Business Day: Haldane Martin – Entrepreneurial Force
Internationally acclaimed design whizz Haldane Martin is adding a French cafe to his collection of distinctive commercial interiors.
WORDS: Hilary Prendini Toffoli
The Renaissance ladies whose graceful naked bodies will next month adorn the walls of Swan Cafe when it opens in Cape Town’s Buitenkant Street are on a different stretch of design turf from the macho steampunk vibe of Truth Coffee bar opposite. Yet both interiors spring from the inventive brain of the same versatile design whizz, Haldane Martin. Swan Cafe is the new French creperie of Jessica Rushmere (originator of the popular La Petite Tarte in De Waterkant). Serving crepes and canapes, it promises to be elegantly soft-edged and alluring. Truth doesn’t. It’s deliberately Mad Max and heavy metal. A moody coffee bar that became a tourist attraction after it was voted the best coffee bar in the world following its launch seven years ago at the start of the industrial chic boom.
Still hugely popular, Truth was the Cape Tech-trained industrial designer’s first venture into interior design. It set him on a new path. What he had previously made his name with over the years was furniture. His uniquely South African pieces – like his Songololo sofa and his multi-award-winning Zulu Mama basket chair (woven by first Limpopo women, then Khayelitsha women from recycled plastic) – had been exhibited abroad to general acclaim. Now his design talents were themselves being recycled, and the chairs became a sideline. “The furniture business is small. With Chinese imports it became incredibly competitive” he says. “Interiors were the obvious way to go. More lucrative but still using our design skills to produce each separate element of a designed interior. A more fluid process. It’s about understanding the client’s identity, and in the case of the hospitality arena creating an experience.” The experience he created in Urbanologi restaurant in a historic old warehouse in downtown Johannesburg’s Mad Giant Brewery won him an international award last year. At London’s globally recognised Restaurant and Bar Design Awards, Urbanologi was voted Best Restaurant Design in the Middle East and Africa. What makes this huge space unusual is the playful spin Haldane and his team put on the Mad Giant ethos. An eight-metre laser-cut steel yeti looms over a huge bottle-cap-shaped bar. Exterior tables and benches jokily evoke giant Meccano toys. Monumental portrait graffiti by Justin Nomad light up the walls.
Haldane hopes the overseas interest will be a gamechanger for him. He’s just returned from meeting potential clients in Paris and the UK, including the owners of an eco hotel outside London, but says whatever happens he will remain locally based. “Fee-wise we can do a lot more than designers overseas. For the amount of creativity we put into our designs it would be great to be appropriately remunerated.”
Now 47, he’s racked up an impressive local collection of maverick commercial interiors since his Truth days. Latest is Kunjani’s Afro-Euro winelands tasting room, a postmodern Stellenbosch landmark. Hi-tech metal work contrasts with screens inspired by African geometrics. Colours are bold. A variety of contemporary one-off furniture pieces are offset by a latte-look slatted-wood farmhouse ceiling.
Though known for his uniquely hybrid South African design style, Haldane says the proof that he’s not attached to it – “I get bored quite easily” – are interiors like the light and bright streamlined spaces he and his team came up with for example for the skin care company Environ. “The brand is big in the global market so we created a glamorous environment for its overseas agents. Organic shapes. Shelves patterned like skin cells. Lights that are molecular. A sculptural counter in the showroom. It’s a corporate space that’s fresh and feminine.”
For the offices of Bos Iced Tea he kept the red and yellow of the bold packaging which he says is the secret of the brand’s success, and made lively lamps out of Bos bottles. In Dubai he’s doing an art deco coffee stand with a perforated aluminium screen like the one that won him a prize 37 years ago on the Style magazine Design Awards.
How soft-edged do you believe businesses can go in their office spaces?
We’re doing an office for a fruit export business in a Victorian house on Paarl’s historical mile that is very in keeping with the trend towards holistic corporate environments. We took the original floral wallpaper and created bold contemporary patterned wallpapers based on still lifes by Old Masters. Silk flowers decorate one of the ceilings.
Which creative companies do you use?
Robin Sprong for wallpaper. James Mudge and Laurie Wiid for bespoke pieces of furniture. Pedersen & Lennard and Dokter & Misses. Mervyn Gers for ceramics (the client chose this).
What’s your staff component?
Two young interior designers work with me and we bring in freelancers. We limit ourselves to about 10 projects a year. First we research the images for concept insight. Then we get client feedback. Next step we refine it. We go through stages step by step. Finally it’s a collaborative process that we keep tweaking until it’s perfect.
How do you handle budget limitations?
There’s a line you can’t go below, but using basic materials like bricks, concrete and pine plywood we can do projects that don’t cost the earth. We’re currently pitching for a low-cost Cape Town ribs restaurant.
What new interior design trends do you see?
Only micro trends that come and go quickly because they’re all on Pinterest. People get it, then get tired of it.