Haldane on furniture design – from nothing to something
Recently rebranding as simply ‘Haldane’, we get to know a Cape Town design icon and his latest outdoor collections.
An icon on the South African design landscape, Haldane Martin has a penchant for reinventing himself every decade or so. He first developed a reputation as a furniture designer-maker with iconic South African designs such as the Songololo Sofa and the Zulu Mama chairs in the 2000s, which now have a place in the South African universities’ and high school design curriculum.
Circa 2010 he made a new name for himself as an interior designer, working on award-winning restaurant interiors with custom furniture for the likes of Truth Coffee, Mad Giant Beer and Swan Café.
In the last year he’s returned to his roots with a firm focus on furniture – in particular, outdoor. It’s been a prolific period of releasing more than half a dozen new collections, all of which retain his signature design language that speaks to classic furniture typologies while introducing a contemporary aesthetic. He’s also rebranded himself as Haldane, with a new logo, website and showroom at his Woodstock church home to boot…
We sat down with Haldane in his Cape Town home to chat about his work and what drives him to design. For a podcast version, hop to the audio at the bottom of the page to listen to the full interview.
Haldane, what inspires you to keep making?
From when I was a child, I loved making things. Studying to become a designer taught me how to make things better. The design side of making is really what I love and what I think I’m good at. I craft things in the digital space first, and I use my knowledge of how things are made so they are easy for manufacturers to make.
I’m addicted to designing. I love the process, the challenge of going from a fuzzy, rough idea, giving it form, and it becoming clearer in your mind until eventually it exists.
That whole process of ‘from nothing to something’ is as close as one can get to magic nowadays.
It’s really fulfilling for me. I get into the flow state when I’m designing and nothing makes me happier.
Speaking of that magic moment of creation… essentially, you’re changing a space and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.
Especially when one is using resources and energy… you’re dictating the fate of lots and lots of stuff. On an overpopulated planet, stuff is questionable, so if you [create] anything you better do it well.
Do you feel a responsibility as a designer to create something that’s better than what previously existed?
Yeah definitely, or more relevant. There have been good solutions throughout time but as new technologies evolve, and new lifestyles emerge, and new values pop up in society, there’s a need to relook at things and recontextualise them into the now.
It makes me think of the statement, “the world doesn’t need another chair”. How do you feel about that and how do you see the changing role of the designer?
Ultimately we don’t need anything – we could live in caves and hunt animals or pick berries.
But I do think it’s a worthy pursuit to constantly be recontextualising things. It keeps us present. The world is changing all the time, and our environments should reflect that change. If you compare primitive design, say the first chair – it may have been a stool or lump of rock – to now, the most cutting-edge chairs would be a monobloc bioresin plastic chair that’s quick to make, resource-efficient, recyclable … and I think it’s better than a rock at the end of the day.
I also believe contemporary design can give us a sense of belonging to our time and place. When one interprets all those factors that go into design in a whole way, you end up with something one can relate to and engage with effortlessly and beautifully.
There’s one more superficial response to that question and that is: we get bored. We don’t want to go to a café and see the same chairs we’ve been seeing the last ten years. We love to expose our minds and our eyes to new experiences and I think we really need that kind of stimulation on a mental level.
What did you learn from your work as an interior designer that has shifted your perspective as a furniture designer?
The importance of trends. As an interior designer you want to be on trend, that’s kind of what your clients expect from you.
Before I was an interior designer I would always be amused with interior designers’ obsession with finish – like what colour and texture something is, and things like form and ergonomics were secondary. But being an interior designer I realised how important it is. As an interior designer you’re creating atmosphere through form, colour and texture as a way of creating a cohesive space. It taught me to value the more superficial things, and I say that in the best kind of way because interior design is valuable.
On trends – staying on trend, setting trends and where they come from.
I think no individual can set a trend. We can be contributors to a trend but the days of the lone individual blazing a path… I think that was an illusion anyway. Especially now with social media and access to niche media. For me what’s more important is to be sensitive to emerging trends, and to not necessarily copy trends but to be sensitive to a mood. Often that mood will have a form and a colour and a mentality to it. It links to what’s going on in culture and in our society, and that interests me.
As I’ve got older as a designer, I love the way objects embody a time and place, and also how perceptions of things change over time as well.
Now and then – what are the biggest differences between your furniture collections in 2020 versus 10 years ago and earlier?
They’re much more resolved. I have more patience now to really work something out properly and to prototype it until it works.
There was a lot more idealism [in my early furniture] especially in an object like the Zulu Mama Chair, and quite naive idealism.
Are your latest collections as heavily inspired by your South African context?
I do think place is important. It’s not a focus for me now but my South African mentality will come through anyway. While there’s an element of a South African design language it’s not a caricature of South Africa.
