Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body

Rich Mnisi’s first solo show at Cape Town’s Southern Guild gallery (until 4 February 2022) encapsulates his multifaceted approach to design. Best known for the eponymous fashion brand he founded in 2015, as well as his photography practice and social advocacy platform Thoughts, Rich Mnisi has since expanded his work to furniture design. A series of much-lauded pieces, shown as part of group exhibitions at Cape Town’s Southern Guild gallery, has culminated in a highly anticipated solo show, ‘Nyoka’ (until 4 February 2022).

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Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
Mnisi, with the ‘Nwa’ntlhohe’ rug in progress at the Coral & Hive workshop in Somerset West, just outside Cape Town. Photography: Stephanie Veldman

When I design, I do it from a personal place. But in terms of describing what I do, I would probably settle with “artist”, because it has fewer limitations and I enjoy working in multiple disciplines,’

says South African designer Rich Mnisi.

Rich Mnisi’s furniture design

Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
“Nyoka (Snake)”beaded console table, part of Rich Mnisi’s new ‘Nyoka’ show. Photography: Christof van der Walt

For Mnisi, designing furniture was a natural progression from fashion.

When I create a fashion collection, if I had 15 runway looks, the 16th had to be an object or something that would describe the collection. Sometimes it was a starting point in design or the end point.’ This bookending lent itself to expanding theses, especially when he felt the realm of apparel proved limiting.

Rich Mnisi’s

Nyoka means snake in Rich Mnisi’s native language of Xitsonga, and Mnisi presents the show as a discourse on duality, and how fear and revulsion can birth beauty and augment community.

Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
The ‘Nwa’ntlhohe (Pure Beauty)’ rug. Photography: Christof van der Walt

Mnisi translated these ideas into a collection that included seating, lighting, a console, a rug, and objects. In using varied materials, including bronze, wool, beads, and leather, selecting co-creators from a range of disciplines, and blending traditional craft with modernity, he has created a contemporary fable of what African design is today:

The whole show was a very collaborative effort. A lot of the materials were selected through exploration and just having conversations.

Rich Mnisi’s
Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
‘Rivoningo (To Reflect)’ wall art. Photography: Christof van der Walt

Given Rich Mnisi’s design approach, Southern Guild proved a natural home for his work. Since opening in 2008, the gallery’s founders, Trevyn and Julian McGowan have positioned it as a hub for the reimagining of African design, and have developed partnerships and projects that support this mandate.

There was a certain level of consultation. They want to get into my world as opposed to having me fit into whatever the industry says. There was this calmness, the idea of refining a piece to its capacity, all of those things are what drew me to working with them in the beginning and continuing with them.

Rich Mnisi’s observes.

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Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
Mnisi with artist Trevor Potter, who sculpted the snake for the console, at the foundry where the bronze casting was done. Photography: Stephanie Veldman

Mnisi used his initial forays into object design to explore notions of furniture, adding:

I had to shift my brain from thinking of furniture as this one thing that can only look a certain way. I thought of designing for the human body; either for it or creating the human body. And that is where a lot of the shapes in the beginning came from – they came from human structures and how the body moves and how it embraces you.

Rich Mnisi’s
Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
‘Vumboni (Testimony) I’ seating. Photography: Christof van der Walt
Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
Detail of the ‘Nyoka (Snake)’ beaded console. Photography: Christof van der Walt
Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
‘Vutlhari (Wisdom)’ light. Photography: Christof van der Walt
Rich Mnisi’s Furniture Design Is For The Human Body
Beading is in progress. Photography: Stephanie Veldman

His initial pieces were inspired by his late great-grandmother. Tackling ideas of erasure from a domestic perspective invites the viewer to consider all those whose contributions aren’t documented or remembered, but whose presence remains felt. To convey this via a piece of furniture that can act as a place for contemplation is novel and compelling.

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