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Balancing the Local and the Global: Mabeo Furniture

WRITTEN BY: Burcu Yancatarol Yagiz

DesignBotswana

Established in 1996, through successful collaborations with local and international designers, Mabeo has evolved into a contemporary design brand that stays true to its design philosophy. Mabeo mindfully seeks for ways for bringing together local and global sensitivities towards production, use of materials, collaboration and sustainability with a strong focus on good design. We talked with Peter Mabeo, the founder of the brand, about Mabeo’s design philosophy, its approach to culture and tradition, and about design collaborations that result in the creation of the brand’s product portfolio.

I’d like to start with a basic question. What is most exciting about the nature of furniture? What liberties/possibilities does furniture design have to offer?

I think it allows for the search for a balanced approach which involves working with products that allow for expression and functionality; working freely yet seeking a structured way of producing; working in commercial ways yet with a kind of idealistic focus; working with simple forms while looking for a strong expression of crafts and culture; seeking efficiency while accommodating existing local context…

When you look back at the beginnings of your practice, how do you describe the evolution of Mabeo into an acclaimed contemporary brand? What were the critical elements/ideas/dynamics that led the conceptual evolution of the brand?

In the beginning, there was nothing, just a blank slate, only a desire to do something special in a meaningful way… This desire directed the evolution from this starting point, however it also made it really tough to compromise, probably in moments where there should have been a form of compromise. But overall, I think it was good: The people who were selected to work with the company, and the resulting relationships that mostly focused, again, on what is possible; embracing the idea of being all encompassing; sticking to the ideals of simplicity, quality, good design, natural materials, sustainability, and good stewardship of crafts and crafts people of Africa, set the tone.

In relation to the brand identity, how have the formal and material vocabularies of Mabeo evolved?

The formal vocabulary is a result of this search to find a balanced approach. Collaborating, compromising, adapting the ‘so called’ limitations of Africa to the process, and letting the process unfold are the factors that helped shape the sense of a kind of formal vocabulary. There was no particular strategy involved though; the only strategy was to do good work and to work with good, talented, interesting people who share our ideals.  

You showed repeatedly at international design shows such as Milan Design Week, ICFF New York, and Design London. What are your observations on how Mabeo products are received by the viewers and users from all around the world? What kind of reactions do you get, regarding the fact that Mabeo achieves to speak to multiple users/viewers from different backgrounds and still stays true to its origins and ideals in Botswana? 

People approach our products sometimes with surprise, mostly with curiosity, maybe with a little confusion at times. However, the overall response is positive and encouraging. Exhibitions are really fun; they are an opportunity to interact mostly with like-minded people who just appreciate good work, in an atmosphere of heightened appreciation for design. What I find also pleasing is that people from different backgrounds, geographical areas, and age groups find a way to connect to our pieces somehow.

Would you consider Mabeo products as examples of contemporary African design? And how would you describe Mabeo’s approach to issues of identity (national or regional) in design, in relation to the dynamics of contemporary African design?

Yes, I would; but certainly not as the only one there is at all. National and regional influences are all around, so instead of seeking to work with the influences, we just try to make do with what we have in the best possible way, trying to create objects that are as interesting as we possibly can. Much as we strive to have a universal, our influences are mostly regional; and international collaborations do not dilute this. They help us communicate our work in an easier way without diluting the essence. It is possible to do this, as the nature of the relationship is collaborative.

I am specifically interested in your relationship to cultural heritage and tradition, and how you translate/interpret elements of culture to your practice. Conceptual barriers between the traditional and the contemporary, and stereotypical interpretations of culture appear to be under attack from many designers around the world. What is your approach to the relationship between the traditional and contemporary, and how do you think it is possible to avoid being categorized as one or the other?

Our approach is to simply work in a way that feels as natural as possible, at any given time. This has evolved, and I guess, will continue to evolve over time as well. While it is nice to see an interest in African design and crafts, the basis of the work is to not try to force anything or to try to fit into one category or the other. I believe good work is simply good work. So instead of trying to extract cultural value or capital, I prefer to try to let it flow....out of lack of a better word. I understand that our work may or may not be the subject of some discussions related to your question, and that is a good thing. Urbanisation in our continent is happening quite rapidly and there is bound to be questions relating to identity. A global resurgence in craft is also adding to this. I think the vibe overall is good. It is making people, especially those who buy products, consider what they are interested in a little deeper than before.  

What I find remarkable is the fact that your commitment to community development and building relationships of learning in many levels successfully avoids cultural short-circuits that we see in many of the products around the world that claim to express cultural identity. By cultural short-circuits, I mean literal and quite shallow interpretation of local cultures in form, colour and materials. Is there a particular strategy that you employ while interpreting local culture of production, craftsmanship and materials in your design processes?

There is no particular strategy around this. The typical discussion will revolve around a new idea we would like to express, or an interesting technique we would like to try, or sometimes based on an interesting object, or an historical context, whatever the case maybe. I think the carefully selected relationships, purely based on whom we appreciate, and how the ideas are eventually translated into actual objects contribute to the overarching mood felt in our work. My colleagues, or the craftsmen and women I work with, or employ, in other words, are an integral part of the process. 

So this is not just a process of handing over a drawing, but more of how an idea is received, how well it is understood and subsequently, modified during implementation. As anyone who has made products with artisans- especially in developing countries- knows, it is a process that involves discussions and often laughter at the seemingly crazy new idea. It is either something that seems so commonplace that it cannot possibly be design, or it can be so complex that thinking of how to approach it seems daunting. Some ideas make it, some don't. I guess the easy feeling coupled with a dedication towards making high quality objects, without searching for identity, or shortcuts, contributes in a good way to the end result.

