Creative Empathy in Design with TheUrbanative

Mamaputle Boikanyo

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Empathy is an important part of all types of art. It’s the only way in which we can tell stories that relate to the human psyche and culture. In furniture and interior design, this factor is just as important, especially when we realize that the spaces we live, work and move in can have a positive impact on who we are.

Mpho Vackier talks about designing with empathy in her creative process

Many of us rarely think about the ways in which interior spaces influence our mood or state of being. We’re often simply moving from point A to B , not always realising that the spaces we occupy might make us feel free, scared, insecure, elated, or excited. Whether we know it or not, the spaces we live in and move around do define us, in the very same way that we play a part in creating and defining them for ourselves. It’s a very interactive process, however subtle it may be. Mpho Vackier, a rising gem amongst South Africa’s young and vibrant product and interior designers, knows all too well about the power of design for human beings. In fact, Mpho, who is the founder of TheUrbanative, believes that empathy is an important part of the creation process that goes into designing furniture. 

She creates with an awareness of people, their culture, their identities and their stories. In her creative process there is a need to empathise with those cultures and stories. It is the only way in which she is able to create powerful pieces that are not only functional in office spaces, homes or restaurants, but that are also meaningful to the people that use them. 

“My belief is that the minute that people learn about your culture they start connecting with you on a totally different level. They begin to see the essence of you rather than just understanding you on a superficial level. We should never take that away – that fact that culture has so much power. At its core, it really does connect us. We found a lot of that when we went to Milan to exhibit our work,” says Mpho.

Supported by Nandos, Mpho and a few other designers got to exhibit work at Milan’s Design Week. The reception they received was warm and while the audience was moved by their pieces, the initial inspirations that helped create those designs were not there, according to an interview she had post the event. Even though the experience was amazing, she found reading the headlines of their visit there on big newspapers was very jarring.

“It was amazing, but it would be even more amazing to share that insight with people back at home. A big newspaper in South Africa  wrote a story on us with the headline “Mzansi Designers Rock Milan” and I think that flawed us because we wanted to engage with people back home. We wanted to connect with the people back home. The Basha Uhuru Festival was set to soon launch and we saw that as an avenue to connect with South Africa instead of just doing that overseas,” Mpho explains.

Mpho’s designs and her creative process epitomise the idea of how interactive art can be, of how art defines and is defined by us. Nothing conveys this more than her Nenzima Desk, a piece inspired by the coiffure/hairstyle of Queen Nenzima of the Congo in the 1920’s. The Nenzima server, which was launched after the desk is a piece that Mpho had a very real and visceral connection with, as she explains below.

The Nenzima Server

“The Nenzima server that we [TheUrbanative] launched this year really resonates with me on a personal level. I didn’t think I had it in me to create a piece like that and now I think that after creating that, I look at the way I create so differently. I didn’t know I had it in me to create something like, but now that I have, I see myself so differently. Now I’m like, ‘Oh, I am this kind of designer. I can design bold, one-off, collector’s item pieces.’ I thought I was a functional designer, that I was mostly designing to meet people’s needs. But that piece has made me grow so much in my journey as a creative and as a designer that I cannot wait to see what is going to happen for the pieces I create next.”

The Nenzima Server and Queen Nenzima

The Nenzima Desk was nominated for Design Indaba’s Most beautiful Object this year. The desk comprises of powder coated steel, bamboo and is embellished with a weaved telephone wire disc and a cable management pod. In a patriarchal society Queen Nenzima was a crucial advisor to the King and was known to be the most powerful person in the court during the 20th century. “She was seen as intelligent and strong. She was heard and seen,” says Mpho. “I made it bold to celebrate that about her. It is almost kind of my love letter to her. The piece kind of says ‘I’m here’ in the same way that she does and I’m so in love with this statement.”

Mpho is one of the many artists working with Nando’s as part of their initiative to help young people grow in the creative economy. Their aim is to not only support young artists, but to also help promote art that is reflective of the space that we occupy, which is Africa. While our present spaces are obviously reflective of a colonial legacy and western imperialism, our present must celebrate the intricacies of our culture today.  TheUrbanative, Mpho’s furniture and product design company, was created with this in mind. It’s also an ode to her son, who is of European and African descent. “I wanted to show my son that yes, you are different, but look at what a beautiful conversation these two different things are having that are not supposed to come together.” Mpho’s pieces are a vivid representation of our existence as African people living in a globalised culture. Her first collection of designs was inspired by mid-century modern European styles and Ndebele design – “Two totally different worlds” she says, “but it worked!”

“You cannot design in a bubble. Empathy for me means observing and listening to exchange meaningful experiences. When we put product out it should be “this is who the product is for, this is the problem that I’m solving, these are the materials that I’m using, this is how it’s impacting the environment”. We have to be holistic and can’t just be putting products out there to look cool only to find that it’s amazing for five minutes and redundant the next minute because of a new product. We have to design with sustainability and longevity in mind.”

Empathy is an important part of all types of art. It’s the only way in which we can tell stories that relate to the human psyche and culture. In furniture and interior design, this factor is just as important, especially when we realize that the spaces we live, work and move in can have a positive impact on who we are. It’s the reason why we feel intense emotions whenever we’re in historical museums and sites or why statues from the colonial area inspire passionate emotions like anger or sadness. Creative freedom does not only mean that we create what want, it also means that we get connect with cultures in ways that weren’t possible before.