Renée Rossouw funneled her various fixations into a single focus when she spent 2010 pursuing the Master of European Design Labs, an interdisciplinary degree program directed by Spanish designer Jaime Hayon. The program is based in Madrid, but students travel to various European cities. Rossouw, 26, had just completed a master’s in architecture, but she was on less sure footing regarding other types of design. “I was interested in design from a young age, but I never felt I truly understood it,” she says. “South Africa is a craft-oriented country, but we don’t actually have a design industry.”
In Europe, she realized where she fits in that industry. “I was inspired 24-7,” Rossouw says. “I started to draw a lot of maps. I became obsessed with urban details. I started to realize I am someone who picks up on patterns.” These drawings became Pattern Diary (below), a colorful, totemic travelogue of her year abroad recorded on a collection of 13 ceramic plates and vases.
When she returned to Cape Town, she applied her playful graphics to wallpaper, shoes, and wooden toys. The Colours, a 2011 collection of figurines for children, are made from wood she chopped, painted, and varnished herself. They’re as much about her native country as Pattern Diary is about Europe. “I wanted to play on South African identity,” she says. “South Africa is a colorful place, a melting pot.” In the back of her mind, she was searching for a basic South African icon.
Last year, Robin Sprong, owner of the eponymous Cape Town–based art-wallpaper firm, saw the patterns blanketing Rossouw’s booth at the annual Design Indaba conference, and he invited her to design a collection. Like Pattern Diary, the papers are cheery abstractions that come off as a secret language with buried punch lines. “I often make jokes within my work,” Rossouw says. “As you interact with it, a story unfolds.”