Social Sustainability: South Africa’s Top Ten Designers

Sophie Finney

South African designers are using their innovative skills and products to benefit society. Whether through community initiatives, education with an emphasis on self-reliance and craft skills, or enhancing local shelters and schools through design, South Africa is definitely on the map for design with an altruistic slant.
It is perhaps unsurprising that South Africa has long had a culture of recycling, upcycling, and ‘make do and mend.’ In a country where the gap between wealth and poverty is so vast, it is a culture that was born of necessity. While you will of course find your luxury product and fashion designers in South Africa, there is also a lot to be said for the designers who are trying to make a difference in society. Design has become a means to both instigate and promote ways of helping the less fortunate, while also promoting the South African design scene. Initiatives such as Design Indaba have arisen from this wish to promote all the good that has come from design in this country, and how in South Africa, they are ahead of the game in terms of design with a purpose.

1. Tsai Design Studio

Building, Architectural Landmark

Tsai Design Studio
© Porky Hefer Design
Established in 2005, Tsai Design Studio is a young and dynamic creative design studio and architectural practice based in Cape Town, South Africa. Using a multidisciplinary approach the studio generates creative solutions in a number of design fields including architecture, interior design, furniture, and graphic design. Using their creative power for good, Tsai Design Studio presented the Vissershok Container Classroom at the 2012 Design Indaba expo. A completed prototype, this architectural design saw a 12 metre long recycled shipping container transformed into an independent classroom for 25 children. Initiated during Woolworths’ annual design competition ‘Making the Difference through Design,’ the design itself was the winning proposal from high school student, Marshaan Brink. Tsai Design Studio then took further developed the design. The entire area incorporates a play area, somewhere to grow vegetables, as well as the classroom itself, which has a free standing roof to allow for ventilation.

Porky Hefer

South African designer Porky Hefer set up his design studio, Porky Hefer Design, in 2011. With a strong conceptual foundation, Hefer’s work ranges from public sculpture to product and furniture design. Looking to Africa specifically as inspiration for many of his projects, Hefer employs biomimicry to create sustainable solutions to solve real world problems. In the Nests series, he looked at the way in which Weaver birds created their nests and emulated it in his designs. The nests have no ‘structure’ for want of a better word, rather, they are entirely woven from either natural materials or, in this case, recycled plastic packaging straps. These were developed with two design students, Leonie Vlaar and Lois Stolwijk, from the School of Arts Utrecht who were interning with him at the time. These structures are sturdy enough to support the weight of at least two adults, and are both humble and beautiful in their creation.

2. Heath Nash

Heath Nash

A designer who has always had a love of simply ‘making things,’ Heath Nash approaches design from a very sculptural and experimental view point. With a background in in Fine Art and Sculpture from the University of Cape Town, Nash spent his final year ‘fiddling with off-cut printer card, staples and masking tape.’ Experimenting with found objects led Nash to develop a playful way of exploring materials that use trial and error. By working on paper-working skills he had developed, Nash found that his techniques worked with folded die-cut panels of polypropylene. He began to use this technique to create a range of lights. This then developed into using recycled plastic as way of promoting recycling to the South African public and to give his products a more ‘South African feel’.

2 Mountain Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town, 7925, South Africa

Africa Ignite© Africa Ignite

3. Africa!Ignite


Established in 2004 by MiET Africa (a leading Southern African education development agency based in KwaZulu-Natal), Africa!Ignite is a community development program that utilizes the craft skills of rural people in order to help them earn a fair living. Focusing on developing the skills of women in South Africa, Africa!Ignite’s aim is to enable mothers and grandmothers provide for their families, as well as passing on the skills they have learned. Africa!Ignite does not believe in hand outs; the aim of the program is to create opportunities for people in marginalized areas who are willing to help themselves and their community. Producing a wide range of products including textiles, soft furnishings, jewellery, and other craft objects, Africa!Ignite sells these both locally and internationally. A truly inspiring company, they have seen the potential in design and craft as a means of sustaining communities.

