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Peter Mabeo Q&A with founder of Mabeo Furniture

My wish was to find a way of doing interesting work, in what I considered to be a meaningful way, with artisans.

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Words: Ogojiii staff

Images: Justin Polkey

INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED DESIGNER PETER MABEO has been producing custom furniture in his hometown of Gaborone, Botswana, for more than two decades.

His Studio Mabeo Furniture collaborates with local artisans to create designs in wood, textiles and basketry. He has collaborated with world-renowned designers including Patricia Urquiola, Patty Johnson, Claesson Koivisto Rune, Luca Nichetto and Scholten & Baijings.

OGOJIII: Tell us briefly about your training?

PETER MABEO: I consider myself self-taught. I also learn a great deal from those with whom I work: artisans, craftspeople, and those who command respect in the design world.

Explain your design and manufacturing process.

There are dichotomies in my thinking process. On one
hand there is craft and free thinking; on the other, there are strict design guidelines, timelines and processes. Another example of this is that of conforming to commercial norms of profit, growth and shareholder returns, while there is still inclusiveness, holistic ways of working, relationships and sustainability. These are not just words but the way in I think and work.
Is your design style particularly African?
There is a uniqueness about the beauty of African material culture and rich artistic heritage, very much so. There is, however, a universality of craft, of objects made with great care and interest, regardless of origin. I do not like to define our work stylistically. If any aesthetic pattern is sensed, I see it as more of a result than a preconceived strategic effort at creating an identity. Independent of the fact that we work with international designers, the objects we make transcend geographic and cultural divisions. It has been described as pure, essential in nature, humane. These are highly complimentary words that I appreciate.

With the focus on Africa, what does it mean to you to be an African designer?
The attention is pleasing, but it could fade. Who knows?  More important to me is that I work in a way that could help to create a better society. I do not see it as my responsibility or calling, I just find it a lot more interesting to work this way. I do not wish to ride any waves. Consistency, through working on what is interesting rather than capitalising on the attention directed at our work or at Africa, is better.

What are your biggest challenges?

Understanding how marketing, disposable culture and the insatiable demand for instant gratification and acknowledgement can drive so many people. I find it interesting and perplexing.

How many people do you employ? 

At the moment, 20 people. We would like to increase this, but we have to be practical and grow carefully.

What are your biggest markets?

So far Europe, although we have had some contracts in Botswana. We would love to do more work regionally and we are considering setting up a base in South Africa. We do not have our own store, but we are fortunate to sell through some great design stores. We also work directly with architects and designers on projects, and we are doing more limited-edition pieces for galleries.

You work mostly in wood. Which is your favourite?

There are so many different types of wood that I like. Currently we work mostly in Panga Panga, due to the familiarity we have with our supplier and the trust we have in its harvesting practices and community involvement. We are still looking into other regional species.

Do you make sure timber is sustainably sourced?

Yes, very much so. We work with a great, small concession funded by an international NGO to harvest sustainably and to benefit the local community. It is not yet commercially viable to work this way, particularly in Africa, Working with this kind of mentality creates enormous financial challenges and risk. It is, however, very important.

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