Furniture designer, Bonga Jwambi, on crafting his vision.

The young Khayelitsha-born designer has created a furniture line that is not only visually captivating but also changes the way we view furniture.

By: Blacklight Writer
Photos: Supplied

We first took notice of the self-taught designer when he was recognised as one of the emerging creatives at the  Design Indaba, in 2015. He was soon featured on the popular lifestyle shows, Expresso and Afternoon Express, on SABC 3.

Bonga’s line includes chairs, stools, benches and lamps. He uses recycled materials, such as wood, plastic, ropes, pallets and boxes. His minimal but yet innovative designs make for portable and affordable furniture. 

The young designer also uses his skill to develop his community. He has a project that helps renovate schools with no resources.

We had a chat with Bonga about being a young and black furniture designer.

Bonga Jwambi – Visual artist turned furniture designer.

What inspired you teach yourself how to make furniture?
Bonga: My background is in visual arts. I was part of a mentorship programme at VANSA (Visual Arts Network of South Africa) and then I was exposed to other [art forms] like furniture designing. I saw myself making a chair. I had this idea of making a chair that could fit under my table – and that’s how I started.

What are the challenges of being a furniture designer?
Bonga: The biggest challenge for me was getting a space that allows me  to implement my ideas. The equipment is also expensive but the spaces to rent, in order to set up, are very expensive. Luckily, through networking someone borrowed me some tools. I used a lot of hand tools – tools you can get from home – to create my designs.

I remember for the Design Indaba, the deadline was on a Sunday, at midday, I finished my designs in my sister’s dining room because I couldn’t find a proper space. The tools were also not proper tools to make furniture but I didn’t want to just present an idea; I wanted something that people could see. As a visual artist I know that people would rather see your idea.

Why do you think there has been a growing fascination with your designs?
Bonga: In the beginning I wanted to make furniture that was like an art-piece but I couldn’t afford to. If you look at my earlier work, it didn’t have a lot of colours because I could only afford a white box-strap. Now I can express myself more in colour. As a creator, I believe my furniture should sell itself without me being there to sell it – it’s the same as with art. It’s not just objects; it’s art pieces.

Bonga says his furniture is art.

Are there any signature pieces that people know you for?
Bonga: I always let people decide that. But I would say benches and small stools because people know me mostly for those. My designs look simple but the details are what give them that signature look.

How do you make your furniture accessible to everyone?
Bonga: That’s an interesting question because it’s quite broad. People from Khayelitsha go to town or to Waterfront to buy furniture. They buy even more expensive furniture than what I sell.

When I make a piece, I don’t make it for a specific audience; it’s for whomever that comes across it and falls in love with it. I don’t design for a certain class, I design for everyone.

Is there a market for handcrafted furniture in the general public?
Bonga: There is, because there is a wide price range. For an example, you have a Samsung phone you can buy for R100 all the way up to R5000. It’s the same with furniture.

The nice thing about furniture is that you can even go for plastic or cheap wood – it depends on what you can afford. Obviously, how much you spend on the material will determine how long the furniture will last, also keeping in mind that there is outdoor and indoor furniture and therefore it will vary.

As a designer, you just need to communicate with your customers and give them options based on what they want and their budget.

Is it possible to make a living from being a furniture maker?
Bonga: You can, but it’s not easy. We have different designers and for me I want to own my craft. I want to plant the tree that will make my dream work for me forever. I don’t want to rent forever; I want my own firm or factory, my own equipment and have people design under my eye. I want to keep investing in it and make sure I can live off it forever.

What do you say to young people who want to take the same route you took?
Bonga: There is a lot of competition but luckily for me I never limited myself as a designer. If I had a design, I would try and implement it and not worry too much about research.

I don’t make my designs too complicated because a lot of people try and make it so complicated that it can appear impractical. I always say to people that they should always try to be as minimal as they can be with their designs and also not to look at the next person.

Listen to your inner voice and follow your instincts. My problem, in the past, was listening to people because of their titles or qualifications as designers, but sometimes that can kill your voice. I learned to listen to myself, try out my designs and if it doesn’t work out, I can always start again.

In the beginning I just wanted to share my furniture with the world, but now I also want to inspire people – Bonga

What inspires you to create?
Bonga: I am inspired by the challenges we face everyday. When people are talking I am always taking notes and doing research. That always inspires me to come up with solutions. I feel like the furniture I make is one of those solutions because it’s quite portable. Coming from the township, our spaces are getting smaller and smaller, and I make furniture you can easily move around – you can take it anywhere and you can easily pack it. You can use it indoors or you can take it outside. It’s good to create a product that can save space and money.

You say you don’t believe in dreams, but in visions. What’s the big vision for yourself?
Bonga: In the beginning I just wanted to share my furniture with the world, but now I also want to inspire people. I don’t think there is a lot of information out there about how to become a furniture designer, locally, and hence there are not a lot of young people in our field. I believe now is the time for young black designers to move from just working at the back in factories, to being infront.

I feel like sometimes we are scared of competition and therefore we don’t share information with upcoming designers. I am willing to teach anyone who wants to become a furniture designer because I think it’s important for us to teach one another so that we can all grow. I strongly believe in that saying: “It’s good to empower yourself, but it’s even greater to empower the next person”.

Bonga’s furniture line:

Follow Bonga
Instagram: @bonga_jwambi

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