My Design District
You’re standing at the edge of the city centre, in what is known today as the East City. It was formerly the infamous District Six, and it’s one of the most historically significant parts of town. The only thing that is constant about this district is its inability to keep its name. Although it is currently referred to as the East City, it’s been called the “Innovation District of Cape Town” and “the Fringe” too, which generated a lot of heated debate. A true contested space indeed!
It’s also one of Cape Town’s main design hubs. Cape Town came to the fore of the international design scene when it was awarded the title of World Design Capital – or WDC – in 2014. The title aims to give global importance to cities that use design as a tool for social, cultural and economic development.
It was Cape Town’s chance to address the legacies and imbalances of a city that was designed by the apartheid regime to exclude and segregate.
Hi, I’m Sune, the Founder and Creative Director of Rock City. I am a designer, entrepreneur and project manager, with a passion to educate the world about the impact and values of design by choice. This area is also where I mostly hang out during the day. Well I guess hanging out is probably not such an accurate description. It’s more like my daily amazing race – rushing from one meeting to the next. Today, I’ll tell you the story of two very different cities. There’s the high-end design of trendy spots, in amongst destitute buildings and un-kempt open land that still bares the scars of the past.
There are so many misconceptions about the value of design. Luxury items, like extravagant jewellery or expensive cars are usually associated with design, but for many people in developing countries, design is not a luxury – it is a necessity! Design hugely contributes to basic human needs and provides us with mobility, a healthcare system and means to communicate and educate. Design has the incredible ability to improve people’s lives, and act as change maker and transformer in places were it is mostly needed.
That’s what our new product, LIVE DESIGN TOURS, is about, and today’s walk around the East City is a taste of what we do. Let’s get started.
Pause the track now and head inside Truth Coffee. As soon as you’re settled in with a cup of coffee, hit the play button and I’ll tell you more about the design of this coffee shop.
Welcome to one of the most iconic places in Cape Town. Let me tell you, it is not only Capetonians that think this is an awesome place. Tom Midlane is a well-regarded travel writer, and he rates this place as the best coffee shop in the world!
When it comes to explaining the impact and value of great design, Truth Coffee is one of those stunning examples I just love sharing with others.
I come here almost every day – it is my second office. Since you walked through the door I’m sure you have realised that this is far more than just another coffee shop. It’s an explosive brand experience!
In 2011 Haldane Martin, one of SA’s most renowned furniture designers, was briefed to “intensify” the brand identity of Truth Coffee.
To say the very least, the décor is eccentric and has a true Steampunk character. In case you’re not familiar with Steampunk – it’s basically a mix-bag of sci-fi, vintage and the Victorian era juxtaposed with steam-powered machinery. According to Haldane, Steampunk’s obsession with detail and the sensuality of the way things look also captures the soul of Truth Coffee’s product philosophy – “We roast coffee. Properly”. To me this place finds perfect harmony between different styles and a brand with lots of quirky extras in between.
After purchase they have stripped various materials of this building to expose the beautiful cast iron pillars, Oregon pine roof trusses and floors, and original stone and brick walls. The raw steel, brass, copper, timber and leather fittings compliment the building’s natural discoloration.
Look around and see how many vintage ornaments like typewriters, Singer sewing machines and old candlestick telephones you can spot. But the biggest vintage talent in this establishment is their three-ton 1940’s Probat roaster – it’s the huge vintage masterpiece behind the main bar.
Haldane also designed the furniture pieces: the leather bar top cladded with pressed tin ceiling panels, overstuffed leather and steal chairs, copper tables, high-backed banquet seats…. One of my favourites is the beautifully designed profile cut steel tables in between the banquet seats. How stunning are those legs?
Besides many other tucked away gems, we have to take our hats off to the quirky designers from the Little Hattery who, with their eccentric Steampunk uniforms and hats for the staff, fine-tuned the overall look and feel of this establishment.
Before you head back out onto the streets, it might be a great idea to pop into the restrooms to have a peep at the stunning details like the spun brass basins with Victorian tap levers and the brass shaving mirrors. The bathroom always reminds me of the ones found on the South African Railways back in the sixties.
When you’ve finished your coffee, it’s time for us to take to the streets to check out some of the other iconic establishments in the East City.
We are going to cross Buitenkant Street, and turn left.
Take your first right into Barrack Street. This street was previously referred to as the heart of Cape Town’s innovation district.
Stop here, near the two bollards opposite the entrance to 37 Harrington House, while I tell you about this important address.
Harrington House is the home of a number of creative powerhouses like the Cape Town Fashion Council and, for 2014, the head office of Cape Town Design, who managed the WDC2014 programme. Harrington House is also the headquarters of the Cape Craft and Design Institute, affectionately known to many as CCDI. The CCDI provides support to the craft sector, run a Rural Outreach program for crafters.
