The layered effect: Mixing African artefacts into your product assortment

Time-worn, textured artefacts bring softness and soul to contemporary living spaces. These handcrafted objects tell stories of distant lands and times past – something Lara Tatley of Togu’na knows well. She has travelled through some of the most remote parts of Africa, shared meals in artisans’ homes, and built up a vast network of suppliers from Mali to Cameroon. Her knowledge of African craft and her innovative approach to product development has enabled Togu’na to offer both modern and timeless décor for today’s consumer.

What motivated you to start Togu’na? 

Togu’na started when I became tired of working in an industry where traders and rural craftspeople always seemed to get the short end of the stick. I was convinced there was a kinder, more sustainable way to do business where people at both ends of the transaction could benefit. I began to work with traders and craftspeople to make or collect more marketable pieces, giving constant feedback and guidance along the way. This was an opportunity to exercise my creativity, fired by an African art lecturer during my sculpture degree.




Tell us about the people behind Togu’na. How big is your team?

My husband, Duncan, heads up our workshop and is the mastermind behind product intervention and development. The rest of our 25-member team is responsible for everything from sourcing to dispatching. Togu’na is the Malian name for a meeting house found in the centre of every Dogon village, a place where the elders come to make decisions about village life. The ceiling is deliberately low so that no-one can spring to their feet and shout, and this ethos of respect has formed the cornerstone of our own togu’na. Every one of us is valued for our own contribution and we operate as an extended family.

Togu’na sells both older, previously loved artefacts and contemporary objects. Tell us more about this distinction in your product range?

Although our specialty is sourcing used pieces that we restore, we do carry a range of contemporary (made for market) pieces, but everything we sell has been hand-made by an artisan in Africa and is therefore genuine. It’s an important distinction to make, because genuine doesn’t necessarily equal old and contemporary certainly doesn’t equal mass-produced in a factory! However, everything we source is hand selected for quality and aesthetic appeal.

What proportion of your range is actually customised or developed by you?

Every piece is restored or developed to some extent. Because of the distance our pieces travel to get to us, even the most beautiful bowls will arrive carrying evidence of their original use. It’s very important to us that the history and the integrity of this piece is honoured, no matter what process it undergoes in our workshop.

To give you an idea of development, let me tell you about our coffee tray tables. Historically, coffee trays from Ethiopia had short legs as coffee was served on the floor. There wasn’t really a market for these in contemporary homes as the short legs made them awkward on a table. One of our staff members had the genius idea of extending the legs and turning it into a side-table – and suddenly these coffee tray tables are bestsellers! This is the type of development we do, which represents a small but significant portion of our range.



How do you assure quality when you are sourcing things made by so many different artisans, especially given the language, cultural and geographical divides?

I like to think of it in terms of knowledge – I believe a quality object has an intrinsic beauty and have shared my knowledge of what makes a piece beautiful and high quality with my suppliers, who in turn have shared this with runners who travel on foot into extremely remote areas to find the best pieces. This shared aesthetic and appreciation seems to somehow transcend language and cultural divides. When an order arrives or someone brings their wares to show us, our buyers take the time to consider every piece and hand-select those that meet our standards. Similarly, this aspiration for quality resonates with our customers and it’s very rewarding to think of a piece made by a talented crafter in rural Africa ending its journey as a prized souvenir in the global home of our customers.

Which countries in Africa do your pieces come from?

Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana and many other African countries, as well as Indonesia.



What have been some of your most memorable insights and experiences from your travels across the African continent?

The travel itch gripped me while I was at university and to a large degree is responsible for the existence of Togu’na. I would explain this experience as a broad-band love relationship since buying trips in Africa tend to be as brutal as they are insightful. The idea of travel for collecting is romantic, probably kindled by the hope of making a discovery, but because the craftspeople are spread over vast distances and live hand to mouth there is less and less product available for collecting. This has necessitated our having to enable production so that we can build up enough stock to make shipping cost-effective – a lengthy process taking months and sometimes years, further reducing the viability of travelling.

