South African design collective Always Welcome on bringing beautiful local ideas to life.
Garreth van Niekerk and Alan Hayward, co-founders and directors of the South African design store, Always Welcome, are partners in life and business.
Van Niekerk was a design journalist for a decade, while Hayward has a musical background and began an interior design business in soft furnishings five years ago. They realized the two worlds could meet – design and design storytelling.
“We’ve spent so much of our lives working apart that it’s really been a dream since we started dating to work together. So much as it’s a business, it’s our little love project as well,” says van Niekerk to FORBES AFRICA.
During Covid, the design industry was hit hard, and designers needed a way to access new markets. There was so much uncertainty, and the risk was too high for people to start their own retail stores, van Niekerk explains.
A few designers approached them about starting a collective retail store, taking the risk off individual studios, but also allowing them to step away from aspects of the business they didn’t want to do.
“Our rule at Always Welcome is everybody has to be a designer manufacturer, so they have to design and make their own stuff. And so for them, that’s their focus – retail is a whole other beast.”
They came up with a cost-splitting model, starting with eight people, for a store at Hyde Park Corner, a shopping center in an upmarket suburb in Sandton. At that stage, the mall was full of empty shops, so they proposed using collective resources to market the store – and it worked.
While they operated the Hyde Park store, they met a fan of South African design, Maurice van Heerden, the owner of Planetworld, a provider of bespoke home and auto audio solutions. Planetworld wanted to connect their products; home tech, such as smart home automation, speakers, audio and TVs for South African clients.
With this partnership, they moved to Viewing Rooms in Kramerville. With a client base that is very similar, but also dissimilar, they managed to cross-pollinate and bring the two worlds together in 2022, with over 30 designers in-store.
“The power of this collective is that it’s designed for designers, by designers. So the model has been facilitated by designers to make sure that it works for their businesses. That’s why it has been received so well – everybody has a vested interest in making it work.”
Designers can come to one place instead of many and he adds that the industry needs it just as much as the designers do.
“It’s become like its own little world, almost, where you can kind of get a sense of what the temperature is of design.”
The demand from Cape Town became overwhelming – with moving products to the Mother City and managing sales, they knew they had to begin a store there. The search for a suitable spot took months.
By chance they met an entrepreneur and philanthropist who had spent two years restoring a 300-year-old building and provincial heritage site in Cape Town.
The building is founded by Victoria Engelhorn, Tim Harris and Brad Armitage – and the store is one of the Habitus ‘lighthouse’ initiatives intended to restore the inner-city’s social, commercial, creative and integrated work environments to pre-pandemic days.
The Always Welcome Heritage House launched in November in Cape Town, spanning two floors of the building and encompassing 40 of southern Africa’s designers-manufacturers.
The launch has been a marked success.
Van Niekerk says it’s a different vibe to Johannesburg’s Viewing Rooms; an old building with abundant walls, there’s space for a lot more art, and it feels more like a house.
“It’s a completely different customer; people seem to be looking for bigger things, pieces must be bigger, the design must be more outlandish than the things we presented. It’s been interesting…to open up to completely different markets.”
In terms of the foundation of temporary South African design, the big names in the store include Dokter and Missus, Houtlander, and Haldane as a few examples. Van Niekerk says there’s also newer studios that are coming up like MashT Studio – one of the founders’ designs has just been acquired by the Louvre Museum. The Urbanative is another black female designer who is changing the game, he adds.
Always Welcome’s approach is to make sure that the manufacturers have the capacity to supply a 100 chairs if a customer orders it.
“Organizationally, we are too small of a business to be able to facilitate the growth of another company while we’re trying to build our own. So we’ve tried to stay away from development up until now, until we’ve got a partner who can help us do that.”
On November 24, they launched a partnership with the clothing brand H&M.
He says that it’s been great to work with such a big corporate company, and get exposure to a wider audience.
Photographer Trevor Stuurman was putting up his photography prints in their Hyde Park store. In the Viewing Rooms in Kramerville, they worked with him on two listening pods, where he designed textiles and wallpapers, an immersive visual and musical experience of diametrical opposites – one room is warm colors and the other is cool.
Stuurman collaborated with Dokter and Missus on two pieces of furniture, and his first rug with MONN Carpets. It’s evolved from pictures on a wall to working with other designers in the collective – a modus operandi with Always Welcome.
Usually people would be in competition with each other, but in this collective, designers get to share information about manufacturing or work together on ideas to bring them to life.
Big brands are coming to Always Welcome to collaborate – one of them is the American Hardwood Export Council, a state-funded organization. American Hardwood is one of the most sustainable hardwoods in the world, and van Niekerk says when they arrive in South Africa, they are carbon negative.
After they approached Always Welcome, the collective made a project called Future Heirlooms. It involved seven local designers who had never worked with this wood before, giving them an open brief responding to sustainability and heritage. Houtlander manufactured the pieces. With the combination of design, a corporation and curation, seven spectacular pieces were realized, van Niekerk says.
They are setting up partnerships to expand opportunities for designers from across the continent, and for designers in southern Africa to start working with their counterparts across Africa and the diaspora.
When van Niekerk and Hayward have time, they walk their Pomeranians named Hercules and Leonardo down the promenade at sunset. Johannesburg has their hearts though, so you can expect to
see them back in the city of gold soon. But wherever they are, they’ll be getting designers together, highlighting the best of local creations.
Editor’s Note: Updated 30 December 2022-This article has been slightly modified from the original to correct certain factual inaccuracies. We regret the error.