Design Indaba: South Africa's 'Creative World Cup'

Construction sites are seemingly everywhere in South Africa, and excitement is mounting as the country counts down to the World Cup, which kicks off on June 11. But the banners fluttering from lampposts along the streets of downtown Cape Town recently celebrated something else: Design Indaba, an annual design and innovation conference and expo that ran from Feb. 24-28.

Billing itself as the largest creative confab in Africa, the conference attracted an all-star roster of designers and entrepreneurs from around the world. Names included Martha Stewart, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, and hotshot designers such as Tord Boontje and the Bouroullec Brothers. (An adjacent expo showcased South Africa's top design companies, featuring around 250 exhibitors and attracting as many as 29,000 visitors, including international buyers.)

Described by conference organizer Ravi Naidoo as a "Creative World Cup," the sold-out, $754-a-head conference drew 1,500 attendees from across the creative industries (with hundreds more in an overflow simulcast room). The speakers touched on myriad aspects of design. Michael Bierut, a New York-based graphic designer and partner at design firm Pentagram, opened a window into the creative process with a talk entitled "My favorite project—and how I almost blew it," about his work for the nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation in New York. Han Feng detailed growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution and her subsequent work as a fashion and costume designer with directors such as the late Anthony Minghella and Laurie Anderson.

While the power of creativity provided the event's overarching theme, a strong undercurrent was the rise of developing nations on the global stage—the trend once described by commentator Fareed Zakaria as "the fall of the West, the rise of the rest." Or at least, the rise of the rest as significant producers of world-class creative content, rather than as mere consumers of Hollywood movies and Western fashions. Specifically the conference organizers highlighted so-called BASIC countries—Brazil, South Africa, India, and China.

Brazil: Omnipresent Marcelo Rosenbaum

Piyush Pandey, for instance, the national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather in India and a member of the advertising and marketing giant's board, showed the brilliant work that his team developed for the Indian market. Because more than thirty languages are spoken across India, Pandey's commercials for Vodafone and SBI Life Insurance tend to rely on visual storytelling and on human emotions that cut across cultural differences. It's a lesson all content creators with global ambitions would benefit from studying.

In Brazil, Marcelo Rosenbaum's multiplatform design empire makes him that country's version of Martha Stewart. Rosenbaum has developed multiple lines of housewares for Linha Brasil—the biggest ceramics producer in Latin America—furniture for the Brazilian equivalent of Ikea, and restaurant interiors. He hosts a daily radio show and a weekly home-makeover TV program focused on underprivileged families.

A second theme that emerged from the conference was the continued blurring of industrial design and traditional craft. Tord Boontje, whose clients include Target (TGT) and Swarovski, presented several projects that mix design and craft, including a collaboration with Colombian potters to create a ceramics line for Artecnica. "You can take a 100-year-old craft and update it without complex, expensive tooling," he said. And Stewart outlined her company's 2006 entrance into the craft supplies market, which she called "a $30 billion industry with no dominant brand." (While Rosenbaum and Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena earned rave responses, Stewart's talk about glitter and faux bois, which prompted nearly half the audience to walk out, was ridiculed in the blogosphere.)

A jump-start for South African design

Few speakers touched on the business side of design, but issues of gross domestic product, job growth, and global trade lurk in the background at Design Indaba. Conference organizer Naidoo is intent on supercharging the South African creative community through the conference—which made its debut in 1995—thereby stimulating the country's industries and creating jobs. "South Africa has gold and diamonds. Yet we didn't have one leading jewelry designer," Naidoo said. "The custodians of our mining industry have been delinquent by not taking us beyond the commodity—the difference between the price of an ingot and a gold chain is 15 times."

For all his efforts, design is still not a big deal in South Africa. "Most of our players are cottage industry, mom-and-pop operations," Naidoo has admitted. "We don't have any big winners yet, almost no one who has leveraged an international brand." And some speaker choices were bizarre: Genetic scientist Craig Venter beamed in via satellite to give a speech, an appearance that bemused most of the audience.

Design Indaba may yet prove to be an incubator for breakthrough creative talent, helping to nurture and inspire a home-grown Martha Stewart. In the meantime, it's a world-class conference that features leading thinkers in creativity and design.

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