I’ve been privileged to be invited into many homes, meeting families, sharing meals, hearing stories – from very westernised contemporary homes in Ethiopia and extended family compounds in Nigeria, to rural dwellings in Swaziland and artisanal centres such as Foumban in Cameroon. I’m always struck by the creative skills of the crafters, the labour intensive manufacture process, the perseverance and resourcefulness demonstrated by the suppliers. Sadly, a common theme is the threat that craft skills aren’t being handed down as the youth aspire towards modernity, not to learning traditional craft methods.

My favourite romantic trip was to remote, northern Ethiopia, where I walked inside the churches carved into the bedrock in Lalibela and experienced an almost tangible sense of spirituality, and further north in Aksum seeing the church purported to house the Ark of the Covenant, and walking amongst the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s castle. Whilst there I read Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal and was struck by the interconnectedness of ancient Africa and biblical history.

What trends or shifts have you noticed in the demand for African artefacts from international consumers? 

There’s definitely a more wide-ranging demand by international audiences. African art is no longer just for serious collectors or the well-travelled. It’s particularly important to us to release the hidden specialness of pieces by telling their story. For example, that this basket was woven for a young woman on her wedding day, then used in her outdoor kitchen to chaff grain for her children. That it may have been traded to pay for school fees or to buy food for her family. That it travelled thousands of kilometres, via ox-back and roof-stacked bus, with a trader from Zambia who had to sleep in a tree when the river flooded. These are the types of stories that enrich a piece, and remind us that African art is not trendy or fast-fashion.



How has this translated into the kinds of products that sell well?

When I first started in this industry, collectors tended to associate with the tribal nature of Africa and there was a huge demand for authenticity. But over time buyers have transitioned towards the more timeless, décor-type pieces that can seamlessly transition into contemporary living spaces. This is where our unique beneficiation comes into its own as we develop new products and modernise traditional ones. Utilitarian objects such as bowls, baskets and side tables have become a lot more popular than “novelty” pieces like masks or trade beads. That said, everyone loves a beaded piece like the Namji dolls.



Perfectly imperfect

Wonki Ware’s handmade pottery has found broad commercial appeal with customers all over the world. From weeknight casseroles to holiday feasts, neutral dinner services to artful place settings, its tableware is versatile and unfussy (not to mention durable). It’s all down to founder Di Marshall’s people-centred approach to running her studio. Each piece passes through 18 pairs of hands from start to finish to ensure a unique, sophisticated product.

We asked Di how she developed Wonki Ware into an internationally recognised brand.

You have a team of 70 people producing work in your studio. Tell us how Wonki Ware started?

I live in a small town called George along the Garden Route in South Africa. I started a small studio in the town centre in 1999 purely to keep myself occupied while my children where at school. We lived on a farm at the time and had to travel quite a distance every day so I thought it would be good idea to work in my pottery studio in the morning, collect my children and go back to the farm in the afternoon.

I happily started working and slowly attracted the attention of the local community. Before long my little studio became a meeting place for other potters and people that enjoyed being creative. About the same time, a young Xhosa man named Atwell started arriving every morning looking for work. I did not have much money at this stage to pay him, but he was willing to do anything, so I started teaching him about clay.

To our delight he started producing very sensitively worked platters and bowls. I began developing patterns that were relatively easy to reproduce but at the same capturing a sensitivity in pattern and design.

Another person that became invaluable to our team walked into the studio one day and painted a plate – and I knew instantly she had to join our team. Les, Atwell and I became a formidable pottery team. Our energy and enthusiasm had people from all over the country popping in to buy our pottery.

The word had spread from Cape Town to Johannesburg and before long we had orders that we could not keep up with.



So many brands have struggled to make craft commercially viable. What’s your secret?

I devised a method where I made the original shapes and trained my staff to duplicate from them. I also began developing patterns that were relatively easy and simple to reproduce. Our skilled potters are now training newcomers in the art of making Wonki Ware and I feel confident that this is being achieved successfully. It is with pleasure and pride that I feel I can hand over this side of the business to my employees.


What are you most proud of with regard to your expansion into the international market?  

We are sold in 14 countries, by the leading retailers around the world. Our manufacture has tripled, and the high point is that it has become a recognisable brand world-wide. Most homeware buyers are aware of us.


