Inside Thabisa Mjo’s World of Design

“The most important thing for me is being clear that I am in the business of design. I am an entrepreneur and as much as the accolades are incredibly humbling, I have to remain focused on my goal to build a sustainable, scalable business that helps create opportunities for the people I work with,” says Thabisa at the beginning of our interview. 

Sakhile Thabisa by Mash T
Sakhile Thabisa – Mash T

For those of you who do not know, Thabisa Mjo is an award-winning designer and the founder of a product design firm called Mash.t Design Studio. As previously mentioned, Mjo has received numerous accolades for her work, in 2018, she won the award for Most Beautiful Object at Design Indaba, as well as the Nando’s Hot Young Designer Award. Early last year, she exhibited at Milan Design Week – an achievement she is most proud of. 

People who attended the Milan Design Week hold a fond memory of Mjo’s work. Her contemporary African hut, housing a collection of remarkable South African designs proved to be the coolest and most instagrammable installation at the design fair. The red and white patterning on the hut represents an almost perfect amalgamation of the old and new world. 

“It’s a nod to the beautiful textured pattern of the daub or cow-dung interior walls of African huts traditionally built by women but is actually a graphic representation of the streets of Johannesburg. The pattern was designed by mixed media visual artist, Sakhile Cebekhulu. It’s the streets of Johannesburg where we all live and work, the place that promises to have the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says Mjo about her design at Milan Design Week. 

“Using the beaded artworks as windows was a conscious choice as we want to highlight the skills of the incredible craftspeople in South Africa as craft is the tradition that has paved the way for us South African designers. Craft skills are what made the world start looking to Africa, curious to see what more we can do – and we’re here to show them.” 

The fair exposed Mjo to the local and international design scene and saw her working and partnering with other art and design corporates such as Spier Arts Trust, Qaqambile Fine Art Beading studio and Nando’s to mention a few.

“My relationship with Nando’s is one I like to think of as a process of patient procurement from Nando’s side. Nando’s support for me is the best kind of support any corporate can provide to a startup and that is, they actually procure my products and services.”

“Nando’s is definitely at the forefront of demonstrating what support of small businesses, small design and creative businesses (artists and designer-makers) looks like. You support a small business by actually procuring their products and services. 

Hopefully their designers will keep specifying my products for their restaurants, and I hope I can keep designing products that are the right fit for Nando’s Casa’s.

Although Mjo’s career has evolved over the last few years, and we find ourselves constantly having to keep up with her achievements and innovative designs, one thing that still remains is her passion for storytelling. She uses her work to tell stories of our beautiful heritage.  

Image Credit: Mast.t Design Studio.

“My studio’s philosophy is to celebrate our heritage using design. Tutu was inspired by Xibelani. The Potjie server and Hlabisa bench were inspired by a potjie, a three-legged cast-iron pot that my grandmother would use when there were big family gatherings. The backrest of the Hlabisa bench is inspired by the rolling hills of KZN, which is where my maternal grandmother lived. The motif on the face of the Potjie server is the area where my grandmother lived. We beaded the motif as a nod to Xhosa beading – on a personal note, it was an acknowledgment of my paternal grandmother who was Xhosa. My highlight is having the opportunity to use my platform to shine a spotlight on the incredible craftspeople in our country.” 

Featured Image Credit: masht.designstudio

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