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Charl van Heerden from Uniqwa talks to domu

Posted on 11 June 2016

Uniqwa Furniture is a supplier of designer furniture inspired by nature and ethnic culture that fits into contemporary environments.  With this, they use recycled and plantation woods predominately their range. Being eco friendly and sustainably responsible is part of their core attributes.

Uniqwa as the name describes is uniqueness with a difference. A strong but not predominant African flavour, which can be interpreted by its tribal nature. It is about simplicity and function combined with art that makes us who we are. It is organic, earthy and naturally modern.

Founder of Uniqwa Furniture, Charl van Heerden was born in South Africa, but studied Furniture Design & Technology at RMIT in Melbourne and we find out a little more about his background and process in this weeks designer interview.

You can check out the Uniqwa range here.

Uniqwa Furniture

Can you recall how or why you became a designer?
The journey started for me in my high school woodwork room in South Africa where I learned the art of working with wood. We had a very strict woodwork teacher who would not accept less than perfect workmanship and so it was ingrained into me to understand a high level of quality from the start. I also had the privilege of growing up in Cape Town and the African culture, Cape Dutch Style Homes and use of earthy and natural materials has been a huge influence to me. My surrounding environment and how it directly makes me feel has always been evident to me so I think that this has been a very natural process to follow this pathway.

What would you say are your main influences when you design a piece?
Nature is my biggest inspiration as there is so much beauty to be appreciated. I am also very much inspired by organic form so combining these elements would be my greatest influences.

How do you choose your materials? 
There is nothing better than the natural weathering of organic materials and I try to incorporate these with modern materials to create a contrast between old and new. The new material becomes the foundation for the beauty of nature to shine. No man can truly recreate the natural weathering process and I consider these to be the real works of art.

Hamali Block Coffee Table

Do you work in a sustainable way? Explain. 
This is very important to us and do our best to ensure that the pieces that we create are not negatively impacting the earth. We use a lot of recycled materials, by-product from other manufacturing processes, renewable materials and plantation timbers. As much as we can, the philosophy is that if left for 100 years on the bare earth, is what we are producing still going to be there or will it have mostly absorbed back into Mother Nature.

What part of the process excites you the most?

Seeing our products being used by the very talented individuals that select them to be a part of an inspiring project that they are working on. Although I do love creating beautiful spaces, I am not an interior designer so I am just as inspired by the clever combination and placement of our pieces and seeing them used in situ. I also very much enjoy connecting with likeminded people through what I do and working with and supporting these people to create these wonderful projects.

What would you say are your values and ethics when it comes to designing?
I love selecting or creating pieces that facilitate a relaxing environment or assist in softening a very over manufactured interior. It is important to understand that I do not design all of our pieces in our range but also select many existing beautiful pieces that fit our values and ethics as a business. I may also collaborate on a design and add our special Uniqwa touch to it to assist it to fit into our values and I do focus more on this collaboration a lot more these days. As we manufacture our pieces in mostly third world countries, it is also important to us that the people involved are also benefiting from the process and it is wonderful to work together and discuss ideas as well as learn about the skills and materials that they are accustomed to using. We then incorporate this back into the design.

Can you describe your process when designing a piece?
Usually this will come from an inspiration from being somewhere that inspires me, a clever Architectural design, a holiday, a walk along the beach and something catches my eye. Sometimes an idea is not always clear and it can take a couple of unique situations that merge together for the idea to come to life. It is never usually purposeful and rather an organic and natural process that unfolds, sometimes even years after the original inspiration is presented to me.

What makes you different/ unique from other designers?
I believe my background in the making process, the expectations I have of getting it right and the perseverance in the process. It is not easy to clearly communicate with some of the people that we work with in the making process so it can take time and persistence to meet the vision.

From all your pieces which is your favourite and why?
I have a special connection with our Naga range that I worked with a small team in India on. The inspiration came from the tribal art of the Naga people who live in the Northern parts of India. I saw a connection between the cultural artwork of this tribe and the African influences I grew up with and it fascinated me that primitive cultures so far from each other could have so many similarities without the ability to be influenced by one another. It was this that compelled me to create the pieces to tell the story.

What do you enjoy most about designing and making your pieces?
I love seeing other people connect with a piece. Like an inspiring piece of art that someone may put on their wall which reflects something meaningful to them, I also believe furniture can reflect the same but just used in a functional way in a person life.

Or is there a piece that inspires you that you wish you had designed?
There are many talented people in the world that design such beautiful pieces but I do not tend to study too much what other people do. I certainly take inspiration from other beautiful pieces, classic designs and the work that has already been created but I always put a unique spin on it to give it an identity aligned to what we do.

Is your home really perfectly styled, or crazy and chaotic?
It is a combination of the two! With two children running around we have probably held back on creating exactly the home environment that we would love but there is definitely a vision for how we would like it to be.

Why do you continue to do what it is you do?
It is an extension of my personality. I do not know what else I could do that I feel so passionate about.


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