Heath Nash studied sculpture at the University of Cape Town, but began making lampshades and other life style products after graduating. Exploring the question what South Africa could look like or what design language could express a contemporary aesthetic of his country, he experiments with ‘craft techniques’ as a high end design tool. Named as the 2006 Elle Decoration South Africa Designer of the Year for his treasures from trash, Heath has also just been appointed the SA creative entrepreneur of the year – a British council initiative. Before he will be visiting London for the 100% Design show in late September PingMag wanted to know how he actually manages to recycle empty bottles to perfectly crisp precious objects, what difficulties he occurs when creating handmade products and where his small business is heading.
Written by Uleshka
Heath, creating lifestyle objects from other people’s rubbish doesn’t sound too sexy at first, but when looking at your objects all possible doubts are immediately blown away.
People are generally quite shocked that those things are made from rubbish, which I find really pleasing. (laughs) That shows that I’m obviously doing it right and that’s exactly the point I am trying to make! It is possible to re-use this kind of plastic straight away and take it to a sophisticated level.
Plastic Proteas – experiments with flat sheet materials
one of Heah’s beautifully folded lamp shade objects
The Whorl – lampshade
How did you end up mixing your crisp designs with a “handmade touch” of local crafters in South Africa using empty bottles and plastic waste?
In the beginning all my work had been based on sheets of paper and plastic folded to objects: lampshades, greeting cards and that kind of stuff. I had a bit of an origami meets Swedish feel to it, but nothing really showed that it was made in Africa. Consciously, I kept looking for some way to express what Africa is and then suddenly met Richard Mondongwe at a crafts market making these plastic flowers. That was when I thought that by using the right materials and knowledge – wire and plastic combined with skills of traditional crafters and a contemporary design – a new aesthetic could be created which really suits the country.
We South Africans basically brand ourselves in crafts and design right now, creating a new look and feel for our country – and that’s quite exciting!
That all sounds as if you see yourself as a designer with an educational mission. A bit like what the CCDI in Cape Town are trying to achieve by teaching the crafters to take their traditional products to the next level…
In a way, yes. I really like to discover skills and people and combine them to creating products with a more contemporary sensibility, making things that are able to compete on the world market. Relevant objects rather than old school, standard local souvenirs.
Now Richard is my factory supervisor and leading craftsmen. He is very good at wirework and his wife now works with me, too. It is a nice passing on of knowledge and combining forces, besides giving work to those who need it.
Candellabra – wireworks rotating around a central point – folding flat for easy packaging, freight and storage or opening up for an African style candle holder
Stool – This little stool is paying tribute to the very African small seat tradition.
Cutout Cylinder Light, Plastic Proteas and white Flower Ball light
Full color Flower Drum light, white and ginger beer light and a flower screen in the background
Your initial stunning folding objects with dye cut elements are now combined with Richard’s wirework techniques – that lead to an interesting range of products. What is the core of your designs?
A lot of my work is very modular. A unit, a component that repeats itself. I like to make smalller units that make up a bigger whole. It is like drawing lots of small lines which eventually add up to a circle.
I’d like to know a little bit more of the process of making your objects: from the milk bottle to the final sculpture – how does that work?
First it is trying to get the plastic, which unfortunately is much harder than you might imagine. I finally located some nice collection points, a couple of different recycling centers. The bottles we get are all dirty, so we take them to our studio, rinse, clean and wash them and then hang them up until they are dry and clean.
Then you cut the handle and the bottom off, so they transform to a plastic sheet. We punch leaves out with a hammer and a blade attached to a piece of wood.
cleaned bottles at the studio
Landela punching out and correcting the small plastic flowers
Each leaf has little crease lines on it and each leaf has then to be creased by hand, basically creating little veins. While that is happening, Richard and Landela are making the wire components.
Richard preparing the wire frames
Juliet creasing each flower by hand
Then the leaves get strapped onto the wires. That is how you get your units, your modular base pieces. From those you either built a wall or a screen or a cylinder…
wireworks and flowers attached to a Full Colour Drum
Full Colour Drum
They are all slightly different pieces, since everything is handmade, but this is the basic process.
Do you have to adjust your designs in terms of what materials you can get hold of? I guess there is not always the same amount of pink bottles around?
Yes, the color is really difficult to deal with. That is why the white lights are much easier to do. There is never a shortage of milk bottles, but getting enough see-through purple or blue plastic… I am totally at the whim of the recycling place to get hold of these things. Crazy actually, that I need more garbage than there is available!
You mentioned somewhere that you are dreaming of a centrailzed recycled material bank…
Absolutely! That is what I would love to have, so I wouldn’t have to collect my own plastic! Just call and order 50 red bottles, 30 in pink… – but that’s a dream so far! It is actually much easier to drive around, pick up some bottles and do it yourself. But if you want to organize something that is always sustainable and that you can keep drawing from, it still takes so long to actually get it done!
I can imagine! What do you do if you get really big orders? How do you keep up your production?
Recycled material designs are very expensive to make, because it is a very time consuming process. Just like organic vegetables – it is more expensive to get those, too. The full color flower ball for example is something I only really sell outside of Africa, to people who understand that some things are worth paying a lot for. It is more of a high end product right now.
I am now trying to collaborate with a company called Street Wires. I hope to teach their group of crafters how to make my products so that they can take my orders and manufacture products for a bigger market. Then I could keep my team of 5 as some kind of a prototype facility, making models and trying out new stuff.
I really want to keep the manufacturing in South Africa, keep it local, but that is difficult because it’s actually very expensive to produce here.
one of Heath’s screens
the same screen in front of a window lit by daylight
Some of your products – the large separating walls for example or folding lampshades – are not using recycled materials but die-cut polypropylene instead. Will you keep producing some recycled and some new products?
I am constantly looking for new ways of using recycled materials, because there are lots of ways that haven’t been used, but at the same time I have to find ways to make easy products that I can sell for cheaper. Die-cut products fulfill that role, because you just buy plastic, have it set into a machine, cut it, fold it and it’s done. It’s a much cheaper way of making things and easy to distribute some of my stuff around the world. That basically keeps me going.
You just wrote a little manifesto for the Design Indaba Magazine about recycling. What is your most important point here?
I demonstrate that recycling has to happen here in South Africa (and everywhere else in the world). No-one here recycles! There is no infrastructure for it, so it is basically down to each individual to separate things – but no-one is really is doing that! When I discovered this material that looked so beautiful, I just thought is was a great opportunity to raise some consciousness and awareness, that these things are too precious to be wasted!
every small bit can be recycled: ginger beer colored napkin-ring
You won a couple of great prices recently, have the great opportunity to be invited not only to 100% Design in London, but also to other entrepreneur programs by the British Council, a meeting with Sir Terence Conran… Apart from your plans to expand your business and delegating work to find more time for actual designing – what would you like to focus on in the future once you established that freedom?
Curl lights and screen at one of Heath’s various exhibitions
The Curl – a die-cut sheet of polypropylene, which folds into this soft spiral, curling around a light bulb. The curl can be used vertically (hung) or horizontally – and reminds of geometric African carved furniture details.
Being a sculptor originally, I love playing with space and it would be beautiful to make things for larger areas, panels, screens and objects that really communicate in a big room… but all that is a slow process. For now I just want to contribute positively to the world, rather than just contributing arbitrarily.
Heath, thank you so much! Very much looking forward to the reactions in London and checking out what new products you introduce at next year’s Design Indaba!