Why do you think Wonki Ware has such wide appeal to different kinds of customers across the world?  

It is a robust, tactile product, and the design and patterning is fairly simple and therefore easy on the senses. It is neither over-styled nor under-styled. This balance gives it the ‘wow’ factor that has mass appeal. We have harnessed the science behind the product, where we have mastered the appeal to a mass audience.


Wonki Ware has a star-studded list of customers. Can you drop a few names for us?

Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Tina Turner, George Michael, the Swedish Royal Family, Bollywood stars, Cindy Crawford, to name a few…  Wonki Ware has also been featured in various box office movies such as Me Before You and is often used on the Cooking Channel’s Siba’s Table and various local TV shows.


Ceramic trends come and go. How do you stay relevant and in demand? 

We have created a classic product that is timeless and vibrant. Developing our variety of shapes and patterns has given us the opportunity to be ahead of most trends, especially with colour.



From Rural Swaziland to The World

In the first of a new series profiling our suppliers, we introduce you to Gone Rural – an inspirational success story combining traditional craft and contemporary design to create globally sought after homeware that uplifts rural communities in Africa.

Gone Rural’s roots stretch back to the 1970s: to a small craft shop housed in a thatched hut in rural Swaziland. It was founded by the visionary Jenny Thorne, who wanted to empower women in some of the country’s most remote areas. She created an innovative business model that provided female weavers with home-based work and a sustainable income. An entire product line of tableware has been created, all completely hand made in Eswatini (Swaziland’s new official name). What once was a small start-up organisation now has a global reach, with big markets in Europe, Australia, and the United States.

Managing Director Mellisa Mazingi gave us some great insight into the journey of her company in an in-depth interview that covers the history, products and weavers of Gone Rural.

Gone Rural started in a mud hut as a small craft shop selling handmade clothes, accessories and anti-Apartheid literature. The person behind it, Jenny Thorne, must have been a special woman. Can you tell us more about her?

I always say that Jenny was a visionary with the Gone Rural business model. Long before “social enterprise” was a trendy buzzword, she created a system that solved a problem and worked in the context of rural Eswatini (Swaziland’s official ‘new’ name). To this day, many of the women we work with – who worked with Jenny in the formative years of Gone Rural – still refer to their bread-and-butter product of placemats as “Jenny’s”, which is really testament to the legacy she left behind. She has just been honoured by the African Women’s Peace and Development Foundation on the occasion of Swaziland’s 50th year of independence for her legacy contribution to national development.

Most of us have never been to Eswatini. Can you paint a picture for us of the landscape and setting where Gone Rural is based? How does it look, feel, smell?

Eswatini is a beautiful country – full of mountains, many, many cattle and home to lovely people. What strikes you most is how genuinely good-hearted and welcoming everyone is. Gone Rural’s workshop is located on Malandela’s Farm, the family farm now run by Jenny’s children, and it’s a beautiful setting to come to work in every day. The smell of the grass we work with is everywhere, a lovely fresh and organic smell. And at any given time you will hear laughter or the sound of the dye team singing as they work – we have some pretty impressive baritones from the male members of our team!

Tell us about life in the villages of rural Eswatini, where your baskets are made. What kind of lives do the women weavers lead?

Rural Eswatini personifies the warm nature of its people. The society is made up of communities of families that support each other, particularly the women. As Gone Rural operates on a home-based work model, the women weave baskets and other home products in their homes or under the shade of trees while chatting, in between the daily household tasks of cooking, cleaning, raising children and farming. These tasks are often shared among family members. While some of these communities do not have access to electricity and other modern conveniences, their homes are warm, welcoming and familial and the women are always happy to share their life experiences.



What does it mean for these women to have regular employment?

The sustainability of work from Gone Rural is an essential part of the livelihoods of the women we work with. There are often few economic opportunities in the areas that the weavers hail from, especially as 50% of artisans are the primary income earners for their families. That’s what drives us to continue marketing and selling our products as widely as possible in order to increase the income of the women.


