the wonderful response to the product,” says Anatomy owner and partner Andrea Kleinloog. “Now we have a beautiful space, with an ever-developing range of designs available.”

While Anatomy is thriving, the Lab Light is no longer made in SA. “We tried every avenue to keep production in SA,” says Kleinloog. They were stymied by costs and quality control demands.

The infamous condom applicator made by Dot Dot Dot Ex Why Zed Design enjoyed short-term success until the investor terminated the project, but the company lives on.

The 2008 MBO winner was Tsai Design Studios for its Nested Bunk Beds, which when unstacked can accommodate 20 children in 50m2. Working with an NGO, the beds reached orphanages and rural schools before sponsorship dried up in the global financial crisis. Still, the win raised the multidisciplinary studio’s profile and it moved on to larger projects such as the new Zipzap Academy, a social circus school in Salt River, Cape Town.

Kirsten Goss’s Lily Pad ring, the 2012 MBO winner, is still on sale. Sales increased about 25% a year after the win, and the pieces are still made in SA by goldsmiths who have been with the company for up to 13 years. “In this country, [winning the competition] is seen as the quintessential local design nod,” says Goss. 

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden’s canopy walkway, nicknamed the Boomslang, took the honour in 2015. It brought more visitors to the shady Arboretum, an area once visited by more lemon doves than humans.

Textile designer Laduma Ngxokolo, whose knitwear is inspired by traditional Xhosa aesthetics, sailed to victory in 2016 with a MaXhosa shawl (he’d been a Design Indaba Emerging Creative in 2011). He has stockists in New York and Lyon, France, as well as in SA. Later in 2019, his designs will feature on rugs and pillows to be sold in Ikea stores worldwide as part of the first African Ikea collection.

Has the competition’s aim of broadening South Africans’ concepts of beauty been achieved? Yes, says Stellenbosch University’s senior visual arts lecturer, Ernst van der Wal. 

“The competition demonstrates that ideas surrounding aesthetics and beauty, or even taste, is never neutral, nor timeless,” he says. “We see how cultural and political factors shape our understanding of beauty, while the competition also highlights the precariousness of this very concept.”