Mr Somebody and Mr Nobody is the unconventional and brilliant result of a collaboration between two SA born designers/artists living and working in the States. Somewhere between fine art and (not your average) home decor, Heidi Chisholm and Sharon Lombard describe their products as domestic curiosities. Mr Somebody and Mr Nobody exudes ‘Afro-Cool-Universal-Style’ and imports a particular African-grown humour to the USA.
Heidi was born in the Free State village of Clocolan. Her instantly recognisable style gained an international reputation through the work she produced at Daddy Buy A Pony, an independent design studio she co-founded while still living in South Africa. Now based in New York City, Heidi runs her own graphic design studio and the extra-playful Extra Fancy.
Sharon was born in Pietermaritzburg and immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1979. She spent time in England attending the Winchester School of Art and later majored in 4D (performance art, film making, video and film history) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Now based in Miami, Sharon has lived in Cincinnati and rural Wisconsin working in a variety of creative avenues from designing and building furniture to writing and drawing comics, to conceptualizing retail store, Pie, to teaching children’s art classes.
As Mr Somebody and Mr Nobody, Heidi and Sharon have exhibited at art and design fairs across continents, most recently showing as part of the Africa Is Now exhibition at the Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town in February.
We sent a few questions across time zones to find out more about their collaboration.
How did you meet each other and decide to start working together?
Sharon: I had collected a lot of great graphic design work on trips to SA. After a little internet research I learned that Heidi was the designer behind some of the magazines, stickers, fabrics, etc. that I had found. For years I’d wanted to do some kind of design project that involved production, African inspired goods and African humor. Since Heidi is also interested in similar things, I asked her if she’d like to collaborate. We met online, and later in person and decided to give it a whirl. We skype and e-mail quite a bit. Collaborations can be interesting because you try things you might not do on your own, and hopefully grow as artists and designers. Objects you make can sometimes take on a new twist because you lose creative control when there are two of you involved. This can be good (and bad)!
Heidi: I found it really hard leaving South Africa, and the first couple of months here in Brooklyn was, to say the least, a challenge. When Sharon asked me to work with her, it was like I could breathe again. I found someone that understood what I was going through and had the same passion for Africa as me. The first project we worked on together was the doilies, we used it to tell some of our immigration stories.
Where did the initial idea for Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody come from? / Could you tell us about the name?
We are both interested in African aesthetics and Africa in general. My family goes back to the 1600s in South Africa with a Huguenot forefather and an Indian slave foremother, so my family has been in Africa for centuries. I still maintain my connection with SA as “home”. There is a famous Zulu proverb that goes: “He arrives Mr. Somebody and he leaves Mr. Nobody,” and that saying resonated with us — it struck our funny bones. We are both immigrants to the United States, both of us came here (as many do), because somebody else in our families made the decision to leave our homes. With our interpretation of the proverb, we compare our immigration experience to living and dying, going from something to nothing, or nothing to something — you are somebody in one place, and nobody in another place.
We grapple with genealogical fuzziness, understanding that humans have moved around the globe since the beginning of life on earth. But mostly we want to introduce Americans to African humor and style.
Besides the obvious inspiration from various African cultures, what are the more specific influences behind the Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody aesthetic?
We’re interested in playing with status (both important to people in the United States and Africa). We’re also interested in “making do” and making goods for homes that are easily transportable. Perhaps our focus on African design helps to alleviate homesickness? We particularly love khangas because they are so multi-purposeful. We view them as resilient posters, they make great signage and are not fragile like paper. The proverbs we write on the khangas are uplifting, funny and plain old cheer you up. We’re great fans of Sibusiso Mbhele and Malick Sidibe, and a host of other African artists. We often turn to them for inspiration.
What are the challenges of collaborating across two cities (and two continents when involving suppliers)?
Working with Africa is a little difficult because shipping is so costly due to distance. Plus, many of the goods made in Africa are hand crafted and that can be tricky in terms of timing, material consistency and quality control. Generally, the internet has made it much easier to do business with Africa, we often use Skype and photos in our communications with each other.
You’ve exhibited in Detroit, New York, Miami, London and even here in Cape Town. What has the response been like and do different places receive your work differently?
We always find kindred spirits wherever we show who get a kick out of the African humor we present. It’s always interesting because people in each place tend to gravitate towards certain items, and we have fun trying to determine why one particular object sells more in one place than in another, but we don’t really have answers for why people in Detroit for example, like glitter books!
How is your approach different (if at all) when producing work for Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody compared to producing work for a client?
Heidi: We have developed a language for Mr Somebody and Mr Nobody, and we design according to that language. I try to do the same for my all my clients, each client has their own language, concepts, and look & feel. There’s much more freedom in designing our own stuff, although production costs ultimately dictate final solutions.
Where do new ideas come from?
Usually from something we see that fuses with something else that one of us sees. It can come from anywhere, the street, the park, magazines, internet. We get a lot of inspiration of course just researching African culture and looking at books on Africa. Occasionally an idea just hits one of us or both of us. Generally we don’t proceed with ideas unless we’re both excited about them.
You seem to be privy to the secret of moving passed safe and derivative to creating something completely original. How do you do it?
We tend to be gutsy, often working more as artists than as designers and worry more about pleasing ourselves than others. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best. In the end we are our harshest critics. If we still like something after a long time, we are happy.
What would your advice be for young designers and artists, especially from Africa?
Try not to imitate Western taste, be true to African design sensibilities. Be African because your work will be more interesting in the global sphere.
Keep going, it takes years and years to develop a style that looks anything close to acceptable, then keep pushing yourself because your can always be better. Don’t imitate anyone, your style needs to be your own, otherwise it will always look like an imitation.
We recently attended the Design Indaba conference where a repeated theme was having a sense of place in your design work. Your work celebrates Africa, what do you love about the continent and what do you miss about it, living in the States?
Sharon: I love the sense of humor in Africa, the great African laughs you hear out on the street, the casualness, African hospitality, the emphasis on design in traditional African day-to-day life, the aesthetic of “making do”. I really miss the freedom of time not equating money.
Heidi: I miss the freedom that you have to create whatever you can dream up because the law is not on your back for every move you make, I miss that SO much! I miss having physical space to do whatever you can dream of. I also miss the making-do mentality. I miss that you seem to be able to do a lot with very little because of these factors.
What’s next for you as Mr Somebody and Mr Nobody and with your individual work?
We’re excited because we are going to be published in a book on craft later this year. We’re also plotting a book about “home”.
Sharon: I’m hoping to design and sew myself some new clothes.
Heidi: My family and I are planning to move into a new apartment and I can’t wait to put my mark on it.
Find more at www.mrsomebodyandmrnobody.com