Furthermore, our impact goes beyond income-earning. Our sister NGO, boMake Rural Projects, provides funding for school bursaries for the artisans’ children, digging boreholes and building community halls for the groups that we work with. Working with Gone Rural means the women are able to be a part of developing their community as a whole.


Can you share with us some examples of the multiple generations of women who have worked with Gone Rural?

One of the most compelling stories of a multi-generational family of weavers is that which inspired the Song of the Weaver collection. Gogo Christina is the head of her family, and has been weaving since the inception of Gone Rural 27 years ago. Her daughter, Siphiwe, and granddaughter, Bonakele, are also weavers. She is proud of her children, and their family tree inspired the Framework basket showing how all the generations are woven together.


Siphiwe is the backbone of her family. Leaving school after falling pregnant, she began weaving to support her family and had six more children with her husband. One day he sold all their cattle and left, not returning for four years. Siphiwe had to leave her husband’s family homestead, but with her income from Gone Rural she was able to start her life again – building a house and buying animals. The Arc series, incorporating cow bone pieces along a ribbed basket spine, is inspired by her strength.


Bonakele is Siphiwe’s first daughter, who like Siphiwe left school at 16 after falling pregnant. She learnt to weave from her mother and joined Gone Rural to support her child. There are many ups and downs in her life but her daughter brings her great joy; this is represented in the Mother and Daughter basket pair and the Ups and Downs basket, showing how the lifeline of these women, with their various twists and turns, produces something beautiful and births a next generation of hope.



How has your NGO made a tangible difference to the women’s lives?

boMake Rural Project’s water project is one of the most impactful initiatives in the women’s communities. By drilling boreholes in drought-stricken areas of Swaziland and installing hand pumps to support this, the women have access to clean drinking water and do not have to travel long distances to collect water each morning. This not only improves the health of the overall community, but frees up time for children to attend a full day of school and more time for the women to do income-generating work. The difference that this makes is long-lasting, beyond the day-to-day.


How do you keep your designs fresh and innovative?

Our current focus for product design is on the artisans themselves. Through the Artisan-Led Design programme, initiated in 2017, we are training communities of weavers in design and product development skills, as well as drawing out their creativity and confidence to create contemporary, high-quality and beautifully designed products that tell their own stories and reflect their own inspiration. This has been carried out in three artisan groups and is being expanded to a fourth in 2019. This is the purest source of inspiration and results in products that are both innovative and grounded in the hearts of our weavers.



What makes Swazi baskets distinctive from other African baskets?

The quality of Gone Rural’s baskets is unmatched! We are also the only producer using Lutindzi grass to produce high-end basketry – this waxy, water-resistant grass is heat proof and hard-wearing, making it the best medium. Furthermore, our product designs are contemporary and chic, with constant injections of new design.


Swaziland is a tiny country, but it’s positively exploding with creative energy and some of the most interesting craft coming out of Africa. Is there something in the water?!

I think it really boils down to the generous nature of Swaziland’s people, especially her women. Because the women invest in teaching each other, creating together and sharing their work, the products of that work can only be beautiful.

The world seems to have fallen in love with woven baskets. What do you think is behind this trend?

I believe this is down to a desire to reconnect with nature and handmade – natural materials have a grounding power for our spirits, minds and homes while the knowledge that something has been painstakingly woven to perfection holds a value for the love that went into making it. Our baskets are beautiful, but in addition they hold an intangible beauty that I think we’re all craving in our increasingly hectic lives.



What is the most unusual object Gone Rural has made from woven grass?

Every day we’re making something new and exciting! The products that really allow the creativity of our talented artisans to shine are a series of functional sculptures designed by American artist Misha Khan for Friedman Benda gallery. The women bring the artistic vision of Misha to life through an eclectic and unexpected mix of woven grasses and upcycled materials from local junk yards, and the results are breath-taking.

Hand Woven

From rural plains to bustling cities, people are brought together by an ancient tradition passed down from generation to generation. African Basketry is a craft that weaves communities together, as they create pieces that are imbued with practical and decorative value. 

