African designers try their hand at American Red oak

(Bottom Left) The Ukhamba Table by Kumsuka founder Siyanda Mazibuko takes inspiration from Zulu Ukhamba drinking vessels, that are shared between friends and family at Zulu gatherings. (R) Thabisa Mjo, founder of MashT Design Studio, looked to Umbhaco materials and garments, the traditional dress worn by the Xhosa people of South Africa, for inspiration. Her hand-carved table reveals the Umbhaco hidden within the wood.

Future Heirlooms, a design collaboration between a South African cooperative, Always Welcome, and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), was on display at the Always Welcome Viewing Rooms in Johannesburg. It has now moved to Cape Town.

A group of seven South African designers from three provinces across the country created a series of works that not only look forward to the future of sustainable design, but also explore their own heritage and the story of South Africa’s rich design legacy.

Created in American Red oak by celebrated hardwood furniture designer manufacturers Houtlander and timber importers BOS Timbers, the seven pieces – by Dokter and Misses, MashT Design Studio, The Urbanative, Kumsuka, Kalki Ceramics, and Joe Paine in partnership with Nathan Gates, and Nøde Studio – are a celebration of material and memory.

Under the mentorship of the Always Welcome leadership team, the designers were asked to create an object or a piece of furniture that fully encapsulates the themes of sustainability, longevity and quality.

“We need to end our current throwaway culture and need to use materials that have a low environmental impact. Designers, especially, have a huge influence on how products are planned and with what materials,” said Roderick Wiles, AHEC Regional Director.

Creative process

For the designers, the project has offered a unique opportunity to explore alternative manufacturing methods, and the beauty and versatility of American Red oak itself.

Thabisa Mjo, founder of award-winning Johannesburg-based product and furniture design group, MashT Design Studio, said, “The material intrigued me from the outset. Coupled with Houtlander’s special ability to work with timber, my imagination set alight and I just had to see what could be made.”

According to Garreth van Niekerk, Director and Co-founder of the Always Welcome collective, “This project inspires important discussions around sustainability in South African furniture design, and that the personal narratives of each designer imbued in each piece brings joy and delight to visitors of the show during its run.”

Environmental impact

Another incredibly important facet of working with American Red oak for Future Heirlooms, is that the lumber for the project arrived at the South African port of Durban carbon-negative. This means that there was more CO2-equivalent sequestered inside the delivered lumber than that which was emitted during all the processes of extraction from the forest, saw-milling, kiln-drying and even shipping!

Just about 1.3 cubic metres of American Red oak was used to make all seven pieces, with the finished pieces being made of less than 1 cubic metre of wood after manufacturing. For their lifetime, these seven furniture pieces will keep around 1,069 kg of CO2-equivalent out of the atmosphere.

Such is the size of the US hardwood forest resource and dominant in the forest is Red oak, at roughly 18% of the total resource. All the Red oak lumber used to make the seven designs would have been replaced in the US hardwood forest through natural regeneration in just 1.35 seconds.

“Through this collaboration, we hope the designers and manufacturers learned a lot about this beautiful and sustainable material while also demonstrating the beauty of widely-available, yet under-utilised American hardwood species,” concluded Wiles.


(L) First-time parents Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo, co-founders of Dokter and Misses, celebrated the next phase of their lives with a design that brings a Family Portrait into their line of product and furniture design. (R) Designed to resemble the braids and coiffures worn by ethnic Fula people in the Sahel and West Africa, The Fulani Chair by designer Mpho Vackier’s The Urbanative uses charred American Red oak with a water-based sealer.





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