There’s a lot that’s hard for Westerners to understand about Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin, the husband and wife who make up the South African furniture and fashion duo Dokter and Misses. First, there’s the fact that they hail from Johannesburg, a city whose art scene has held sway in the international market for years but whose few industrial designers are hardly household names. Then there are their references, which remain resolutely sub-equatorial: In our interview, we talked about game reserves, braais (the South African term for barbecue), a Nigerian dancehall/reggae musician named Dr. Alban, and an artist who uses the techniques of the Ndebele tribe, from the Mpumalanga region of the country. Perhaps most confounding is their name, which mixes English and Dutch honorifics and calls to mind everything from sci-fi movies to secretaries — and which the two refuse to explain. It’s lucky, then, that their work is so instantly likable and wonderfully easy to grasp: cheerful, poppy pieces of furniture with angular lines, monoprint T-shirts, and cardboard clutches, all influenced by their surroundings but exportable to the rest of the world.
The two met through a mutual friend years ago while still in school. After graduating, Hugo apprenticed with the South African designer Gregor Jenkin and Taplin was working for a magazine doing layouts. “I moved to New York for a year to do branding, and when I came back, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” says Taplin. “Adriaan and I had made a few things together — these cardboard handbags we used as press packs for South Africa’s fashion week — and Adriaan had designed some things on his own. We somehow decided that we should open a shop and produce our first collection at the same time. I came back in August of 2007, and we opened at 44 Stanley in November of that year — with no price tags or anything. I don’t know what we were thinking.”
The response at home, though, was immediate, and in the past few years, as South Africa’s stature has grown in the international community, so too has the reputation of Dokter and Misses, which now shows up regularly in design blogs and magazines around the world. They’ve also recently set up shop in Cape Town and collaborated with that city’s Whatiftheworld Gallery to open up larger digs in Braamfontein, the up-and-coming hipster area of Johannesburg, where they can host exhibitions jointly. But Hugo and Taplin aren’t in any hurry to explode the business, in part because it would be beyond their means to do so. “Industry in Joburg is quite big and old school, and there’s not a lot of high-end technology,” says Hugo. “So every single product needs to come through our workshop at some stage.” Sight Unseen caught them on a rare break, having just finished with the Cape Town opening, to chat more about the effects of industry, influences, and inspirations.
It’s hard enough to be a young American designer. The lack of government funding means that prototypes must often be self-financed, and the difficulty in working with most European manufacturers means that young design studios frequently end up handling their own production as well. Now try doing it all in Seattle, a city that’s not exactly famous for its flourishing industrial design scene. “When we started working together a few years ago, we felt really removed from the world that might be interested in what we wanted to do,” says Jamie Iacoli, one half of the Seattle-based design couple Iacoli & McAllister, who have become known over the last year or so for a pared-down industrial aesthetic that’s matched with a supreme gift for color — think wrenches powder-coated in bright magenta or wire-frame pendant lights in emergency orange or cyan. “The thing that’s weird about Seattle is that because it’s so laid back, you get people who talk and don’t do. There’s no pressure to create, in part because no one here is buying.”
Most people, if given the luxury of a third bedroom in a house they share only with a spouse, might choose to turn it into a guestroom, or a studio, or maybe a study. Kristen Lee, a stylist and co-owner of L.A.’s fashion and design emporium TenOverSix, turned hers into a walk-in closet. Step inside and you’ll discover rolling racks of designer and vintage, scarves tossed carelessly around a dress form, shoes lined up in neat little rows, a steamer in the corner, and accessories spilling out over the dresser. And yet for someone so clearly attuned to and obsessed with fashion, it’s not the clothes you first sense when you enter the Ed Fickett–designed, mid-century, Nichols Canyon home she bought last year with her husband and then “renovated the shit out of,” as she says. It’s the incredible proliferation of art. Stephen Shore, Banksy, Leopold Seyffert, Nan Goldin — and that’s just in the living room.
If you were familiar only with Uhuru’s work, it would be enough to surmise that the Brooklyn-based furniture designers are experts at creating something beautiful from practically nothing. (The formal term for this, we’re told, is up-cycling.) In the half-decade since RISD grads Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf have been designing their own line, they’ve produced chairs from Kentucky bourbon barrels, loungers from the Ipe wood planks of a demolished Coney Island boardwalk, and scrapwood stools so stylish they were recently picked to decorate the café at New York’s SANAA-designed New Museum. But while it's true Uhuru are a resourceful bunch, step into their sprawling Red Hook studio and any assumptions you might have about their bootstraps process all but disappear.