An interview with Trevyn and Julian McGowan from ground-breaking design gallery Southern Guild

All Eyes on Africa

If your fingers are on the pulse of the wild and exuberant beast that is the international design scene, then you know that African design is on the rise. Not only are we outside of the continent finally getting to see more of the rich and aesthetically varied traditional craft that African artisans have been producing for generations, but we're also catching glimpses of the new, avant garde African design movement that's brewing. And right at the forefront of this evolving design revolution is the South African couple Trevyn and Julian McGowan, co-founders of the design gallery and all-around African design tour-de-force, Southern Guild. Ahead of their much anticipated installation at Design Miami next week, we caught up with Trevyn and Julian to get some insights into their approach to southern African design curating and collecting.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Southern Guild remains the only gallery of its kind in South Africa—representing locally made collectible design—proving just how ahead of its time the project really was. “The recent surge in interest in African design doesn’t surprise us,” say the McGowans. “People are hungry for authenticity, a human connection, and a deeper story in the things that they surround themselves with." The husband and wife team recognise that they represent something new to the more established design world. “Our sense of form, our handmade manipulation of everyday materials, the way nature and landscape permeate everything we do all stand in contrast to Europe’s more resolved, industrialized approach to design.”

Now located in the über-hip Silo District on the harbour in Cape Town, right next to the gob-smacking Thomas Heatherwick building housing the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), Southern Guild's chic showroom hosts curated exhibitions of southern African artists and designers—the revelatory work of textile artist and sculptor Athi-Patra Ruga being amongst this writer’s favourites. The gallery’s mission is to encourage “the creation of multifaceted work that gives vivid form and substance to the narrative of an African renaissance,” and, indeed, its aesthetic rigor has successfully launched numerous international careers for its local makers, whilst also being a driving force in introducing the wider market to African design that has flown beneath the radar for too long.

Jill Bokor, executive director of The Salon Art + Design in New York where Southern Guild had a debut showing in early November, reports being “impressed by the breadth and diversity of [the gallery’s] designers and… their uncommon use of colors, materials, and form.” And she isn’t alone. Names like Mabeo, Adam Hoets, and Madoda Fani are on the lips of many a design aficionado these days, even though they were relatively unknown in Europe and North America but a few years ago. Southern Guild became the first African gallery to present at Design Miami in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength ever since. At this year’s Design Miami Basel, the gallery celebrated a sell-out booth dedicated to the work of designer Porky Hefer—and they’re following that success with a presentation at Design Miami of four of Hefer’s cocoon-like seating environments alongside additional pieces by rising stars on the African design scene.

As hyperbolic as it might sound, it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact Trevyn and Julian McGowan have had on the international perception of African design. Behind that out-sized legacy is an even bigger passion for what they do. "We work with the designers we do—talents like Andile Dyalvane, Dokter and Misses, Justine Mahoney, Porky Hefer, and Atang Tshikare—because their work is unlike anything else in the world; the issues they are dealing with are provocative and stimulating. Their work has a fresh relevance, but at the same time feels iconic,” Trevyn explains. Such is the McGowans’ passion, in fact, that it goes far beyond work and has joyously saturated every aspect of their lives. Their stunning home in Cape Town is full to the brim with African art and design; for them, there is no distinction between collecting for the gallery and for their private collections. “They both flow from the same impulse of wanting to be thrilled and challenged by what we see; the result takes shape through a slow and steady accumulation of work,” Julian says. Trevyn adds, “We never tire of the pieces we are surrounded by at home and in the gallery, because for us the work epitomizes the most exciting design we know.”

The McGowans have been collecting for over three decades; enough time to amass an impressive and eclectic collection of contemporary and vintage furniture, inherited and acquired interior accessories, and a whole lot of eye-catching design objects, all whilst learning some valuable lessons along the way. “With the exception of the antiques, we know every person who made each piece. Every object has a narrative and a memory behind it,” muses Julian. His advice to younger collectors? “Be authentic—go after things you love and don’t feel you have to stick to just one period or theme or look. If you care about these things, you will naturally go after things that work together, but don’t get caught up worrying about that. Keep it as personal as you can.” As for Trevyn, she advocates buying work “that has a narrative you connect with. Sometimes your feelings about a work can be complicated—you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same time—and often that can bring more longevity in the work.” Eschewing the surface satisfaction of simpler aesthetics, Trevyn encourages collectors to “look for pieces that are challenging rather than just pretty or attractive.” We couldn’t agree more; work that goes beyond a momentary pleasure to truly spark new thoughts and even the occasional life-changing epiphany is what the best of the design world is all about.


And in case you were looking for a few hot tips from one of the most exciting design markets around the globe, well, we’re thrilled to bring you a hand-picked list of three of the pieces that the McGowan’s are most enamored with at the moment.


James Brown by Porky Hefer

“The whole family can fit inside and on top of this incredible cocooning and humorous piece—a place for lounging, reading, playing, climbing, swinging, or sleeping,” enthuses Julian. You'll find this piece in Southern Guild’s booth at Design Miami!


D3 Haywire Chandelier by David Krynauw

"This graphic, ridged version of David’s iconic Haywire Chandelier strikes a chord that feels both African and contemporary. The original design is one of our most sought-after pieces,” says Trevyn.


Extra Terrestrial Table by sculptor-designer Stanislaw Trzebinski

Representing a shift towards otherworldly, organic forms in his work, this piece impresses the McGowans with the balance it strikes between the ancient and the futuristic, as well as the diversity of scale, form, and shape that Trzebinski’s fresh works are demonstrating. “This would be a very exciting time to acquire Stanislaw’s work—the early phase that’s triggering a new direction,” they advise. You heard it here first!


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