Sophumelela Wood Furniture

While carpenter Bonga Mabuya consistently sells dining sets and coffee tables, these products aren't accessible to a large part of Khayelitsha's population. People prioritise informal gathering, entertaining, and relaxing space over formal dining. We  co-designed a lounge chair, a set of stools, a set of finishes for his furniture, business cards, signage and a brand to label his furniture. Both pieces of furniture were ready for production and priced at less than a quarter of a full dining set, to make Bonga's business, Sophumelela, a legitimate option for more people in Khayelitsha.

Stools and table: designed to be stacked, cheap and quick to manufacture

Stools and table: designed to be stacked, cheap and quick to manufacture

Lounge chair: designed from 1/3 sheet of plywood minimising the number of cuts

Lounge chair: designed from 1/3 sheet of plywood minimising the number of cuts

Background

Bonga Mabuya is a furniture maker from Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town. He takes designs from the catalogues of furniture makers from Cape Town and copies them, to make strong furniture which he sells to people living in shacks local to him. The main problem with this, is the furniture is designed for people in the first world but being sold to people living in shacks local to him.

Process

A significant amount of time was spent building a relationship with Bonga, and learning how we could design with him rather than for him. This initially meant we had slow progress, however when we found that he was much more comfortable critiquing our designs we made significant headway. In our last few days in Cape Town we felt as though he was beginning to understand what being a designer was, so we ran a number of workshops to help show him how to come up with original ideas of his own.

We began to see ourselves as experimental designers for Bonga where we would bring him our designs, for him to critique. This created a successful iterative design process, where he felt ownership of the project, which we felt was particularly important for changes to stick after we left Cape Town. 

Designing the chair

We felt that the furniture we were designing needed to be suitable for township living and easy for Bonga to make. We noticed that the shacks in the townships have carpet on mud floor, this means that they are inherently uneven. This meant that although Bonga's furniture was very sturdy and well made it would never sit on the floor without wobbling. This gave the impression of poor quality and workmanship. We also noticed that most people in a township didn't have room for what Bonga made, they prioritised a bed, a sofa, then maybe a coffee table. 

We designed a lounge chair, with 3 legs which can be cut from 1/3 of a sheet of plywood. We also supplied Bonga with templates so that he can make his own easily. Because they only had 3 legs they felt stable on uneven surfaces, they took just over an hour to make and could be covered to an indiviuals taste.

Designing the Stools

Our second observation was that people needed multipurpose furniture. Bonga needed to produce something which people could pack away and could effectively be mass manufactured for little cost in his workshop.

We designed a set of stools and a table which were a simple cost effective way for Bonga to produce furniture which was accessible to everyone around him. Initial prototypes used different joints to what Bonga normally used in an effort to show him what simple joints he could use to still make high quality furniture. 

Branding and Signage

Sophumelela Wood furniture also lacked consistent branding and advertising, this became evident to us in a number of ways

  1. People would pass Bonga's shop without realising that it existed
  2. His customers were only from a very close proximity to his home and shop
  3. People would bring furniture to him which they thought he had made to have it repaired (he told us that he has never had anything he has made break)
  4. His motto was I can make anything, which meant people would have to come to him with an idea of what they wanted

We designed striking signage for the front of his shop, business cards for him to distribute, a facebook page for him to show off his work, Three stamps (two ink and one metal brand) which he could use to mark his furniture and finally catalogue which showed his previous work and included a wall of finishes which he could use to customise his work.

In collaboration with: Huang Shu Ting, Eun Kyoung Shin, Sean Hammett

3 weeks - 2016