For the owner of MashT Design Studio, success is about more than making beautiful pieces – Mjo is passionate about preserving traditional skills and helping other small businesses along the way
The dynamic city of Johannesburg has proved to be a one-way highway to achieving her dreams for Mjo, a young interior designer from the Eastern Cape who’s behind MashT Design studio.
It was only two years ago that Mjo, hustling to make her name known in the industry, entered the Nando’s Hot Young Designer Talent Search competition. ‘I’d never designed a product before, but thought: “Let me give this a shot.” I wanted to get their attention,’ she says. The challenge was to create a pendant light with a South African twist that could be used in any Nando’s restaurant worldwide. Mjo’s Tutu 2.0 light was announced a winner, and she’s amazed at the knock-on effect the award’s had on her business. ‘As the prize, Nando’s ordered 50 lights for its restaurants,’ she says. ‘I can’t think of a better way for big companies to support the small guys. Thanks to them, I started operating like a proper business.’
Two years later, that same light was named Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa 2018, which gave Mjo confidence that she was on the right track. She’s spent the past two years expanding her collection, producing homeware products and establishing her impeccably styled MashT Design Studio showroom at the shared design space 99 Juta in Braamfontein. ‘Before I moved here, I’d design in a vacuum, focusing on what I thought was cool,’ she says. ‘It’s been great to interact with potential customers and get more insight into what people really want.’
Connecting with suppliers is one of Mjo’s passions and she’s always seeking partners to bring her ideas to life, such as Chandelle Lighting, a factory in Fordsburg that produces the frames and hardware for her lights. Once those elements are complete, Mjo’s designs are woven onto the frames. Much of the weaving is done by her collaborator Derrily-Lee Grater Hodgkinson, who wove the original Tutu 2.0 light, and as the business has grown, Mjo’s expanded to include female crafters from the outreach organisation Boitumelo Project in Hillbrow. ‘The best thing about being downtown is that we’re surrounded by artisans with whom we can collaborate,’ she says. ‘No matter what I design, there’s someone who can make it happen.’
Although Mjo doesn’t strive to produce a quintessentially African aesthetic, she acknowledges that it’s the inclusion of traditional skills that gives her work a local feel. ‘For me, arts and crafts and anything handmade represent luxury, and my aim is to merge these traditional production methods with forward-thinking design. I want to make them current,’ she says.
To this end, she’s committed to working with small owner-run businesses that are preserving traditional skills. For her, it’s as important to help sustain and grow the businesses with which she partners as it is her own. ‘I can’t just be designing for the sake of designing,’ she says. ‘Building a business that will change people’s lives in a meaningful way and that will out-live me – that’s my passion.’
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Text: Roberta Thatcher Photographs: Sarah De Pina Production: Sanri Pienaar