The making of a winner
Katlego Tshuma, Nando’s 2020 Hot Young Designer, has had an unconventional and diverse career journey, says Bonginkosi Ntiwane.
Just like Takashi Murakami, Kaws, Kanye West, Kengo Kuma and Jeff Koons – Katlego Tshuma has a pluralist approach to his work. He believes in the diversity of ideas; he is someone who doesn’t seem to acknowledge genre but who is multi-skilled in a variety of subjects.
“Those are the guys I was checking out, feeling like I wanna compete on this level. But I knew I didn’t have the experience,” Katlego says of the aforementioned list of renowned creatives.
He is the winner of the Nando’s Hot Young Designer (HYD) competition for his Sangu Bench. Themed ‘Benchmark’ HYD 2020 entrants were tasked with designing a bench for Nando’s that would adhere to social distancing regulations.
“Katlego is a unique talent; he has skill sets that are vast and rather extraordinary. He’s really interesting in the way that he shares stories about community; he has also shown that he’s very competent when it comes to design, animation and the rendering of those,” says Nando’s Creative Director of the HYD Tracy Lee Lynch.
It’s been a couple of days since he was announced as this year’s recipient of the Nando’s Hot Young Designer (HYD) competition, as we sit for an interview. At my terrified ass’ request, the pit bull and two border collies have been locked inside the house as Katlego and I sit under the shade of a tree on a hot, noiseless Sunday in Randburg.
It’s a glaring fact that there’s a paucity of Africans in the design space, one of the reasons why I was taken aback by the number of black finalists in the HYD competition. “If we’re gonna approach this with race, it’s gonna be difficult. We need to approach this with industrialisation,” Katlego says nonchalantly.
“Industrialisation has been happening in European countries longer than it has been happening in Africa you see. So, if you want to compete with it centred around race, you’re always gonna end up being mad, because they’ve been doing it longer than we have. It’s not that they do it better than us.” He compares this to capitalism and why the Western world has more capital than the African continent.
“What’s important about South African design is [that] it’s really linked to heritage and our craft culture and I think that’s a fantastic point of difference. This is something that’s always mentioned globally, that pieces in South Africa are unexpected, they often combine elements of craft and reference to heritage practices like beading or weaving, and in that way we end up sharing a very unique design language with the world,” says Tracy.
Using something as ordinary as icansi (grass) was a move of shrewdness from Katlego, which made his work stand out. “I realised that as much as we’re designing a bench, what we’re actually designing here is space. How do I design space and then take that space and put it on a bench? That’s why, for me, icansi was such an important thing because, that’s what icansi is. It’s designing space, whether sleeping space or a room divider – we’re designing space with grass and we have an abundance of grass in Africa,” says Tshuma.
Design has an uncanny way of taking something mundane and turning it into an experience, this while solving a simple issue. The same could be said about African art. Yet Tshuma insists that his winning seat is, “Design and not African art. That’s the thing about design, we’re solving a problem and it’s about who can solve the problem the best. It’s not about who has taste.”
I wasn’t designing for if I win, I was designing for when I win. By the time I was done I felt like, unless there’s another Kat out there, ain’t no way (I’m losing).
One might point out that he’s only saying this because he won. But he spewed the same words just weeks before, when I asked how he felt about his chances. But his palpable bravado stems from years of learning, observing and working hard towards his vision. His journey in the last seven years has seen him work at the airport, and dabble in photography, videography and then advertising. “When I looked at my work, I knew there wasn’t any part of the brief I hadn’t executed. In advertising you get a brief every day, so you have to start learning how to execute a brief correctly.”
Nando’s has a curated collection of contemporary South African art with more than 20 000 pieces that Nando’s interior designers from all over the world have access to. “That’s because we design restaurants globally and every single restaurant around the world is a unique expression of a Southern African aesthetic or of a Nando’s value. It’s created an opportunity to curate a platform to showcase South African design,” Tracy says.
According to Tracy, Katlego’s win means his Sangu Bench will be available on the online platform for interior designers who work with Nando’s to purchase and place in the store. “The reality is that we don’t dictate what the interior designers use, as part of our process is to share with them the best of South African design. Katlego’s bench will become a physical object and we will help him realise the prototype and create a physical bench. It’s hard to say at this point whether it’ll be at Nando’s globally or locally.”
“I’m hoping that through Nando’s I’ll have the channels and the platforms to be able to show and compete at a global level that I’m the best at doing this shit. And I’m not saying anyone else isn’t good, all I’m saying is that, in my context I’m the best and I’m happy the competition shows that.”
When Katlego quit his job at the airport, he knew he wanted to do design but didn’t have the skill set. “One of the reasons I left the airport was that I realised that a lot of their systems and the architecture that was happening there was just old,” he says. After a short stint at Joe Public late last year he immersed himself in product design.
“Studying product design almost seems destined in some way, it’s full circle and it’s about seven years since I quit the airport. This was the year I was genuinely intense in my design journey and this is the same year that Nando’s had the bench opportunity – they’re giving me an opportunity I was trying to get at Joe Public. It’s like destiny… but who am I to say it’s destiny? I’m just looking at the patterns.”
When South Africa went into its nationwide lockdown in March, Katlego did two online courses at Harvard: The Architectural Imagination and Models in Architecture. “If you’re really ready for those ideas that they’re presenting [in those courses], you’ll get the results that I’ve achieved. It’s just the way they break down design and thinking, I didn’t do any design courses.”
Bonginkosi Ntiwane is a storyteller, a pop culture enthusiast and founder of online lifestyle publication Tha Bravado (thabravado.com)