Porky Hefer is a Cape Town-based designer of chairs, homes and hanging pods. His work is eye-catching for its sense of fun but addresses bigger themes such as the environment, use of local materials and our relationship with everyday objects.
He spent 16 years working in advertising before setting up a creative consultancy in 2007 and then his agency Porky Hefer Design in 2011. In 2010, he was named Elle Décor’s Designer of the Year and was given South Africa’s Southern Guild Foundation Icon Award in 2013. His most recent project is a series of oversized beanbags, using solely sustainable materials, in the shapes of endangered animals.
What made you give up your career in advertising to focus on creative design?
I realised that advertising was no longer about having the best product. It was just about having the best advertising. In advertising, you have something called “File 13”: all the ideas that you think are great but the client said no to. I looked back through mine and realised I was good at coming up with ideas but not for clients’ briefs.
The first products I made were my wooden shades. It was when LEDs came out and everyone said you had to buy them otherwise you would kill the earth. They emit less heat — hence wooden shades.
How did you come to focus on, and champion, local processes?
Everyone thinks of Africa as this third world place, but we get by with very little. We have hands, we have artisans and we have a DNA of people being crafty. I tried to make products faster and cheaper but realised I needed to invest in heavy technology and machinery to do it. In order to try something, I would make it by hand, which is hard to translate for machinery anyway. I realised we have generations of creative and artisanal DNA in Cape Town, so I decided to explore that instead.
How would you characterise your style?
Childish. I’m a base kind of human that responds to base feelings like happiness and sadness. At Art Basel, stuck-up people saw my work and turned into children, smiling and running and jumping. I want people to feel immediately happy.
Name your top three influences
[American architect] Buckminster Fuller, who popularised the geodesic dome. He was a genius about feeling and a firm believer, after the second world war, in using all the systems and materials that had been invented for war [for civilian projects afterwards]: work with what you have.
The Italian Radical Design movement, an irreverent school of designers [from] the late 1960s.
And nature. There are so many complex relationships in it and animals are the ultimate in sustainable design.
What has been your favourite project?
My favourite is usually my next job. The Namibian nest project [a stone and thatch house Hefer is currently building] is the best latest expression of what I do. The inside is cool during the day but keeps the heat at night and is created using vernacular and sustainable design. I want to keep doing bigger structures like that.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing us now, and how can it be countered through design?
Waste. Mass-manufactured, globalised products and feeding foreign economies rather than local ones. Globalisation means we just have a sea of the same. The reason for my human nests is that I’m fascinated by birds (my father always made us look at them) but also vernacular architecture. I worked with the materials that are from the surrounding space. I didn’t go beyond the line a bird would fly to find materials and I think that’s important.
Who would you want to design a chair for you?
Franco Audrito, who was a leader in the Italian Radical Design movement. You might know the chair he did in the shape of lips. There’s a famous picture of him sitting on a chair that was 20 times too big for him. He looks like a little child. I think we’re in a similar vein.
Is there anyone in your field that you particularly admire?
Javier Senosiain, an amazing architect from Mexico. His work is incredible and organic. He works with the earth rather than trying to dominate it. It’s like Gaudí on acid.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
A Jacuzzi — just because of the idea of it and those horrible 1970s parties.
What has been your strangest project?
I used to make wooden crates with words machined on to the sides. The words were the whole concept. An interior designer phoned and had a request from a client: would I do three crates with his logo on the sides rather than the words? I said no but the designer phoned me back a couple of days later and said she has another request from her client. Could I do three boxes, one with “F**K”, one with “YOU” and one with “PORKY” on?
I calmly asked the designer the name of her client. “Derek,” she said. “Please thank Derek for his request, but I am not prepared to produce it,” I said. “I will, on the other hand, be willing to do three boxes, with ‘F**K’, ‘YOU’ and ‘DEREK’ on. And the price is now double.” The designer phoned me back a couple of days later and said yes.
What do you start with when designing a piece?
A context. If it’s a private commission, it is the space it will occupy and the person or people that will occupy it. Then the house it will be inside, then the street that it is on, the suburb that it’s in, the city, and so on. But when it comes to the actual design, it always starts with sketching. I can’t use a 3D program of any kind, so I have to rely on my hand.
Do you feel design should always have a sense of fun?
Fun is my way of attracting people to my work in the first place. It’s my lure, my plumage. Of course, design needs to be functional and practical, but you have to want to use it in the first place.
Why do you think it is so important to work with your hands?
The results are so original. It is a direct transferral of your energy. The work has life.
What do you see as the overriding trend in your field at the moment (even if you don’t subscribe to it)?
Robots. Where are they going to get us? We’re designing ourselves out of the system. It is amazing how the world is changing so quickly from being an organic space.
Photographs: Southern Guild; SFA Advisory; Adriaan Louw; Rudi Geyser; Antonia Steyn; Nico Krijno; Justin Polkey; nest@sossus; Katinka Bester; Tao Farren-Hefer