Worldwide, collaboration is the name of the new style game. You’re basically nowhere unless you’re a haute couture label who’s teamed up with an upstart artist, or a high-street fashion label who’s jumped into bed with a sassy singer. But closer to home, there’s a partnership that’s bridged some interesting quadrants. Ardmore, the ceramics business turned creative design powerhouse, has ventured into surfboards. Not the rough-and-tumble kind you’d expect at Jeffreys Bay, but intricately crafted, colourful designs in partnership with Hermès, maker of luxury French goods.

It’s not the first time our local stars have teamed up with the legendary Parisian fashion label. The relationship between the two goes back to 2013, when Ardmore was invited to collaborate on a series of silk scarves for Hermès’s 2016 collection.

Ardmore founder Fée Halsted says they were displaying their work in Paris at an international ceramics fair outside St Sulpice.

"We were met by some designers from Hermès and they fell in love with our work."

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

A scarf was born. The two initial iterations, La March du Zambèze and Savanna Dance, were based on designs by Halsted’s daughter Catherine Berning and Ardmore artist Sydney Nyabeze. The Flowers of SA collection was Ardmore’s third design for the French brand, inspired by SA’s pincushion protea. They were sold out, and there’s more to come.

The designs have adorned jewellery, handbags and women’s clothing — and now it’s the turn of the heavy-duty surfboard.

"That put us on the international design map. It’s the first time an African design product has been on an Hermès product."

But even before they hit the boulevards and boutiques, Ardmore had a legacy that encompassed a successful and growing family business and creative pursuits. They have long been known for raising the fortunes of those around it — and exporting design into prestigious overseas luxury brands too.

Halsted founded Ardmore in 1985 in the foothills of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal. Her team concentrated entirely on ceramics for many years, but have since branched out into bespoke furniture, soft furnishings and tableware. Today the artist collective has about 80 painters, sculptors and people who throw on the wheel.

The company came into being after Halsted was retrenched from a job lecturing at Technikon Natal. "I decided I would join my then boyfriend and work with people without opportunity. It started with my maid’s daughter Bonnie [Ntshalinthshali], and then it became a process of creating employment and using art skills and talent," she says. Ntshalinthshali became an acclaimed sculptor in her own right, and many talented staff members have followed in her artistic footsteps.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

All these years later, and the family are still operationally involved. The design part of the company was started by Halsted and her three children:daughters Catherine and Megan Berning and son Jonathan Berning, who runs Ardmore Design in Joburg. Three years ago they opened their Hyde Park Square store, where you’ll find everything from velvet cushions to plush couches.

So what’s all the fuss about some clay vessels anyway? What is it that sets them apart from any other pottery outfit? Well, simply put, it’s the intricate 3D designs themselves — always enmeshed with imagery of KwaZulu-Natal. They celebrate Africa’s big cats, birds, elephants, crocodiles, monkeys, rhinos and flowers and display patterns of Zulu beadwork and woven baskets.

Some have described the Ardmore aesthetic as kitsch and over-the-top; really, though, what they produce is colourful, quirky, sophisticated and vibrant. Their work is always a joyful (albeit expensive) interpretation of the environment.

Recognition of this has come from places that count. In 1991, Charles Greig Jewellers bought and displayed their ceramics, and they continue to sell their products in their upmarket Hyde Park Corner store. Prestigious auction house Christie’s hosted auctions of their ceramics in London, describing them as "modern collectibles". And their work can be found in leading galleries and collections around the world, including the Museum of Arts & Design in New York and the Museum of Cultures in Basel, Switzerland.

Family matters

Every year they exhibit in London and Cape Town, at the Cellars-Hohenort hotel in Constantia. Now they’re joining forces with Zimbabwean luxury brand Patrick Mavros for their first collaboration in SA. Both are family-owned and -run businesses, and have previously exhibited together in London, Nairobi and Harare.

Their upcoming combined show will also be at the Cellars-Hohenort from February 13 to 17.

This tie-up between the two outfits is a natural one given their mutual love of Africa, but there’s a familial link too. Halsted’s sister is married to Patrick Mavros. "This is the first time we’ll be with them in Cape Town," says Halsted, who also sells in various boutique stores across the city.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Patrick (he is the patriarch and original designer in the family, for whom the brand is named) is known for his fine jewellery, accessories and sculptures in silver and gold — many of them referencing wildlife too. Patrick Mavros has a gallery and shop in Harare, an atelier in Mauritius and outlets in Nairobi and London. Again, all four Mavros children are involved in the business.

But, working with Hermès and the Mavros family is not all that Ardmore has on the go. It’s also collaborating with classic British wallpaper house Cole & Son. The venture with the surface designing house, launched in February 2017, has been more lucrative than that with Hermès (which has been incredibly beneficial brand-wise). Cole & Son found out about their work in New York and approached them. A "fabulous range of wallpapers" came out; they’re all around the world. It’s been best-selling, says Halsted.

Vivid tangerine orange and electric blues, offset by monkeys and leopards on parade, and subtler leaf-inspired repeats can be found in fancy spots like the Crosby Street Hotel in New York and in the super-niche Ham Yard Hotel in London. Look carefully and you’re sure to spot them dotted about many private and public spaces in SA too — the newly revamped Rand Club in Joburg is one example.

The Cole & Son team say the Ardmore Collection is one of their top five best-selling collections internationally.

The Savuti design, which references the well-known Botswana national park, has proved particularly popular, in a variety of colourways (design-speak for different coloured versions of one pattern).

But back to the surfboard. As digital lifestyle magazine Buro 24/7 says, it’s ideal for beginners and experienced surfers.

"This surfboard is the ultimate trophy wife if you’re married to the sport. It comes at a price of course (a whopping $10,170), but hey, commitment isn’t cheap."