Dokter and Misses, Furniture and Fashion Designers

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.