The Hula, for example, was originally an American mid-century design by Salterini that was copied in South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s. Because it was so popular in South Africa it has a sense of nostalgia. It’s quite a well resolved chair: it’s comfortable for a metal chair, it stacks, it’s elegant, it’s also touching on that geometric trend. So, it’s merging a bit of nostalgia, a bit of mid-century modern, and a bit of the now in the colours and the geometric trend.
In giving classic furniture typologies new life – what’s your distinct flavour?
Most good furniture designers do that because furniture is a cultural object that has such an old tradition, and so to reference things – as all creative arts do – gives an object more history. In comparison, my Polyhedra table didn’t reference any coffee table – it explored a geometric trend emerging in architecture and 3D printing, which was a manufacturing trend – but as an object it’s not easy to live with because it’s almost an alien object and it’s plastic, which we don’t really relate to in furniture.
Earlier in my career I was exploring these different avenues and materials and processes. I was curious as a designer. It’s important as a designer that you explore. And now, I guess I’m still exploring but I’m trying to stay more balanced, and for me it’s important that things still work.
As a luxury furniture designer, you have the luxury to make things well, and there’s an expectation to do so. There’s still a place for art design, but for me, I’m more comfortable in the more practical side of the furniture world. I studied industrial design, and I like those industrial design values, there’s a place for them.
Tell us about your new collections.
Our focus is premium outdoor collections designed in Cape Town. Although we manufacture throughout South Africa, we have an atmosphere and expression of our own Cape Town: very international mixed with local South African and the rest of African flavour.
Any favourite pieces?
I do love the Hula chair, especially the lounge chair version because it really is a good fit for the South African. It’s not a precious chair. It has this sort of humility of South Africa. There’s a bit of Boer Maak ’n Plan. I think that’s why it was so successful in the the ’70s and ’80s, because it suited our mentality of “the thing’s going to live outdoors, it doesn’t have to be super plush”.
It came out of an interior project we were working on about four years ago. I was doing a job for a bar restaurant in Gaborone, Botswana, and I felt that needed to be quite an African space, but also very graphic. We used a lot of patterned brickwork and bold wallpapers – the geometric thing was very big at the moment.
Using the pure circle as the ring for the chair emerged early on. Designing it was a chipping-away process. When I first drew that chair with the round ring, I was like, oh yeah, the Hoop chair. I thought, this is definitely worth re-exploring.
I remember the downside of that chair, even as a child, the discomfort of sitting on that mesh that gave you waffle legs. Bringing the wires closer together was an important step, so there’s less point load on your bum. I spent time making a nice cushion for it. And then just getting the ergonomics of that curve right… and the detailing of how the wire goes underneath the ring so that when you’re lying back you don’t feel the edge of the ring on your back.
A lot of furniture design is that blending of the ergonomics and the engineering and the trend.
I have a feeling the Sling chair is going to be really comfortable.
We will do it in leather, but obviously leather can’t be used outdoors, and we’re very strongly focused on the outdoor collections at the moment. There’s a sling fabric made by Sunbrella that we use for all our outdoor upholstery; it’s really heavy duty, they’re good colours and it lasts forever. And I want to explore canvases, like hemp, which is very strong and has a low carbon footprint.
What will be interesting with that chair is that those three surface materials – the leather, the canvas and the contemporary sling fabric – will have three very different looks, so you can either dress it up or make it more traditional. I’m excited about that.
Tell us about your shift in focus to outdoor furniture.
Outdoor furniture is more casual than interior furniture, and it’s a little more technical in that you’ve got to be careful what materials you use and factors like how the sea air, the sun and the wind is going to affect something.
I really feel like I’ve found my place as a furniture designer, specifically with outdoor. My furniture appeals to the hospitality market because it also works for the residential market. The type of places that have my work are the more sensitive hospitality projects, not the formula one hotels; those that are offering the “home away from home” luxury experience.
Hospitality went through that trend over the last 20 years. People don’t want that corporate hotel experience anymore.
The biggest project we’ve done with the new collection is Aquila, a game lodge just outside of Cape Town. They have a big restaurant area with a lot of Hula chairs. Tasha’s have some too. One of my favourite little projects is Eten [Health Bar] in Stellenbosch… the Hula chair and the Polka table is just perfect for that space.
Right now with COVID there’s been a big drop in hospitality projects but the high-end luxury residential has been increasing. We’re doing beautiful homes in Fresney and Camps Bay… Durban and Joburg as well. We value our outdoor lifestyles and that’s reflected in our patio spaces.
On South African vs European design.
I still believe the Europeans are the best designers in the world… but we have a voice as well and we have something to offer that’s slightly different.
Something that’s lacking with some European design is that pursuit for perfection has almost become sterility. Some of the appeal of South African design and art is that there’s a vitality to it and things are still a little raw. It’s perfect enough.
