The history of African furniture is not well-documented due to the cultural characteristics of African societies, which traditionally relied on oral transmission of history rather than written records. However, African stools and chairs have been significant objects of leadership and social status in many African cultures. They are often adorned with precious materials such as silver and ivory to emphasize the ruler’s power and authority. The Asante people of Ghana believe that a stool embodies one’s soul, and the Golden Stool is considered sacred as it was believed to have been sent from heaven to house the soul of the Asante people. African artists typically carve stools from a single block of wood, with rectangular or cylindrical shapes being the most common. Some African ceremonial furniture shows the influence of European styles, as the elbow chair was brought to Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Overall, the history of African furniture is rich and diverse, reflecting the cultural and social significance placed on these objects.
- The history of African furniture is not well-documented due to the oral tradition of passing on history and the nomadic lifestyle of African peoples.
- African stools and chairs have been significant objects of leadership and social status in many African cultures.
- Some African ceremonial furniture shows the influence of European styles, as the elbow chair was brought to Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th century.
Stools and Chairs: Symbols of Leadership and Social Influence
In West Africa, stools and chairs were significant objects of leadership regalia and symbols of social influence. Across Africa, stools and chairs have held cultural and spiritual significance and have been richly adorned with precious materials. For instance, in the Asante nation, stools embody one’s soul, and the king’s stool is particularly revered as it represents the nation’s soul. In some tribes, sitting in another person’s stool is deemed inappropriate and could be perceived as contaminating the owner’s soul. The stools of deceased kings are preserved as a commemoration and resting place for their souls.
The influence of European styles on traditional African furniture is also apparent in the carvings and motifs found in the thrones and furniture of African rulers. European design elements, such as the elbow chair and sedan chair, were introduced to Africa by the Portuguese and French.
Early furniture design in South Africa reflected Dutch and Indonesian influences and was adapted by local craftsmen to create their own unique variations. With the country’s diversity growing, locally made furniture became increasingly popular among the wealthy elite. The Swellengrebei Cabinet, an elaborate piece commissioned in the 18th century, showcased craftsmanship comparable to Europe’s finest cabinetmakers. British influence can also be seen in South African design, particularly from Sir Herbert Baker, a renowned architect who also dabbled in furniture design.
In recent years, South Africa has seen a surge of unique and exciting furniture designers. Notable talents such as Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, and Mpho Vackier have garnered attention both locally and internationally. These designers draw inspiration from traditional African shapes, motifs, and storytelling, combining them with modern and contemporary designs. Their furniture pieces are recognized for their beauty and creativity, showcasing the diversity and ingenuity of African craftsmanship and design.
Headrests: Function and Decoration
Headrests were also a common furniture item found in many African cultures. These small pillow-like objects were typically made of wood and decorated according to the region or tribe. They served the function of elevating the neck, head, or side of the face while sleeping and protecting elaborate hairstyles.
In some cultures, headrests were also seen as a symbol of social status, with more ornate and decorative designs reserved for those of higher rank. For example, the Tsonga people of southern Africa would create headrests with intricate carvings and designs that reflected their spiritual beliefs.
The use of headrests in different cultures demonstrates their function in providing comfort and support while also serving as decorative items. The unique designs and styles of African headrests reflect the rich diversity of the continent’s many regions and tribes. From the simple yet elegant designs of the Asante people in Ghana to the more ornate and intricate carvings of the Tsonga people in southern Africa, African headrests are a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of African craftsmanship.
Ancient African Furniture Styles
The tradition of using furniture for both practical purposes and as cultural symbols dates back centuries in Africa. Historians have found evidence of ancient African furniture styles that were both functional and beautiful. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were known for their finely crafted pieces of furniture that were often adorned with elaborate carvings and paintings.
The designs of African furniture have evolved over time, reflecting the different influences that have shaped the continent’s history and culture. From the simple yet elegant designs of traditional furniture to the more ornate and decorative styles of ceremonial furniture, African furniture is a testament to the rich artistic heritage of the continent.
The Evolution of African Furniture in South Africa
The history of African furniture in South Africa has seen significant changes over the years. It began with the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 17th century, who brought with them Dutch-styled furniture with Indonesian influences. Local craftsmen started producing their own variations of furniture in the Indo-Dutch style, and over time, locally made furniture gained popularity among the growing elite.