Most recently the CCDI collaborated with the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism to develop the Western Cape Design Strategy, a first for South Africa and Africa as a whole. The creative industry now has an official Design Strategy and I am proud to say that I contributed to this valuable venture. At first we had months of intensive discussions, exploring the various parts of the creative industries especially in the context of a developing country like South Africa. For me starting at early childhood development is one of the few building blocks needed to develop design-literate citizens, and an entrepreneurial culture of top innovators.
In my opinion the design strategy has so much value to add across a wide range of sectors and I am personally looking forward to seeing design become an agent of change in our city.
On the right of the entrance to Harrington House is the Field Office. Walk directly across the road, and have a look through the window. This coffee shop was the brainchild of the iconic design studio Pedersen & Lennard. They successfully run this as a multipurpose space. It serves as a popular meeting place for creatives and entrepreneurs, and a space where they showcase and sell their designed pieces. This is my quiet place where I can meet clients, catch-up with colleagues or simply grab a coffee and relax with a good read.
But in October 2011 the Field Office was anything but a quiet place! Imagine creatives and likeminded peeps streaming here in a yellow mass at 6am! A pretty unusual sight at anywhere, I guess. Yellow was Cape Town’s World Design Capital campaign colour, and we’d come here to watch the live stream from Taipei announcing which city was going to be Wolrd Design Capital 2014. The roar of celebration from the Field Office was deafening when Cape Town was announced as the host, and from then the champagne did not stop flowing. What an experience to be in the midst of this huge celebration!
Now make your way up to the end of Barrack Street, towards Harrington Street.
Stop here for a little while. Straight across Harrington Street you will see a narrow alley called Barrack Lane. Although it might not look like much, it has become a hotspot for trendy ad hoc gatherings, from yoga sessions to luncheons, dinner parties and more.
On the left of the alley is 71 & 73 Harrington. This is the headquarters of THE BANK, which is a contemporary design space promoting relationships between industry professionals, corporate entities and independent thinkers. The Bank also hosts a variety of projects and events, exhibitions, seminars and workshops.
What I like most about the eclectic community of The Bank is their “can-do” attitude and flexible thinking. They always challenge conventional ways.
My friend and Co-founder of The Bank, Steven Harris, told me that when he was a little boy he sometimes walked with his mother up Harrington Street to the First National Bank at number 71 to do their banking. Today Steven and his team have made this former bank their home – and what a great fit! Only this time around The Bank deals in design currency, and an incredible community of creative talents.
Let’s turn left into Harrington Street now, walking away from Table Mountain.
We’re now in the heart of East City, which was previously known as District Six. It was once a colourful, energetic and lively mixed-race community. But in 1966, the apartheid government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act. In the years to follow 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes and the houses were demolished.
Today much of the area is still empty and underdeveloped – a kind of visual scar left behind.
If you’re interested, you can find the District Six Museum just down Albertus Street, to your left. We won’t go there now, but it’s an invaluable experience, so if you are keen to learn more about the history of District Six it’s worth a visit later.
The parking lot on your right is Harrington Square. Looking at the square today, it is difficult to imagine that before the 1970’s it was a bustling hub, cluttered with rows of duplex homes and shops.
Today Harrington Square has the potential to be a great public place, and it’s perfectly located to connect all the nearby iconic institutions. I personally can’t wait to be part of the transformation of this area and not only as a public hub but also the cultural heart of the district that celebrates the past, present and future.
Caledon Street Institutions
When you reach the corner of Harrington and Caledon, stop for a few minutes on the corner across from Dias Tavern.
Looking to the left down Caledon Street you can see the Fugard Theatre. This little Cape Town gem is named after one of South Africa’s most significant and internationally acclaimed playwrights, Athol Fugard. His plays are well known for their great humanity and humour, and for their role in challenging the apartheid regime. I think it’s fitting that this theatre is so perfectly positioned within this district of great historical significance to continue to showcase South African Arts.
You’ll see the Sacs Futeran building just to the right of the main entrance to the Fugard. It used to supply textiles and other soft goods. This was a significant hub for generations of families, seamstresses and tailors.
To me this is the most beautiful theatre in Cape Town and certainly worth a visit.
Let’s head along Caledon to the opposite corner of the square. As you walk, look to your right at the magnificent view of Table Mountain, framing the bright and bold colours of the world-renowned Charly’s Bakery. We’ll end our route there later when I’ll tell you more about this famous family business.
Stop at the white wooden benches on this corner of the square. Take a seat while I tell you about Woodheads. In its time, the Woodheads building has been used as a Gentleman’s House, a boarding House, and even a brothel. Customers were welcomed at what is now the front entrance and taken up the grand staircase to meet the ladies of the night.