69 Churchill Rd, Berea, 4001, South Africa

Ashley Heather© Ashley Heather

Ashley Heather

A silversmith who creates beautiful and simple jewellery, Ashley Heather is both passionate and committed to ethical design processes. Believing that one forms a particular sort of relationship with jewelery, the pieces she creates are inspired by the exploration of raw materials as well as the way in which they can be cultivated through the means of craft. Her work beautifully expresses fleeting moments in everyday life and are effortlessly stylish, minimal, and wearable. Many of Heather’s works are created using sterling silver that has been reclaimed from photographic waste. She has thus created an innovative way of minimizing waste and recycling a material that might not have initially occurred to one as needing to be recycled; Heather’s work also shows that jewelery made from recycled materials can look sleek and high end.

Roché Van Den Berg

Artist Roché Van Den Berg has found an innovative material with which to create lights, furniture, mirrors, and a whole variety of interior accessories: Tyres. In South Africa, there are somewhere in the region of 11 million used tyres just sitting there. They don’t decompose and they aren’t disposed of, so Van Den Berg saw an opportunity to use them as a sustainable material for art and design projects. Seeing a beauty in the black rubber that is not immediately visible, she transforms the tyres into stunning and useable pieces. In 2011 Van Den Berg held her first solo exhibition entitled Rubber, Recycle, Relove that was on show at the 101 Dorp Gallery in Stellenbosch, South Africa. From what started as a small commission and an exploration of sustainable materials, Roché Van Den Berg’s work is a fascinating example of how beauty and intrigue can be found in ugly, everyday objects.

4. Design Afrika

Design Afrika

Combining traditional and contemporary craft practices, Design Afrika founder Binky Newman has a long history of being involved in African craft. Over time she has developed and designed a number of contemporary pieces, both functional and sculptural, that utilize traditional techniques. Originally from the Okavango Delta, Botswana, Newman moved to South Africa in 1995 and brought with her the basket weaving skills of the Hambukushi Women. Becoming the first items of finely handcrafted products available in the Design Afrika Collection, they went on to inspire more objects. Newman believes that because much of the craft skills in Africa are hidden away in remote locations, it is important to seek it out and encourage it within these rural communities. By promoting these crafts, Design Afrika aims to contribute to the emergence of Africa on the global design stage.

42 Hares Cres, Salt River, Cape Town, 7925, South Africa

Libere foundation© Libere Foundation

Libere Foundation

Creating beautifully handcrafted products, the Libere Foundation is an extremely ethical company; they use waste material and found objects for their products, the designs are done by children and the manufacturing is done by the unemployed. The main objective is to create employment for talented and hardworking individuals who have limited opportunities and resources. Through its ‘Annual Design for Work’ competition, Libere Foundation identifies young talented designers and hosts craft and design workshops for those from disadvantaged communities. These workshops teach elderly women, unemployed women with young dependents, and women with disabilities to manufacture a variety of the designs created. That way they are able to generate an income and support their own families. Additionally, Libere Foundation teaches men to manufacture lights and lamps from plastic bottles and Perspex. A company that is looking after both the environment and surrounding communities, Libere Foundation is a credit to the design industry.


Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, PETA-LEE was formed in 2005 by Peta-Lee Woolf. With a background in fashion design, she wanted to create fashion and interior accessories made from handmade felt. Using a combination of texture, color, and materials, her products have a unique quality to them that feels both original and contemporary. As well as creating an exciting range of products including throws, cushions, lamps, vases, and scarves, PETA-LEE wished that the products be produced locally, thus providing employment and empowerment to the disadvantaged in the area. By training, guiding, and working with local felt makers, she produces her products ethically, sustainably, and creates employment whilst doing so. Whilst some felt makers are trained via community workshops, others are directly trained by PETA-LEE. Either way, the entire team learn, enhance, and share their skills, thus empowering the local community, while making beautiful and one-of-a-kind products.


Raw Studios is a design firm dedicated to exploring the potential of sustainable, engineered. Working predominantly in Birch plywood, Raw is committed to creating its furniture systems using sustainably sourced and environmentally responsible materials. Based in Pretoria, Raw Studios is now a culmination of a 16 year creative journey that has seen the company come up with a vast number of exciting and innovative designs. An example of this is the Klik™ system, a modular storage system that allows for an endless amount of possibilities that can cater to stores, offices, and even home workstations or children’s bedrooms. Compiled of an array of elements such as shelving, worktops, storage boxes, cupboards, etc., each item can simply ‘klik’ into the base panel and be rearranged as often as is needed. A creative and yet simple system, Klik™ is the sort of thing that changes the way we think about design and utility.
By Sophie Finney

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