The Dish X Tonic
The Dish is a quick-firing Q&A session with creative and business heavyweights from Joburg and beyond. This month, we sit down for brunch with Philippe van der Merwe and Greg Gamble, founders of lauded interior-architectural and product design studio Tonic, and creative directors of this year's much-anticipated Design Joburg event.
Tonic celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. What aspects of your partnership has managed to sustain the business over two decades?
If we have to narrow it down to a single thing, it would be that our value sets are aligned and that we work towards a common end goal. As long we both aspire to arrive at the same result personally and professionally, we can deal with having differences of opinions along the way.
Product and interior design typically need to balance a sense of timelessness against current trends and innovation. How do you negotiate this challenge?
Design movements constantly evolve and one can’t just be immune to these changes. When we design, we always take trends into consideration so that when we launch a project, it is both current and relevant. While we are not trend-agnostic, we do strive to achieve a sense of underlying timelessness in our work that ensures it remains relevant over time.
Twenty years of consistent design output is a significant milestone. How do you maintain inspiration for the task?
Nothing refuels our inspiration more than taking breaks – even just the shortest breaks provide us with renewed energy and interesting perspectives. We also love travelling to places where we haven't been before. We don't always realise it at the time, but the things we've seen and experienced always inform what we do when we are back at our desks – it really allows us to look at design problems from a different angle.
How does your design process begin? Is it a collaborative or individual experience?
When designing furniture, we try to develop ranges that don’t feel like ranges. We aim to design products look visually interesting together, with details that are sympathetic to one another. We will typically generate and sketch our ideas independently, but then work together to bring it all together. This final stage of our process often happens quite quickly, because we have been stewing over the output for months.
In a line of work that is typically extremely challenging in terms of managing budgets, time and client expectations, how do you balance your creative and business roles?
It is a constant challenge, but our drive is certainly on the creative side. Over the years we have found that when we focus too much on making the business work on paper, it holds back our creative output. These days we surround ourselves with a team of people who make sure that our business runs smoothly, so that we can do what we do best.
What have been the most challenging aspects of running an interior-architecture practice in South Africa, especially over the past ten years?
People in general have become more design conscious, and as a consequence there has bee a shift in demand for international designer brands. Ironically, the international market covets custom-made products, while in South Africa you can commission these for a fraction of the price of an imported item. We have really had to re-educate our clients on the value of custom designed and locally manufactured products.
Your clients must have a significant impact on the success of a project. What makes the difference between a good and a great client?
Trust. It comes down to clients who know that we will deliver work that is both on brief and interesting. However, we understand that interesting work will likely represent something that a client may not have experienced before and this can be daunting for them. We also know that when an interesting product goes to market, it tends to generate a great deal of its own publicity.
As designers, you undoubtedly also collect objets, art and furniture items that inform your aesthetic and approach. What is your one most valued possession?
Greg Gamble: It’s difficult to identify any single item. I go through phases where I will obsessively collect things. I enjoy the process of interrogating and investigating objects to learn and understand their value. I have store rooms full of Ercol furniture and vintage bicycles that will probably never find their way into my home. I hope that one day, we have project where I can put some of these pieces to good use.
Phillippe van der Merwe: My interest lies more with collecting art. I enjoy finding and supporting up-and-coming artists. I prefer buying pieces from their first shows and before they get picked up by major galleries. For me, collecting art is about the thrill of finding artwork that I love. I don’t buy artwork to sell it later on. As creative partners, we’ve always been inspired by South African pottery and have built up a large collection of studio pieces over the past twenty years.
If you could give any piece of business advice to yourself when you were starting out twenty years ago, what would it be?
Greg Gamble: Take things slowly. Do exactly what you want to do and do things right. Don’t rush the process. I believe that if you remain true to this approach, whatever your business may be, it will become a success. It takes years to build up knowledge and experience, and there is no way to fast track that.
Phillippe van der Merwe: You need to understand that creating a visual library of knowledge takes years and years of experience. I will be the first to admit that there are still things that I don't know – it's a process of constant learning. The designers and architects we admire most are the ones who are still producing work well into their 80s. They are the ones who have no desire to stop working, learning or challenging themselves. That being said, there is also a benefit to being a naïve when you start out – if you know all the answers upfront, you'd probably talk yourself out of starting anything at all.