Techniques and methods of production are as rich and abundant as the diverse cultures that make up the continent, and an informed eye can trace the origin of a basket from its weave, patterning and composition. Like any art medium, basketry is highly versatile and recent creative developments have seen new techniques and materials being integrated into the artistic language of the craft. Utilising recyclable materials, exploring varied colors and forms, working at grander scales are just some of the new directions allowing artists to interpret moving trends while working with authentic processes. This evolution is creating pieces that have intrinsic worth and significant impact in the contemporary design world. 

By supporting African Basketry, you are invited to join a movement bringing authentic craft to the world, honoring and preserving traditional craftmanship and uplifting communities in a truly meaningful and profound way. 

Eco-Conscious Design

“The felting process is magical. You can mould wool into any form. It’s like a form of meditation”

– Ronel Jordaan

When Ronel and her team of artisans are at work, hand-felted South African merino wool is transformed into designs inspired by her favourite shapes in nature – from giant pebble stools to floral cushions and seashell poufs. Revering the organic properties of this versatile material, she steers away from the traditional chemical method of carbonisation and uses lead-free dyes and biodegradable soaps in her process. The result is a multifarious range of felt products that introduce eco-conscious sensibilities to the home.

It’s no surprise that internationally acclaimed designer Porky Hefer sought out her expertise for his latest project – the Endangered series in collaboration with Southern Guild, commissioned by SFA Advisory for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Debuted at Design Miami/Basel in June 2018, the pieces co-produced by the Ronel Jordaan team include a snuggly orangutan and a reposed polar bear.



‘We loved the challenge of creating larger-than-life soft ‘toys’, knowing they are for a good cause,’ she says (25% of all profits go toward the Leonardo diCaprio Foundation’s work in climate resiliency, protection of vulnerable wildlife and the restoration of balance to threatened ecosystems and communities).



That these animals were produced with a renewable fibre coming from sheep not subjected to mulesing practices made the choice a conscious one for Porky and his collaborators. Each animal is stuffed with polyester formed from recycled plastic bottles, all part of Ronel’s approach to maintaining environmental awareness throughout her production process, an ethos perfectly suited to the eco-friendly brief for these collectible, designer animals.



Having personally trained her team in the art of felting, Ronel continues to empower the women who work with her, affording them the opportunity to create items of value for people and for the environment.

Her homeware range for Source is another manifestation of this journey, where products are created with sustainability and a deep respect for the environment from which all materials are sourced.


Meet the Pioneers

In recognition of their ongoing contribution to the African design and craft industry, Source founders Trevyn and Julian McGowan appear on the cover of Business of Home’s current ‘International Issue’.

In the magazine feature, titled Mapping the Makers, Trevyn explains their journey: ‘Through photography and storytelling, we were able to create a demand for—and build an understanding of—a contemporary African aesthetic with a rich narrative.’ The 12-page article highlights people around the globe who are making a difference to the way products are manufactured and supplied. Trevyn identifies the strength of African design stemming from customers wanting to connect with what they put in their home so that they feel their environment has meaning. ‘They want to feel they are making a difference by buying products that will have a direct impact on the makers’ lives, not the CEO of some large brand.’ Source’s meaningful range of homeware – from glassware and crockery, to lighting and basketry – highlights a diverse range of work passionately conceived, woven, moulded and crafted on the African continent.

As founders of The Guild Group, the McGowans have been leaders in the evolution of African design, establishing multiple design platforms, including Source, Southern Guild collectible design gallery, GUILD studio and concept store, Odeon homeware store and a number of design-related development programmes. Their pioneering vision and insight into global design markets has earned them places on USA Art+Auction magazine’s ‘Power 100’ list of the most influential players in the global art world, City Press 100 World Class South Africans and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.

Ngwenya Glass

In the African Kingdom of Swaziland, a mountain that resembles a basking crocodile can be found. At the foot of this mountain lies the village of Ngwenya – the Swazi word for crocodile – home to Ngwenya Glass.

The scene from the balcony above the furnaces is a compelling sight. Highly skilled workers manipulate molten glass in a series of fluid moves. Theirs is a rarely practiced art form requiring a studied precision born of patience and focus.