But since 1955 it has housed Cape Town’s biggest leather merchant. Woodheads originated in Woodstock when Sir John Woodhead established it in 1867 before it moved to Caledon Street. He made significant contributions to the development of the city of Cape Town. To mention but a few, he served as the mayor of Cape Town for three terms; was responsible for the building of the Woodheads dam on top of Table Mountain; and headed up the widening of Sir Lowry road in Woodstock. In my opinion his most significant contribution to this city was when he modernised the sewerage and water system, which we are still using today. He was eventually knighted for his efforts.
Without Woodheads’ continuous support of local crafters, Cape Town would not have had a thriving leather craft industry. During my student years, Woodheads was one of my favourite hangouts where I could find just about anything I needed for my next design project.
Richard Harris, the owner of Woodheads, is very actively involved in the developments of the East City and many existing transformations can be traced back to his hands-on involvement in the community and his drive to develop the East City into the cultural and creative hub it is meant to be.
Let’s pick up some speed now, and continue walking up Caledon. As you cross Canterbury Street look over your left shoulder and you’ll spot a little entrance to the famous Dicky Tailor. To my knowledge it’s the only original shop in this district that survived the 1970’s eviction. I can only imagine how many stories Dicky can tell.
Turn right onto Mount Street. As you turn, you’ll see the Student Residence building of Cape Peninsula University of Technology to your left. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology, better known as CPUT houses the biggest design faculty in the province of the Western Cape.
I studied design at CPUT from 1990 to 1992. But in those days we did not have to walk all this way to get to class. The Design faculty was separate and much closer to the city centre. Today I still work closely with many of the lectures and students at the CPUT design faculty on a number of design related projects.
Design Can Do
Turn right down Canterbury street.
Whenever I walk around this area, it brings back a lot of great memories from when we first took on the East City as our design challenge.
In 2012 I was invited to serve on the adjudication panel of the pilot project Design Can Do in Seoul in South Korea. Design Can do is based on the belief that through good design, pretty much anything is possible. As part of the project, 36 people from a variety of backgrounds are thrown together for 36 consecutive hours to explore the needs of an area and come up with solutions through design intervention and innovative thinking.
A few months later my company – Rock City – was asked to be the South African partner. And so we launched the first Cape Town Design Can Do. The 36 participants spent hours walking these streets, to immerse themselves in this area, its history and its people. They proposed cost effective ideas to make small changes to the existing urban layout so that non-motorized means of transport like skateboarders, cyclists and pedestrians could safely move around. We all left this experience revitalised by newly formed friendships, inspirational collaborations and a united vision to use our creative skills when and wherever we can to make a difference.
Directions to Street Art
When you see the Harley Davidson Pub on the corner in front of you, turn left into Canterbury and walk until you see the large, striking piece of street art on the right.
Falko and WDC Curatorial Hub
Stop here, and take a look at the graffiti piece on your right. My friend, known in the graffiti world as Falko, painted it. I have known him for many years and we have collaborated on a few projects in the past. You can always identify his work by the signature feature – those large, iconic eyes.
As one of South Africa’s greatest graffiti artists, Falko has never prescribe to any societal moulds and he’s been recognized for the pioneering work he is doing in this medium.
The space to your right behind the double roller door at the bottom of FVE interiors used to be the headquarters of the World Design Capital curatorial panel. This is where most of the magic happened in 2013 before Cape Town officially kicked off its 2014 golden year as the World Design Capital. The curatorial panel spend many months working through thousands of project submissions and eventually selected 460 for the official WDC2014 programme. My company, Rock City, submitted three projects and we are immensely proud that all our projects were accepted.
Our walk is almost at an end now. We’re heading back to the famous Charly’s Bakery. Head back the way you came along Canterbury Street. As you go, look out for the huge mural of Nelson Mandela done by one of our other iconic graffiti artists, Mak1one. Note the powerful quote from Madiba’s book “long walk to Freedom”. Cape Town has been listed amongst the 26 best cities in the world to experience street art.
Veer to the left now, towards Charly’s Bakery. Back in the day this bright and bold establishment was a Jewish religious bookstore and was one of the few structures that was survived the demolition of District Six during apartheid.
Today Jacqui Biess, the the co-owner of this historic building’s favourite saying is: “If you haven’t tasted a cupcake from Charly’s Bakery, you haven’t tasted Cape Town”. Charly’s is a proudly Capetonian family-run bakery. They’re most famous for their oversized, brightly coloured cupcakes, and their divine death-by-chocolate cakes. Lately they are even more famous for their reality show Charly’s Cake Angels, which allows you to be part of the craziness behind the scenes of Charly’s Bakery.
They have also baked for many famous people. They made birthday cakes for both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former SA president Thabo Mbeki, and they even catered for Oprah Winfrey’s high tea party.
It’s a great place to grab lunch, a sweet snack, or coffee. I hope you had loads of fun with LIVE DESIGN Tours. If you or anyone else feels like joining any of our other tours, you can find our contact details at our VoiceMap profile. We have a variety of tour options, so give us a call or pop us a mail. Till next time!