Mabeo products achieve not to romanticize culture and heritage in the way many of the designed products around the world do. What keeps you focused?

It is very uncomfortable and difficult to do things just to conform to a trend, or to try to gain acceptance. It is not worthwhile.

How do you interpret the notion of collaboration, in your practice? How do the stakeholders from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, for instance your suppliers, artisans, designers you collaborate with, manufacturers and local community, benefit from collaboration?

We value collaboration, especially the good kind… The kind that is based on an interest that goes beyond business. This kind of relationship is able to overcome challenges, and often has results that reflect the good relationships. Tough collaborations tend to have an effect on the results. Some collaborations work really well, while others, not so well. The good collaborators transcend differences. For instance, artisans in Africa and designers from Europe have differences in how they approach projects. Another example is that of suppliers not willing to accommodate our requirements. Staying positive during the process is the key: it is the valuable fuel that is needed when challenges arise. The cultural exchanges that take place during these kinds of collaborations are so enriching to all concerned, especially when the results are strong and significant: negative perceptions are changed, new ideas are developed… 

You have collaborated with world-known designers such as Patricia Urquiola and Patty Johnson, as well as with local, up-and-coming designers. Based on your experience, what is the difference between working with a local designer and working with a well-known foreign designer who is exposed to the local context for the first time? What kind of sensitivities do you have when working with a foreign designer?

It is not so much a question of being foreign or well known, but more a question of the individual. The designers, whom we have great relationships with, tend to be curious and value relationships between interesting people more than anything else. They have a good sense for good work and for people who are genuine. Immersing themselves in different cultures of brands, let alone regions or countries, is part of what excites them. There are no special sensitivities that we have as such. It is usually a relationship where we do all we can to realize what we both desire. The major difference that I sense between local designers and their more established counter parts is that of confidence. And, this will grow as we continue to develop. 

One issue that I feel important is the fact that today, exciting and innovative processes of collaboration (in manufacturing and design), and the knowledge created through these processes are over shadowed by the formal and stylistic appearance of the final product. In what ways do you think it is possible to share and expose the nature of a successful process of design collaboration?

For us, the primary reason for working with designers is based on the connection we feel to them and to their work. We are drawn to people who are not focused on seeking acclaim, but instead, on doing interesting and rewarding projects that bring fulfilment primarily, and by extension, acclaim and financial rewards: not the other way round. So, what is real can be felt, and what is purely strategic can also be felt. The overall appearance tends to be less filtered in products that result from relationships that are really good, between people or entities that have a strong appreciation for quality. In our case, it is the quality in simplicity that we seek. This means that the process is more likely to be evident in the final products, requiring very little else to communicate it. 

In what ways are your business model and design practice sustainable? Apart from mindfully employing sustainable production techniques and using sustainably harvested materials (which are related to the design and production processes), how does the notion of sustainability apply to your relationships with the local community?

In this context, for me, it is not about creating sustainable help for poor local communities. It is more about being able to create strong pieces, with talented people, in a way that honours the work. It is about finding a way back to the quite certainty of understanding how great the work is; about thoughtfully bringing these really interesting aspects of our communities up to speed with the rapid evolution that is taking place. I understand that doing this can only lead to overall positivity. It will show a different approach, one that is more inclusive, one that values externally driven advancements in the same way as local culture and crafts....not one over the other, but one that develops a sense of identity through meaningful and real participation where local perspectives also contribute to deliberate evolution of culture.

In your Naledi Table Series designed by Patricia Urquiola, local basket weaving techniques meet with furniture production techniques in a very clear, mindful way. What other local manufacturing techniques do you adopt and employ in furniture design?

Sometimes, like in the example you cited, this is very clear and obvious, other times it’s not. At times hand carving, textures, hand painting fuse into the overall form, or old techniques are applied to a new product. We are also embarking on collaborations with basket weavers, traditional pottery makers, artist and artisans who work with different materials. It is a mix of traditional, rudimentary, artistic, and industrially focused people and entities. The idea of tastefully expressing design through our everyday experiences remains to be our focus. While it is not a preoccupation to adopt local techniques, it will most likely become evident, in more direct ways, as we continue. It is really interesting to do things that we feel connected to. 

What kind of techniques or methods do you employ while researching on and employing local production techniques, materials, and traditional arts and crafts? What role does the local craftsman have in this process?

The methods vary greatly, in no particularly set way. While the methods are important, it is more the quality or level of execution of the idea, that seeks to value the local technique that is more important. If we are not able to achieve something that we are satisfied with, then the feeling is that we are only trying to perpetuate the idea of the technique rather than the actual result being strong. Then it feels a little shallow and not so fulfilling. The local craftsman is essential to the process. If it is just the designer, then it is not so interesting. The product cannot be realized in the way we intend unless we all have a good sense.

During your collaborations with different designers, has there been any instance where the craftsman and the designer exchange knowledge, and negotiate their defined roles in the design process in order to design together?

There is always an exchange between the collaborating designers, either directly, or indirectly through our in-house local designer. The exchange between international designers, local Mabeo-based designers, and local crafts people is constant during the process. The modification, tweaking, adaptation of the concept as it develops is a process between the designers on both sides, with the crafts people at the centre. It is a fluid process that is only possible if all are involved.

In most of the projects, I feel that Mabeo acts also as a facilitator to keep the relationship between local and global healthy and balanced. In a larger scale, how do you think African design relates to the global scene?

I think African design can have as significant effect as it chooses to have. I am optimistic. All the signs are there, and it will be great to see them come to the surface. I personally think that Africa can contribute to the humane feeling that has always been appreciated and is increasingly being acknowledged; a feeling that is less filtered, good-natured, pure, with a sense of ease and simplicity... My appreciation for Africa in this context is really basic, it requires little thought.