Founded in 1979 as a Swedish Aid Project that employed and trained locals in the art of glassblowing, the factory faltered and closed in 1983, leaving the artists without work and the collectors without their much-loved wares. One such collector, Cas Prettejohn, travelled to Swaziland with his family in search of the elephants they loved and found a derelict factory, coated in cobwebs and invasive wattles. The Prettejohns became the owners of what was the single glassblowing factory in Africa at the time, renaming it Ngwenya Glass, and within months had reinstated a handful of the former glassblowers ­and reignited the furnaces.

Ngwenya Glass has evolved into an inspiring success story with over 70 employees who, through Source, supply curated ranges to leading retail outlets around the world. Each piece of glassware is made with the age-old techniques, resulting in a superior and enduring product range. All the ranges offer a wide selection of designs within which to curate a unique collection. Master glassblower Sibusiso Mhlanga, who underwent advanced training at the Kosta Boda Glassworks in Sweden during the seventies, tutors apprentices and continues to travel abroad to work with some of the leading glassblowers in the world.

Community upliftment and the preservation of the environment are core values at Ngwenya Glass. Used oil from Swaziland’s KFC outlets is used to fuel the furnaces, and the wood from invasive exotic trees is used to create moulds needed for production. All the products are made from 100 percent recycled glass, most of which is collected by the local Swazi community who are paid for their contributions. In exchange for waste clean-up campaigns, local schools receive sponsorships that go towards funding the development of the schools. In 1989, Ngwenya Glass launched the Ngwenya Rhino & Elephant fund – Swaziland’s most successful wildlife conservation fund. A percentage of the factory’s profits are donated into the fund, which go directly to funding Mkhaya Game Reserve – a refuge for endangered species in the Swaziland Lowveld.

Wonki Ware

Wonki Ware is an artisanal ceramics studio that specialises in handmade dinnerware, serveware and home accessories.

The studio has cultivated a loyal following for its extensive product range in a dynamic offering of multiple colourways, shapes and distinctive decorative patterns.

Quality stoneware finished with non-toxic and lead-free glazes fired at 1300 degrees Celsius gives Wonki Ware its lightweight yet durable, microwave and dishwasher safe quality. The slow-craft, human-touch approach to production ­­means that each Wonki Ware piece passes through 18 pairs of hands from clay mixing, rolling, shaping, sun drying, and firing, to decorating, waxing, glazing, and quality checking. Due to the handmade nature of these products, no two are identical, making each piece unique.

At Source, our selection criterion goes beyond the appeal of good design. We’re committed to choosing suppliers that also contribute to the communities and environments in which they operate. Since its founding in 1999, Wonki Ware has been dedicated to training people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the art of ceramics and today the company has grown to employ over 100 people. Wonki Ware is currently distributed in numerous countries globally, making it one of South Africa’s most successful design exports.

Singita Sweni

Source is passionate about the evolution of African design, and given the continent’s cultural wealth, unique narratives and incredible natural beauty, it’s no surprise that its fast becoming the new design frontier.

Singita Sweni – the most intimate of the Singita lodges – is an example of refined African design at its best. The lodge is a tranquil sanctuary nestled in a riverine forest that unfurls onto the banks of the Sweni river. Its location in an exclusive concession in the south-eastern part of the Kruger National Park, is an area well known for its high concentration of the Big Five and four notable prides of lion.

In keeping an authentic sensibility, the immediate environment continues to be an important source of inspiration for African design. Outwardly unassuming, Singita Sweni is inspired by the structures of lairs and dens found in the region. Notes from nature are carried into the interiors and enhanced through an effortless blend of light, warm colours, textures and contemporary design features, like their polished timber floors and chrome balustrades.

Built on stilts, each of the six suites and shared public spaces have been fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass panels and expansive decks, creating a seamless flow between the natural surrounds and interiors. Eucalyptus poles line the walls and ceilings, lending a dappled light effect that preserves the feeling of outdoor living. Each space is dressed in shades of brown, ochre and taupe – echoing the hues of the natural landscape, while leafy greens, teal and canary yellow have been added to refresh the earthy colour palette.