In the 18th century, the Cape colony became one of the most diverse societies in the world, and examples of locally made furniture such as the Swellengrebei Cabinet showcased exquisite craftsmanship and were made from a variety of woods and materials. The Voortrekkers and early settlers in the interior of South Africa focused on practical and durable furniture, known as Pioneer Furniture, where chairs were a dominant feature.
The use of “riempies” made of cured leather for seating was practical and long-lasting compared to woven reed seating that had to be imported. British influence on South African design, particularly from architect Sir Herbert Baker, also had an impact on furniture design in the country. The Morris Chair, known for its reclining back, became popular and is still sought after today.
More recently, South Africa has seen a wave of exciting local designers. Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, and Mpho Vackier are among the talented designers who have gained recognition for their unique furniture designs. These designers blend African motifs and influences with contemporary and international design aesthetics, creating pieces that are both functional and artistic.
The evolution of African furniture in South Africa continues to be shaped by the creativity and ingenuity of these local designers, as well as by cultural traditions and historical developments. From the traditional significance of stools and chairs to the fusion of African and international design aesthetics, the furniture in South Africa reflects a rich and evolving heritage.
Dutch Influence: The Early Years of Furniture in the Cape
The arrival of Van Riebeek at the Cape in 1652 marked the beginning of furniture demand in the growing settlement. The early years of furniture in the Cape were heavily influenced by the Dutch. Furniture items were mainly Dutch styled with strong Indonesian influences. Skilled woodworkers passed on their knowledge to locals, resulting in the production of numerous copies and variations of furniture in the Indo-Dutch style.
The furniture made under the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had a traditional Dutch taste, but the workforce consisted of slaves and ex-slaves with no background in furniture making, making the quality even more remarkable.
One notable local adaptation was the use of ‘riempies’ (cured leather strips) for seating instead of woven reed. This provided comfortable seating that was easily obtainable and lasted longer. The Cape colony became one of the most diverse societies in the world by the early 18th century, and locally made furniture became increasingly popular. The Swellengrebei Cabinet, commissioned by Governor-General Hendrik Swellengrebei around 1740, showcased the craftsmanship comparable to Europe’s finest cabinetmakers.
As settlers moved further north into the interior, furniture design became more practical and focused on adaptability and durability. Chairs took dominance, and ‘riempies’ remained a popular seating choice. There was also some influence from the British, with Sir Herbert Baker contributing to local architecture and furniture design. British designs like the Morris Chair and Jonkmanskas, with Cape Dutch roots, were adopted locally.
In recent years, South Africa has seen a wave of exciting local furniture designers. Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, Mpho Vackier, and Sifiso Shange are among the designers making their mark on the industry. These designers draw inspiration from traditional African motifs and combine them with mid-century and Bauhaus silhouettes to create unique and beautiful pieces.
Overall, the early years of furniture in the Cape were shaped by Dutch influence, with Dutch-style furniture and skilled woodworkers contributing to the local industry. This influence has evolved over time, and South Africa now boasts a vibrant and diverse furniture design scene.
The Cape Colony and the Diverse Furniture Landscape
By the early 18th Century, the Cape colony had become one of the most diverse societies in the world. This diversity was reflected in the furniture produced in the region, which showcased various influences and styles throughout its history.
The oral passing of history among African people means that the African furniture tradition is not well documented. However, stools and chairs hold significant cultural and social meaning in African societies, often symbolizing leadership and power.
The Cape Colony’s early furniture was influenced by Dutch styles with Indonesian influences, as seen in the Dutch-styled furniture made by highly qualified woodworkers among the settlers. Local craftsmen in the Cape Colony also produced unique pieces, such as the Swellengrebei Cabinet, made from luxurious materials like Amboyna-root wood and silver mounts.
Chair design in the Cape Colony saw the use of ‘riempies,’ thin strips of cured leather, instead of woven reed seating. The Cape Colony’s furniture was practical, adaptable, and durable, reflecting the pioneer spirit of the Voortrekkers and early settlers.
British influence, particularly from Sir Herbert Baker, brought notable designs to South Africa. The Morris Chair, with its reclining back, became popular, as did the Jonkmanskas, a storage staple with Cape Dutch roots.
After a period of little documentation, South Africa saw a resurgence of local furniture design after apartheid. Local designers like Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, Mpho Vackier, and Sifiso Shange gained recognition for their innovative and culturally inspired furniture.