Also [interjects Haldane’s fiancée and PR Director, Dani Diamond] we’ve changed our idea of luxury, and what we value now as people is comfort and connection and being in nature. That also comes from our South African voice, because things being shiny and expensive is not really a South African value. Cape Town is known as a beautiful place with beautiful people and …
[Haldane] … there’s a casual sophistication.
I never aspire to status design. There’s the kind of customer that will buy something to show off to their friends and make themselves feel like they’ve made it in the world. And then there are people who will buy it because it’s beautiful or they like the way they’re going to live with it, and I’m kind of leaning on that side of design. Design can be this sort of snobby, status-driven, elitist practice and I think my Scandinavian heritage keeps me away from that. There’s authenticity and humility in the things we make.
Another way of saying it, is that status has evolved. What’s really status now is caring. Caring for the Earth, people, one another, our families, our city… that’s what we aspire to now rather than flashy wealth and being famous. That’s what we hope to embody in the things we make.
It’s like casual sophistication and a comfort with oneself.
How does being Capetonian find expression in your work?
I take more ownership of my city than my country. Instead of striving to express a South African identity, which includes Springboks and braaivleis and a whole lot of stuff I don’t resonate with, expressing Cape Town I do resonate with. Because I love this city. I kitesurf and mountain bike. I love the food culture. The hospitality industry is really strong. I like the fact that we have the European influence in this city. It adds a charm to Cape Town and a sophistication.
My grandparents on my mom’s side were very poor immigrants from Norway. They came to Cape Town after the second world war and made a home for themselves. My grandfather was a carpenter and worked in the mill in Observatory as a fitter and turner.
I have a stool that he made actually… he was a sailor, a whaler in fact, which is not very PC these days, and he worked as a millwright and had a carpentry workshop in his garage in Devil’s Peak. I have fond memories there, with all the tools beautifully laid out, the smell of sawdust, and he’d make things while I was there, like a bow and arrow. He didn’t speak English well, so him making things for me was his way of expressing his familial love. It’s a very fond memory, and I would say the Riempie collection, that kind of joinery, was very much like what he was making, so that for me was in memory of my grandfather.
He was the original Cape Town hipster with his handlebar moustache and tattoos, his comb in his sock, fishnet vest, drinking his whiskey.
Was there a moment that changed everything for you in your career?
The first lucky break I had: in 1992, I designed these animal CD racks that were laser cut, which was such a new technology then – I didn’t even have a computer, so I hand-drew them, like a technical drawing, a 1.5-metre-long lizard, a barking dog, that kind of thing, inspired by African curio art and the likes of Norman Catherine.
I had sold about five in Cape Town to decor shops. Then I met with John Vogel (who was making the kudu horn coffee table at the time), Conrad Hicks the blacksmith and Joao Ferreira, a fine art dealer. We decided to go to New York to the Contemporary International Furniture Fair, at the time I was 23. We got some funding from the DTI and took all our products as hand luggage. We got to New York and the customs people were like WTF … they were seeing animal shapes and kudu horns on the Xray machines … this was pre-911 and they let us through.
Anyway, there was a guy from London who had a small homeware brand and he liked the design. He offered to make it in London and then for about four years I would get a royalty check every three months.
That enabled me to explore other furniture types, so I made lamps and couches. Brave New World was the business that made the CD racks and then John Vogel and I teamed up and we kept Brave New World as the name.
Thinking about Cape Town and how it’s developed a reputation for its furniture design scene – was that the case back then?
It was starting to emerge. People like Carol Boyes were just starting to make a name. John moved down from Durban – it was more open to what he was doing. I moved down from Joburg to surf and to study industrial design.
Cape Town was more receptive to creativity. Customers as well as manufacturers who were small enough here and curious enough to entertain our crazy ideas.
My powder coaters now are still the same people who were doing my CD racks back then, and they’re still the best in Cape Town, Quality Coaters – they need a shout out.
Finally, why the rebrand from Haldane Martin to simply Haldane?
A number of reasons: the first is I needed to mark a change… I had flipped and flopped from furniture back to interiors and back to furniture and so I wanted to mark that by changing the name.
Going a step back, going from Brave New World to Haldane Martin was a decision to really put myself out there as a creative and as a designer, and to build a name and a reputation. So, I used my full name, kind of the way an artist would.
Now I’m not trying that hard so I can drop the formality of the surname, and it’s more casual. Outdoor furniture is a little more relaxed and so the name captures that more. But I also didn’t want to completely let go of what I built with Haldane Martin so retaining Haldane and the backwards H in the logo that was a chair were strategic decisions. We worked with a great graphic designer, Francois at Monday Design, and he did a really great job.
It’s more of a brand evolution than a rebrand.
In many ways it’s also honouring my mother. She gave me the name. Both my parents gave me a very creative childhood and I really value that more and more. For me to have had the life I’m having … who I am … it’s because of my parents.