May 2017

Southern Africa’s Design Revolution

Through its various companies, South Africa-based The Guild Group is taking continental design to the global market.

Trevyn & Julian McGowan

When design champions Trevyn and Julian McGowan moved back to South Africa from London in 2003, Source, an export agency for Southern Africa’s most distinguished product design brands, was just beginning to make its mark. Since then, the company has produced a collectible design gallery, an international design fair, transcontinental design programme, annual conference, a non-profit foundation, retail stores and consultation on various design- driven projects.

“Source was the real stepping stone to all of this,” Trevyn explains. “I realized that there was no real conduit to the global market for the extraordinary South African product that I’d been working with for my British interior-design clients. The company rapidly expanded as there was enormous appetite for this work.”

She remembers the initial challenge of the lack of infrastructure and export experience in the South African design companies and artisans she was working with. “We had to learn everything very quickly and then teach all our suppliers. Proper packaging, deadlines, testing, quality control, export procedures… There has definitely been a transformation in the industry in the 13 years since we started out.”

She adds that there was an obvious lack of understanding in the African market of how unique and important local design was. “There was a greater appreciation overseas for our products than there was at home, but this has changed recently and there is a far richer recognition for our designers.”

With this development, Source quickly became the primary route for the export of Southern African design in both the mid and top level of the market, with global clients including: The Conran Shop, Anthropologie, Jamie Oliver, ABC Carpet and Home, Terrain, West Elm, Soho House, Restoration Hardware, Sundance, Wisteria, Liberty and many others.

“As the birthplace of the first manmade object, Africa has always held a historical place within the craft and design industry,” says Trevyn of the interest in local designers’ work. “Our pieces celebrate the work of the hand, while at the same time incorporating modern-day innovation and technology.”

The promotion of the South African design landscape has radicalized the industry, resulting in increased job creation for many craftspeople and artisans on the continent, and worthy global recognition for African design.

The McGowans saw another opportunity when, in 2008, they founded Southern Guild, a collectible gallery for locally designed and produced limited-edition furniture, with permanent gallery spaces in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Southern Guild’s reputation is now firmly established internationally, showing at design fairs like Design Miami and Design Days Dubai. Such fairs, as well as collaborations with renowned galleries that include Friedman Benda and R & Company in New York, have played a pivotal role in redefining global perceptions of African design and escalating its value on the international market, with pieces being bought by top architects, international collectors and museums. This year sees Southern Guild participating for the second time in the annual Christie’s, London Design Auction. The gallery has also had work from its collections included in Vitra Design Museum’s “Making Africa” exhibition and “Beauty–Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Such achievements, and the McGowans’ pioneering vision, have led to Trevyn and Julian being named on USA Art + Auction magazine’s “POWER 100” list of the most influential players in the global art world, City Press’s 100 World Class South Africans and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2016.

Under such hands-on leadership, their company has continued to expand, along with the businesses they manage, and 2016 saw the foundation of the McGowans’ umbrella company, The Guild Group, under which all its brands (over 10 in total) now fall. Programmes like Design Network Africa and Business of Design, and homeware retail stores Odeon collectively promote the Southern African and African design industry.

This year, in the ethos of GUILD, an international design fair founded by the company in 2014, and run for two years in Cape Town, The Guild Group will be opening a new flagship venue at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Also named GUILD, this groundbreaking space, opening in May, will house a new Southern Guild gallery, studio space selling commercial furniture pieces designed by Julian and a curated concept store – the first of its kind in South Africa – selling bespoke items of homeware, fashion, jewellery and accessories, books and artworks alongside contemporary and limited-edition design.

“This move means we can create a home where we’re able to bring together in one space everything that The Guild Group stands for and towards which it has been working for more than a decade,” says Trevyn. “It will allow us to continue elevating the collectible design category in Africa, while working on partnerships with international galleries, fairs and design museums, exposing Cape Town residents and visitors to never-before-seen local and international work. It will be a hub for education, discussion, animation, presentation and exchange.”