Stools continue to hold cultural significance in African societies, representing power and embodying the soul of individuals and nations. African ceremonial furniture has also shown influences from European styles, as seen in the combination of local and European motifs in royal thrones.
The furniture landscape in the Cape Colony is a testament to the rich and diverse history of South African design.
Practicality and Adaptability: Furniture Design in the Interior
As settlers moved further north into the interior, the focus shifted to practicality, adaptability, and durability in furniture design. Chairs became the dominant item of furniture, with designs incorporating ‘riempies’ for seating, replacing the traditional woven reed seating for increased durability and availability.
The practicality and adaptability of African furniture design is evident in the various chair designs that emerged. The Voortrekker Chair, for example, was designed to be easily dismantled and transported as the need arose, while the Ndebele Chair had a sloping backrest and extended arms for ease of use.
The design of chairs and stools also reflects the cultural significance of furniture in African traditions. Stools and chairs were seen as symbols of leadership and social importance, with the display of stools in a household indicating the status of the owner. Sitting on someone else’s stool was considered highly inappropriate and disrespectful.
Headrests, made of wood and used to elevate the neck, head or side of the face during sleep, reflect the practicality and cultural significance of African furniture design. They were used in various African cultures, with regional variations in their design that reflected the diverse cultural practices and beliefs of different groups.
Overall, practicality and adaptability have always been important considerations in furniture design, whether it be African traditions, South African historical influences, or contemporary designs. A balance between functionality and aesthetics is key to creating furniture that enhances the interior space.
British Influence: The Impact of Sir Herbert Baker
The British influence on South African design was prominent, particularly through renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker. While Baker is primarily known for his contributions to local architecture, he also made his mark in furniture design. His stunning pieces are highly sought after by collectors and museums.
One notable British design that was adopted locally is the Morris Chair, still popular to this day. Additionally, the Jonkmanskas is a furniture item with Cape Dutch roots that has become synonymous with traditional South African design, featuring stinkwood and yellowwood. British influence can be seen in the fusion of local and European motifs evident in furniture of that era.
Sir Herbert Baker’s impact on South African furniture design is immeasurable. His designs continue to be a source of inspiration and influence for local designers, and his legacy lives on through his celebrated work in both architecture and furniture design.
Cape Dutch Roots: The Jonkmanskas and Traditional Woods
The Jonkmanskas, a furniture item with Cape Dutch roots, exemplifies stinkwood and yellowwood as the favored combination of woods. These woods were commonly used in furniture making during the Cape Dutch period, and the Jonkmanskas is a classic example of this style. This storage staple consists of two drawers on top of a cupboard and is a highly prized addition to any South African furniture collection.
During the Cape Dutch period, furniture was predominantly influenced by Dutch styles, with local adaptations being made over time. Highly skilled woodworkers passed on their craft to locals, resulting in the production of high-quality furniture items. The Jonkmanskas is a testament to this skill, with its sturdy construction and intricate details.
Today, the Jonkmanskas remains a popular furniture item among collectors and enthusiasts. It reflects the unique blend of traditional elements and influences from other cultures that characterizes furniture design in South Africa.
A New Wave of South African Designers
There is limited written or recorded information on South African furniture design between 1900 and the gradual dismantling of apartheid in the 70s and 80s. However, since then, a new wave of South African designers has emerged, gaining recognition for their innovative creations that combine traditional African influences with contemporary design elements.
Thabisa Mjo is one of these designers, drawing inspiration from childhood memories and incorporating storytelling into her designs. Her collaboration with local artisans and furniture brands has garnered attention both locally and internationally. Siyanda Mbele’s Mvelo Desk, which won the award for the most beautiful object in South Africa, showcases subtle geometric patterns inspired by traditional Zulu shapes.
Mpho Vackier, a metallurgical engineer turned interior designer, has also made a name for herself with her Ndebele-inspired furniture range called The Urbanative. She combines ethnic motifs with mid-century and Bauhaus silhouettes, creating unique and culturally rich pieces. Another rising star, Sifiso Shange, is known for his innovative approach to design.
These designers are part of a new generation of South African creatives who are redefining the country’s design landscape. Their work combines a celebration of African heritage, craftsmanship, and contemporary aesthetics, creating furniture pieces that are both functional and visually striking. With their talent and unique perspectives, these designers are putting South African design on the map.
