ICON magazine interviews Haldane Martin


ICON Magazine interviews Haldane Martin in their January 2018 edition about his latest furniture ranges, approach to interior design and thoughts on the South African design landscape. Read the full, unedited interview below or view the PDF.

What are you exhibiting at Design Joburg this year?

At Design Joburg 2018 we will be focussing on our most recent chair collections. The two ranges we are currently working on are the Sim-ply collection and the Champagne chair collection. What’s interesting about both of these is that they are born out of interior design projects that we are working on. They have been designed to fit a real-life context which makes them good chairs – we’ve designed them out of a real demand from a commercial environment with a lot of specific criteria. We have needed a chair that is durable, comfortable, well-designed, economical and high-quality, and in both cases have opted to design something ourselves.


Aimed at interior designers and the hospitality market, the new range offers high-quality, environmentally conscious South African design at affordable price points. The Sim-ply collection includes a dining chair, a lounge chair with arms, and a barstool. The Sim-ply collection name is derived from the simple curved plywood seats, backs and arms. The collection is visually distinctive for its simple rounded forms, cute proportions, friendly finishes and an unusually wide backrest that hugs the sitter. A range of café tables, dining tables, coffee tables and side tables with similar rounded forms and materials will be added to the Sim-ply collection shortly.

Various customised combinations of plywood and padded seats, backs and arms can be created. Made from durable, long-lasting materials, the chairs have solid hardwood legs and frame, with seats and backrests made from birch plywood.

These chairs are particularly environmentally conscious as they use birch plywood with zero formaldehyde – which is great because up until a couple of years ago plywood in South Africa was full of formaldehyde. And being timber it’s a renewable resource that doesn’t take much energy to produce and process.


My latest chair collection is inspired by Bentwood furniture of the 1920s but it’s made from steel and timber. It’s a collection of cafe bistro chairs. We are currently working on a new French creperie in Cape Town that we are designing called Swan Cafe. We’ve designed a range of chairs for Swan called the Champagne Chairs. They look a little bit like the chairs people make with champagne cork wire and they have a French bistro chair aesthetic. There’s a whole collection – some have backs and arms, some are stools. These will be launched at Swan and then will be added to our commercial collection for hospitality and residential. They are made from laser-cut steel frame and CNC-machined hardwood timber, and they’re very simple and geometric – there are a lot of circles, tapered legs and so on. They are also three-legged which is unusual, with a round ring at the bottom of the legs to create stability. These will come in all different colours, with beech timber and steel – either left raw or powdercoated red, black or white, and the wood can also be left raw or stained dark.

How has the design language and economic landscape changed in South Africa since you launched in 2002?

The economic landscape has changed the most, especially as a furniture designer we really have felt the impact of the Chinese copies being imported to South Africa. That’s made furniture design that much harder, mainly because people’s perception of price points is far lower than it used to be. Because of that I have had to adapt with my recent furniture collections which are more value-oriented than before. I’m still not as cheap, because they’re much nicer, but I’m not as expensive as I used to be. Where I do compete is with bespoke finishes which we can offer – from upholstery to wood finishes to metal powdercoating – which the Chinese knockoffs can’t do to nearly the same extent.

The design language of our own furniture is certainly less Afrocentric. Back in 2002 we will still very affected by the post-1994 optimism of South Africa’s new democracy, which has since become a little bit jaded. Since Zuma’s administration much of this naivety has evaporated and been replaced with a more pragmatic desire to make a positive difference to South Africa’s economy through commercial interior design. I have taken my sensitivity to identity and skill to manifest this through objects and spaces and applied these to helping innovative businesses deepen their own sense of identity and purpose in the marketplace and express it through interior design.

The other thing that has changed is the influence of globalism in the online space, in particular through tools like Pinterest. We’re suddenly seeing trends emerge, get disseminated, get understood, get adopted and then people getting tired of them much, much quicker. So trends can literally last a few months at the most. Everyone is instantly trendy and it’s becoming much harder for designers to lead because their clients are seeing all the latest design trends on the internet as they happen. Because of the internet everyone is far more design savvy than they were in 2002. Designers don’t have the same thought leadership position that they once had. Back in 2002 we were innovative because we had a website! How we have adapted to that is we are not madly trying to pursue trends, but we are designing interiors that are very much driven by the client and their brand identity, location context, and the design concept that emerges from our work with them. We create a look and feel that resonates with that and our chairs are also now by-products of that process.

Out of this, the Sim-ply chair is a lovely wooden chair that is a comfortable dining chair and the Champagne chairs are really little robust cafe chairs and stools that are simple and reference an old bistro chair classic. Both of these are made using extensive CNC technology which allows us to do small-batch production cost-effectively and the finishes are very bespoke.

How would you characterize the difference between the design scene in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where you’re based?

Design and creativity is far more established in Cape Town and deeply part of the culture. In Joburg it feels like the design and creativity culture is much newer but also therefore fresher – but possibly not as experienced, particularly in terms of young furniture designers and emerging designer-makers (as opposed to older industries like advertising or architecture). The inner-city design scene in Joburg is very exciting… the suburbs you can keep! But it’s a very exciting time to be in inner-city Johannesburg.

How has your background in product design influence your more recent interiors work?

We are very fluent in many manufacturing processes, a lot more so than your average interior designer and also we are a lot more proficient at 3D-modelling and going from a CAD design to computer-aided manufacturing than your average interior designer. Because of those two things we are able to push boundaries on what we can make for interiors, and we end up doing a lot more bespoke elements; for example, on Mad Giant the concrete bars are 3D-modelled, we assisted the manufacturer in creating the moulds that could actually make each panel and the way they joined them together – it was much more of a product design thinking process rather than an interior or architecture approach. And we are generally a lot more detail oriented in our drawings so we get a better result from our shop fitters and there’s much more accuracy in translating our initial design render to the final product.

Our approach to interior design is all about seeking a single good concept and execute that in the interior, rather than a collage approach to interior design. To generalise, most interior designers practise a collage approach – looking at floors, walls, ceilings, different colours, etc and then furniture on top of that – whereas we create a whole that is one single concept. It’s all about a holistic, high-concept design.

What (and who) are you excited about in South African design right now?

I’m excited about the fact that the guys who have been around for a while – like Gregor Jenkin, Laurie Wiid, James Mudge, Dokter and Misses and Pedersen + Lennard – have really shifted to another level. So it’s not this constant new generation of young designers that come up and disappear into corporate design, but there are those who started about 10 or more years ago that are really becoming well-established brands that have very distinctive identities and make excellent furniture.