Wow, so at short notice, I packed my bags and headed off to Johannesburg, very excited to have been accepted for a Scholarship to attend a 4-day Access Markets for Profit course, run by The Africa Craft Trust alongside the 2017 SARCDA Christmas Trade Show.
Now this was a really big deal. Four days of working with industry experts, learning, engaging and working with updated info on everything from global economic trends, to buying trends, to colour trends, to shipping, marketing, costing, merchandising and client relationships. We got to spend some time at SARCDA, went on some store visits, and got to work with some esteemed local designers to get some fresh eyes and advice on some of our work.
Now, I could write a novel about this amazing experience, but I thought it might be most interesting to share with you my top 5 learnings / observations when it comes to product.
Less is more. The eye needs quiet. In the handmade halls, the stands people were gravitating to were the stands with calm, muted, neutral and chalky colours. Apart from the really extraordinarily merchandised exceptions; loud, bright and blingy was being bypassed. The whole world is shouting at us right now, with news and media making us feel overwhelmed. Life itself has become a sensory overload. This itself is intensified in an exhibition hall experience, and buyers seemed to want a respite. What stood out is what stood back. Confident, well-crafted understatements, that make you look closer and find the hidden surprises in the detail. This was confirmed when I had a session with Magda van der Vloed who encouraged me to tone down the amount of colours and materials used in some of our smaller products.
Natural, tactile & repurposed materials. I think this links to the world that’s shouting at us all the time. It’s become impersonal. People are looking for an energy exchange with a product, a human story, something not mass-produced… Handmade is big. Well-made handmade is bigger. I saw a lot of natural materials being used – weaving, and textural finishes that draw you in to touch and feel. The innovation with repurposed, or upcycled materials was also amazing. My highlight was seeing some really delicate work done with the rubber from old car tyres, and sculptures made from knitted copper wire.
Design identity and authenticity. It takes a brave designer to say ‘this is my style and medium, this is my signature, and that’s what I’m presenting’ instead of taking something already successful and copying it. The great thing about a show like SARCDA and a programme like AMP is you can start to see trends in terms of colours, and product categories which can help you – but the producers who stood out were the ones that had interpreted this in their own style, bringing something different to the table. The industry is big enough for us all (yes, really!), and if you choose to complement instead of copy or compete, then you’ll find the customers you share with other ‘competitors’ will probably order from all of you, as the variety helps them build a bigger range with more variety for their own customers.
Design uncomplicated products. It’s all in the detail. A beautiful subtle surprise is what stands out, along with attention to detail. You no longer need to use all your colours, techniques and different materials in one product. Less is definitely more. Let one element be the hero – be it in the shape of the item, the technique you have used to make it, or the patterning you have used to decorate it. Keep it uncomplicated, and easy to relate to. Too much ‘going on’ in a product will just confuse your buyer.
The South African Craft industry has grown up. Most important this, and you can see it in the products and design. We’re no longer children who have to shout for attention, or teenagers that need to rebel. We’re adults, confident in quiet elegance, polished details and finishes, and timeless design. This will ensure our longevity.
Until the trends change again at least!