Transitioning from avant-garde fashion to furniture design is no easy feat, but South African artist Rich Mnisi makes it look like a breeze. While the designer is best known for creating bold, colorful garments that transcend gender, seasons and design disciplines, his new solo exhibition of collectible furniture pieces, called Nyoka, relies on vivid shapes and extravagant materials to make a similar statement. “My broad design vision is underpinned by an aesthetic and philosophical fluidity, and this is reflected in my approach to both fashion and furniture design,” he tells Business of Home.
Born in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, Mnisi graduated from LISOF (now the Stadio School of Fashion) in 2014 and was shortly thereafter named African Fashion International Young Designer of the Year at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa. In 2015, he launched his eponymous fashion label and quickly garnered rave reviews for his vibrant, gender-neutral designs that combine elements of contemporary pop culture with traditional African motifs.
Mnisi says that much like his fashion designs, Nyoka, which is on display at the Southern Guild gallery in Cape Town from October 2 to February 4, draws inspiration from his family history and African mythology. In addition to a curved console punctuated by a bronze snake and an asymmetrical rug woven in contrasting shades of karakul wool and mohair, the collection features a commanding bronze chandelier clad in resin bubbles and a pair of low-slung, sheepskin-covered seats outlined in black leather. “The exhibit plays with the duality of fear and beauty, epitomized by the image of the snake,” he explains. “Nyoka means ‘snake’ in Xitsonga.”
To bring the six-piece assortment to life, Mnisi worked closely with a handful of local artisans, including Monkeybiz, Coral & Hive, and Bronze Age Studio. By experimenting with everything from biomorphic forms to nature-inspired prints and patterns, he was able to use a diverse range of design elements to expand on his notion of fluidity. “This comes from an authentic place, which I suspect is my queerness,” he explains. “It’s about refusing to be boxed and angular, and rather focusing on enhancing the ability to be free-flowing, which gives the works an organic substance.”
Along with integrating an assortment of organic shapes and motifs into the collection, Mnisi employs a wide range of materials, including resin, beads and glass, to give some of the furniture pieces a fluid, rhythmic quality. “For the console, for example, we wanted to capture that sense of movement of the xibelani skirt, and beading seemed like the best form of artistry to relay that feeling and flow,” he says.
While Mnisi’s creations may moonlight as works of art, he says he designed each piece in the collection with practicality in mind. “Coming from a fashion space and having to apply functionality to a garment that walks has naturally spilled into my approach to furniture,” he says. “I’m attracted to pieces that people can use, touch and interact with, so functionality is key.”
However, his ultimate goal for Nyoka was to create a furniture collection that people could both admire and actually live with. “It was important from the outset that these weren’t just static artworks,” he says. “I wanted to design pieces that you’re able to interact with on some level, and maybe even experience from a more tactile perspective.”
Homepage photo: Inside Rich Mnisi’s studio in South Africa | Courtesy of Southern Guild/Ricardo Simal