Porky Hefer, described as a “design maverick” and a “pioneer designer”, won the Best New Private House category in the 2019 Wallpaper Design Awards for his dwelling, The Nest, situated in the Tsaris Conservancy in Namibia. LUCINDA JOLLY finds out more.
For the Endangered collection that went on exhibition at Design Miami Basel in 2019, he was commissioned by Southern Guild and SFA Advisory in New York to feature endangered species.
He was given free reign to choose the particular creatures. Made from eco-friendly and recycled materials, he constructed five, in keeping with his signature style.
These included the blue whale, the largest creature in the world, dedicated his mother for her influence on his life, and the orangutan, the largest and most expensive to make in a series in honour of his wife.
On the surface, Hefer’s creatures are cute and cuddly, but engender a deep pathos in those who interact with them. His orangutan immediately brings to mind a video clip of the real Borneo orangutan confronting a habitat destroying bulldozer. While it was rescued, it is estimated that over the last 20 years 55% of the orangutan’s natural environment has been destroyed.
One of the creatures in this collection is a polar bear. It references the interaction Hefer had with a polar bear skin, complete with head, as a child in Germany and the strong impact it left on him. Like Hefer’s nests, pods and cocoons Endangered are immersive pieces, in this case the idea that its actually “animals holding us”, referencing humans ecologically destructiveness.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the collection was donated to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which funds conservation efforts that protect wildlife from extinction.
Many know Hefer, who describes himself as an ideas man, for the ideas he appropriated from the Weaver bird – the only knot tying bird. These woven suspended nests are found in gardens and parks, from the well-heeled Babylonstoren to the public Company’s Garden.
Begun in 2009, Hefer’s nests shifted from roof suspensions, to floors and then walls. The latest are inspired by the mud dauber wasp. Here he returns to his woven, cane constructions.
In this case sleeping pod, through whose permeable walls one can both communicate and yet retain privacy. Reminiscent of childhood bunks, they can be stacked up a wall, one on top of the other.
While Porky Hefer is anti-trends, there are those who he admires, who provide useful gauges when trying understand his creative mindset.
For starters there is Buckminster Fuller, the 20th century American inventor and visionary who aged three was given peas and sticks by his teacher to construct a house. While the other children resorted to schematic houses of childhood, Fuller created the trusses with which to build an actual house.
Vision, ideas and designing ability
Porky Hefer is also an admirer of the contemporary Mexican organic architect Javier Senosiain, for pushing the boundaries of materials, and Bruce Goff for his sunken lounge invention which features in The Nest.
I show an Ovambo student from my college some photographs of The Nest near Sossus in Namibia, thinking she will be impressed and interested.
She looks at them and then at back at me as if wondering what the big deal is. Her response is “we already have been doing this”. She’s right and Hefer would agree with her. For Hefer is an advocator and institutor of vernacular architecture with its focus on indigenous and traditional designs and constructions often involving weaving and thatching and material that is readily available from the environment.
He views contemporary architecture as having “lost its sense of place”, believing that it should last only as long as it’s necessary – as demonstrated by vernacular constructions. So often he explains that architects design from afar and are driven by cost per square meter, resulting in a disconnect between the place of original plan and its execution in another place.
These endemic architectural beliefs and design approaches come together in his first dwelling, The Nest inspired by the sociable weaver birds known for their huge communal nests. From an aerial view the house looks as if some great desert sky god has nonchalantly tossed down a soft, supple hide from up high which got caught over a supportive framework on its way down. Closer up however this perspective shifts totally.
The luxury four bedroomed dwelling owned by property developer Swen Bachran, which took eight years to complete, seems to grow out from the desert and its stony surrounding ‘koppies’ gathering tawny eland or lion pelt colours from its surroundings.
The low thatched roof seems to drip like wild honey onto low receiving walls of small stones. Up close the walls lose their aerial smoothness and assume the texture of the newly and closely shaved pelt of some giant beast.
The placing of The Nest was driven by the Namibian forestry law that protects the Camel thorn trees from being tampered with. The site had to take into consideration the growth pattern of these slow growing trees.
Emphasis is the organic and much like Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophist structures, there isn’t a straight architectural line in sight. Windows are portholes onto the desert, walls undulate, deep decks hold and overhangs curve protectively against the strong Namib light.
The central sunken lounge, which “pulls everyone together”, is a homage to both architect Bruce Goff and the sociable weavers. Hefer explains that the social weavers nests provide optimum cooling and heating systems through both their construction and material. The shape of the nest, he continues, encourages the eggs to roll to the bottom of the nest so that the mother bird won’t miss it, enabling her to sit on it squarely so that her heat will be evenly distributed.
But while Hefer has the vision and designing ability, without craftspeople’s supportive skills – the cane weavers from Cape Town Society for the Blind, his vision would remain just that.
The Endangered collection was produced by other craft groups and artisans in Cape Town – all of which employ previously disadvantaged women from local townships who are able to do a lot of their work from home. They were Mielie, Heartworks and Ronel Jordaan Textile Studio, who worked with eco-friendly and recycled materials. They all work very closely with Porky, to adapt and evolve their crafting techniques to create the massive artworks – which required a lot of creative problem-solving, construction, working in news ways.
He gives an example of the learning that can happen on both sides. After working with a particular weaver for six years the penny dropped. As if to give the insight the gravity it deserved, he delivered a ‘taai klap’ to the back of Hefer’s head.
Hefer is the only South African designer to have work in the form of Fiona Blackfish from the Monstera Deliciosa series, which was purchased for permanent collection by an Australian national gallery, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.