CityLife Arts

Masonwabe Ntloko, young designer on a phenomenal design trail in South Africa

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

When I heard that illustrator and designer’ Masonwabe’s rug collection titled Ilifa Lethu, in which he collaborated with retailer, Airloom, sold out within two days of its release, I got interested in finding out who is this new designer set to setting the designing space ablaze soon in South Africa.

I asked to meet him in Maboneng yesterday, July 27, 2021 at the new home of coffee brand Home of the Bean at the Arts on Main building on Fox Street. This coffee shop, which relocated from its previous location at the Cosmopolitan building across the road recently. Its new home is quite spacious, its atmosphere inviting as it is neither busy nor does it feel empty. Its décor that also includes pot plants hanging on its ceiling and its well spaced table design for sitting make everything comfortable for a meeting, especially during these uncertain days of Covid-19.

It is here that I thought I was going to meet the young designer, who will pretty soon be the talk of town, and after all who releases newly designed rugs that sell out within two days of their release in this highly competitive design space in the country. The young Ntloko is certainly someone to watch out for in the country as far as design is concerned.

As I arrived at the coffee shop, however I was momentarily disappointed as he was nowhere to be seen. Though I had not met the young designer before, I somehow, without asking, figured it out that he could not possibly be among the people I found busy working on their laptops, taking advantage of the wi-fi provided by Home of Bean. Asurveyed thr coffee and the people seated there, none of them fitted the young designer I had in my mind.

I went into inside the Arts on Main building and found a young man seated on the benches of the court yard, where there used to be a popular eatery called Maboneng Café. It is no more there, but strangely the benches are still there.

Masonwabe was the first to recognize me as he quickly stood up and introduced himself after confirming that indeed I was the person he was waiting for.

Taking advantage of the warm atmosphere provided by the afternoon sun on a rather cold day, we decided to have our interview right there on those deserted benches.

I shot straight to asking him about the spectacular sale results of his first ever rug  design, in five styles and batches of 30 each, making them 150 in total, which retailer Airloom sold within two days of the their release. The rugs which retailed between R550 and R1 700, were released on Thursday, July, 22, 2021, and by Saturday morning, something incredible had happened in the career of this young designer- all the 150 rugs were gone.

“The funny thing is that by the time the rugs reached their physical destination, one of the Airloom stores in Parkhurst, the other one being in Cape Town, they were already sold out online. The people who went there were customers that had already bought the rugs on the website of the store immediately from Thursday once they were up.

“I was not aware of what had happened, only to be told by people on social media that I was advertising for rugs that had already sold out. It is then that I found out from the store management that the rugs had sold out by Saturday as people started ordering immediately the moment they were put up on Thursday,” Masonwabe tells me in this interview.

Personally I had to do with viewing only images of rugs that had long been sold out, and it was during that process that I understood why customers rushed for these rugs. Deeply rooted in his Xhosa culture and heritage, these rugs, with each of the five design named after the artist’s family members, are a remarkable display of fine cfarstmaship.  Viewing them is not only an experience in interacting intimately with fine art, but is also akin ti intensely immersing oneself in the artist’s Xhosa cultural heritage. That heritage becomes clear the moment someone looks at these designs.

“These designs are inspired by my cultural heritage and my upbringing back in Dutywa, Eastern Cape, where I was born, grew up and went to school up to high school. I am from a nearby village called Engwane, in Willowvale, Dutywa.

“Two of the five designs are named after my maternal grandmother Nontsikelelo, the other two designs after my maternal grandfather from whom I am named. I am named Masonwabe and he is simply named Sonwabe. The other one design is entitled Mawethu, my mother, explained Masonwabe.

Talking to Masonwabe., it becomes obvious that at age 24, the young artist, who before these rugs had been designing music cover illustrations for big names in music such as Simphiwe Dana, Jimmy Dludlu, Lady Zamar and Prince Kaybee, to name but a few, is headed for big things in the design world.

“I have a design studio called Create Studio, and through this studio I get to work with recording companies that include Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony, creating illustrations for the music projects of their artists.  For me I have always had the idea that as illustrators, we limit ourselves when it comes to the scope of what we could do, and that is why I last year, as a result of advice from a friend through a WhatsAPP message, I approached Airloom with the idea of designing rugs.

“We worked together from March this year using the digital space as we have not physically met, consulting and fine tuning my designs until they were ready, deign complete and manufacturing process done by June this year,” he said.

Masonwabe who holds a diploma in Textile Design from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, when he graduated in 2019, worked as an intern for internationally lauded South African designer Laduma of MaXhosa fame for six months.

After that he launched his own business and the rest is history.

“However when I started for a year I tried different approaches that could not work, until I eventually settled on the one that is working. I have a very particular way of working with material and so far everything has been going well for me, and as a result, I have never worked for anyone to date because I launched my business immediately after university.”

And success he is achieving. For example, he could have launched the rugs series by June as they were complete, but the launch had to wait as he was busy wrapping up another successful deign project, a show for designer bags and T-shirts that he held in Randburg, Johannesburg.

‘The show titled 30 by 30, the name that is in reference to five designs series of 30 bags each and 30 T-Shirts each, a collection which I exhibited at Katz Studios in Randburg. I like working in series of 30. That show was a success, as on the opening day, a 75 % sale through was achieved, and a few days later, everything was gone,” he revealed.

And now what is next for the young designer?

“I will do one design style (of 30 rugs) in collaboration with Airloom in mid August, after which, I will work on a new range next year,” he revealed.

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