Transformation – a powerful word (Design Indaba)



By Michelle Constant

The word ‘transformation’ is the latest little black dress of South Africa. It’s so hot, it slips with ease off slippery tongues; it trips up those sealed in apartheid hostels. It’s a sexy Pandora’s Box of fury, pain and possibility. But think again, transformation synonyms with ‘alteration, renovation and makeover’, all of which imply a certain forward-thinking, a creative and design ethic. And so at the Design Indaba I am indebted to the presentations of Eastern European designers who see themselves as innovators in a time of transformation. After all there are people who just get it. In order to shape change they both look to the past, addressing it, pausing painstakingly over it, and using it to move successfully into the future. Surely there’s a lesson to be learnt – at a time when we’re furiously hurling out the notorious heritage of our country, all in the name of transformation, I wonder if perhaps we’re throwing out the skill of the ubiquitous baby with the dirty bathwater.

Maxim Velcovsky, with his throw back 70’s hairdo, hails from Prague, formerly Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. A lot of his work is in porcelain and concerns the “reworking” of objects. A plastic galosh boot used for walking in water is reconsidered in ceramic and suddenly stores water as a vase; the Christian cross is made over as the universal home accessory; a renovated store is renamed – once it sold shoes and was called ‘Orthopaedia’, now it is the ‘Hope’ store (as the letters of the latter are drawn from the original word.) Velcovsky talks of jumping from communism to consumerism “It was like two ways of looking at two worlds; a bit like childhood compared with adulthood” and in the transition, being forced into re-designing his environment. 

“We are all re-designing, thinking of applying the same designs in new contexts, adding details or decorations on top of old existing worlds. Sometimes things are over designed, the fantastic thing about a wooden chair – the older it is, the better. In terms of a plastic chair it’s the opposite.  Sometime a shape is hidden or lost, people need to be refreshed to see a new context.” 

He describes a time when “we had to rely on instinct, and we didn’t know what was going on abroad – it was difficult to even get magazines, so we had to inspire ourselves. I like to re-develop our culture, focussing on the story behind our history.” The introduction of a McDonald’s, whilst offering the fizz of Coke and the taste of Big Mac, conversely meant that local culture needed to be more strongly supported – after all who are we, if not our history. 

Ring any bells? (When it comes to design, yes, with the likes of Stoned Cherrie, and Gregor Jenkins leading the charge.)

Bosnian-born Mirko Ilic takes us to a time of struggle. Focussing on responsibility to community, he talks of design as dissent, “How does it work –you glue a poster on the wall. People passing by are lonely with fear – but wait a minute, you see the poster and realise ‘someone is thinking as I am’, and an avalanche is started with one single, honest, well-designed poster. From there things will happen, and an alternative voice must exist.” Ilic shows powerful ‘anti’ postcards sent to Milosovic, posters demonstrating against draconian rule and disturbing 3D images of freedom. He sees design as an activist’s tool, an alternative voice to the mainstream – the mainstream being political power or more ostensibly commercial advertising. Talking of TV as being the insidious destroyer of democracy, he says the Internet is David to the ‘box’s’ Goliath. “If one has amazing information about corruption, you can print it in black and white, but with the Internet, we all have access to some kind of voice, look at the videos which show on Youtube.” (Indeed in the global political scramble, Youtube has become an exciting political tool in its own right, and has become the 21st century poster, postcard or graffiti of dissent.) It was in New York that Ilic, who moved to the Big Apple in ’86, was able to use graphic design as political commentary when he became art director of the op-eds in the New York Times. Two pieces, which are deeply prescient to both his world and ours, use graphic technique’s to exemplify the headings The elements defy hungry Zimbabwe and Russia comes apart. 

For Ilic local design is more than ‘lekker’, it’s important in attracting right-minded, conscious people to our country. 

 “If you don’t have much to lose you can do miracles” he says. (You can do murder as well.) “You’ve already done that, it’s time to move on” he responds. Which brings me back to South Africa and transformation. When curator and art dealer Warren Siebrits exhibited the Posters designed under apartheid 1959 to 1993, he spoke of how design becomes an important cultural and historical document in times of conflict. (It’s a moot point that in a culture of censorship, it’s through culture that one finds sense/sensor/sensorialship.) Siebrits talks of the symbolic power of color combinations – the orange blue and white, the green, gold and black. He says, “It’s ironic that the first politically motivated poster I remember seeing and thinking about, was text-based and issued by the South African Defense Force.  Conceived to motivate and encourage patriotism, it read: A system is only as good as the people who run it.”

 Perhaps the time has come for us to pull that poster out, and rework it it. After all another synonym for transformation is ‘revolution’.  Can we design that?


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