Notable South African Designers
Thabisa Mjo, a rising star in furniture design, combines storytelling with her designs, drawing inspiration from childhood memories. Her “Tutu 2.0” pendant light, inspired by the iconic skirt worn by South African ballet dancer, Nadia Nerina, won the 2018 Most Beautiful Object in South Africa award at the Design Indaba festival.
Siyanda Mbele’s Mvelo Desk was also named “The Most Beautiful Object in South Africa” and features subtle geometric patterns inspired by traditional Zulu shapes. His work often incorporates African materials, such as woven grass and copper.
Mpho Vackier, with her Ndebele-inspired furniture range, The Urbanative, creates a juxtaposition of ethnic motifs with mid-century and Bauhaus silhouettes. Vackier’s designs are bold and playful, featuring pops of bright colour and intricate patterns.
Sifiso Shange is another notable designer, known for his functional yet sculptural pieces. His work often combines wood with materials such as metal and leather, creating an industrial yet organic look.
These designers showcase the diversity and creativity of South African design, which draws on the country’s rich cultural heritage and contemporary influences. With their unique approaches to African design, artistry and craftsmanship, they continue to make significant contributions to the world of furniture and design.
Conclusion: Celebrating African Furniture History
The history of African furniture showcases the significance of stools and chairs in African societies, as well as the influences from European styles and the emergence of unique African designs. Stools and chairs have held cultural meaning as objects of leadership and status, with owners displaying them proudly. African headrests were also commonly used for their functional purpose of elevating the neck or head during sleep.
Early furniture design in South Africa was influenced by Dutch and British styles, with practicality and durability being key in pioneer settings. However, since the dismantling of apartheid, South Africa has seen a wave of talented local designers creating innovative furniture pieces. Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, Mpho Vackier, and Sifiso Shange are among the rising stars showcasing unique approaches to furniture design that blend African motifs and mid-century aesthetics.
Moreover, African ceremonial furniture has shown influences from European styles, highlighting the circle of inspiration and influence between Africa and Europe. The rich history of African furniture is a testament to the cultural significance, artistic craftsmanship, and evolving design styles throughout the continent. Celebrating African furniture history highlights the unique contributions and influences that African designers and artisans have made, both historically and in contemporary times.
While the history of African furniture may not be extensively documented due to the oral tradition of history-telling in African cultures, its significance cannot be denied. The use of natural materials, intricate carvings, and regional variations make African furniture a unique and fascinating aspect of African culture. As South Africa continues to produce talented and innovative furniture designers, the future of African furniture is sure to be bright and exciting.
Q: Is the history of African furniture well-documented?
A: No, the history of African furniture is not well-documented due to the cultural characteristics of African societies, which relied on oral transmission of history rather than written records.
Q: What were stools and chairs used for in African societies?
A: Stools and chairs were significant objects of leadership regalia and symbols of social influence. They represented political power or served a spiritual and personal purpose.
Q: What were headrests used for in African cultures?
A: Headrests were used to elevate the neck, head, or side of the face while sleeping and to protect elaborate hairstyles.
Q: How did furniture design in South Africa evolve?
A: Initially, furniture design in South Africa was based on styles from other parts of the world. However, since the breakdown of apartheid, local designers have started to make a name for themselves globally.
Q: What was the influence of Dutch settlers on furniture design in South Africa?
A: Dutch settlers brought their styles and techniques to South Africa, resulting in furniture with strong Indo-Dutch influences.
Q: What was the significance of chairs and stools in the Cape Colony?
A: Chairs and stools became increasingly popular in the Cape Colony, with locally made items gaining prominence and showcasing exceptional craftsmanship.
Q: What were typical furniture pieces in the interior regions of South Africa?
A: In the interior regions, chairs and stools were the dominant furniture necessities, with a focus on practicality, adaptability, and durability in design.
Q: Who was Sir Herbert Baker, and what was his impact on South African furniture design?
A: Sir Herbert Baker was a renowned architect whose influence extended to furniture design in South Africa, particularly through British styles.
Q: What are the Jonkmanskas and their significance?
A: The Jonkmanskas is a furniture item with Cape Dutch roots, featuring stinkwood and yellowwood as the favored combination of woods.
Q: Who are some notable South African furniture designers?
A: Thabisa Mjo, Siyanda Mbele, Mpho Vackier, and Sifiso Shange are some notable South African furniture designers who bring unique perspectives to their designs.
Q: What is the significance of African furniture history?
A: African furniture history showcases the cultural and symbolic significance of furniture in African societies and the emergence of unique African designs.