The Dwell 24: TheUrbanative

Once an engineer in South Africa’s mine, Mpho Vackier now applies her pragmatism to designing for her innovative furniture line—TheUrbanative.

Johannesburg designer Mpho Vackier of TheUrbanative sees herself first and foremost as a pragmatic person. That sensibility is what led to her career as an engineer working in South African mines. But a lifelong creative bent, nurtured by her mother, a seamstress, compelled Vackier to save enough money to return to school—while raising a child of her own—and to study interior design. 

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Now, she uses her engineering know-how more creatively, developing new forms for furniture by blending shapes derived from European modernism with motifs from African design traditions from across the continent. 

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The Oromo chair, for example, was largely inspired by the intricate lines of 19th-century Ethiopian and Kenyan hairstyles. "It was such a mind-blowing experience to understand what people did to their hair," Vackier says of the research she did for the piece. "I infused the energy of those lines, textures, and forms into my work."

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Read the full Q&A with Vackier below.

Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa

Describe what you make in 140 characters. I lead a contemporary design studio telling African stories through furniture and product design.

What's the last thing you designed? A modular freestanding wardrobe system for my new house.

Do you have a daily creative ritual? I don't necessarily have a daily ritual, but my creative ritual always begins with a story that I am intrigued about. Thereafter comes tons of research on the story, its inspirations, and its history. Then I start sketching. Most pieces begin as shapes inspired by whatever the story is and then I flesh them out to create products and furniture. This can take anywhere from days to years.

How do you procrastinate? I don't really see it as procrastinating, but when I feel stuck I read anything from novels to design books, I hang with my family, reorganize the furniture in my house, or I watch design documentaries. 

What everyday object would you like to redesign? Why?  Since I am planning for our new home, I am intrigued by redesigning built-in cabinetry to a freestanding mobile system. This would give the user the ability to redesign their space without the expense of built-ins. In this way you build your cupboards based on individual needs, which for me equates to accessible, functional design.

Who are your heroes (in design, in life, in both)? I am inspired by so many creatives across industries. To mention a few, I love the work of furniture designer Jaime Hayon, interior designer Kelly Wearstler, architect Miriam Kamara, fashion designers Theme Magugu & Loza Maleombho, visual storyteller Trevor Stuurman, and South African artists Anastasia Pather and Lulama Mlambo. 

What skill would you most like to learn? Welding and glass blowing.

What is your most treasured possession? My sketchbooks and my dogs.

What's your earliest memory of an encounter with design? My grandmother's coffee set, which I inherited.

What contemporary design trend do you despise? I despise the idea of trends and, of that, I really dislike faux distressed material treatments and matching furniture sets.

Finish this statement: All design should... be a showcase of effortless functionality that encourages meaningful human connections.

What's in your dream house? A Huge walk-in closet with a spa.

How do you want design to be different after we emerge from the pandemic? I would like to see design becoming more collaborative across industries in order to create elevated work that showcases different materials and ways of making, and ultimately tells multilayered stories.

How can the design world be more inclusive? What I have discovered in our work is that—although we tell African stories through furniture design—by juxtaposing our work with modern silhouettes people across the globe see themselves and their stories in our work. This response drives us to make sure that our work touches as many people as possible.

What do you wish non-designers understood about the design industry? The fact that almost everything in our lives has been designed, I wish non-designers would realize that design touches their lives from the minute they wake up to when they go to sleep. I studied engineering, which I really love, but often vocations that are dominantly left-brained are seen as more important compared to creative courses, but design affects everyday life on so many levels.

You can learn more about TheUrbanative by visiting Vackier's website or on Instagram.

Gabrielle Golenda
I am from the Mile-High City, Denver, Colorado (where my first-ever published work was the winning poem in the Denver Post’s rodeo-themed haiku contest).




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