INTERVIEW: Rich Mnisi Talks About His Furniture Collection Inspired By His Great Grandmother

In South Africa (and beyond) fashion designer Rich Mnisi’s name has become synonymous with often gender-fluid garments that play between extremist and minimalist structures. Now the Johannesburg-based creative is taking his lifestyle credo into the home with his first furniture collection. Exhibited as part of Southern Guild’s current Extra Ordinary exhibition in Cape Town, Mnisi’s easy pieces impress with a language of sultry silhouettes, evocative layering, and engaging texture — and, as it turns out, a strong nod to his late great grandmother.

A portrait of Rich Mnisi by the artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni. Original image by Hayden Phipps.

Is furniture something you had always wanted to design?
It was a long-term goal, to be able to cover both fashion and homeware. But now it’s actually happening!

So how did it come to pass sooner than expected?
Julian McGowan, co-founder of Southern Guild, has a vision to develop a new generation of furniture designers in South Africa. He felt that I’d be capable of going from fashion into furniture seamlessly because of my silhouettes and fabric choices.

Was he correct? Was it an easy transition?
It was very fluid. I had first designed this huge circular couch, stool and table. Julian and his partner Trevyn liked it but they thought it was too resolved. So we started going through all my previous fashion work, picking up on shapes and textures. After that it was simpler. In the beginning I had looked at it as “furniture is furniture,” but the open-minded approach was so much better.

You mean the free-form approach of bringing through the Rich Mnisi fashion aesthetic?
Yes, because at first I tried to solve it from a furniture level, like something I’d seen in a furniture store — of course with a little flair — with a back rest and everything, and nothing to play around with. You wouldn’t know it had been designed by me, whereas you can now really tell these pieces are mine. In the same way that me making clothes stems from working with a body, this furniture, comes from working with a body, too, essentially. So that relationship really made it much easier.

And you managed to fit these two furniture pieces into an overall storyline that references your great grandmother.

Yes, both the chaise and stool are inspired by her, and named after her: Nwa-Mulamula. The chaise is her body lying on the ground. But because of the many connotations, Julian and I decided to make it a genderless figure. So it’s a guardian — male or female — my guardian, your guardian; anyone who impacted your life and taught you invaluable lessons. 

And the gender-fluidity of it fits with your approach to clothing.

Absolutely. It all just extends the brand, which is perfect. Then there’s the stool that is shaped like an eye with bronze panels falling onto the ground like tears, illustrating that my great grandmother’s tears were not in vain. They gave so much to generations that were still to come.

 Nwa Mulamula's Tears Stool by Rich Mnisi. Image by Hayden Phipps.

Did you know your great grandmother that well?
No, I didn’t know her at all. That’s why I wanted to create this collection to honour her. My grandmother, mother, and aunt would speak fondly of her and the things she had taught them. So I created ideas about what type of woman she was, and produced a fashion collection with very mature silhouettes, but with colors that were playful and colorful to represent the joy that she had given and the teaching that she had passed down.

What teachings were these?
Some are basic myths like you can’t cut your nails at night [Laughs].

Why? What would happen?
Well, in my family, or in blackness in general, you’re always told not to ask why. You just have to accept it. So I actually don’t even know why [Laughs]. Like, also, you can’t pass on salt. You have to put it down on the table. So there are superstitions like that and then general lessons like “be good, treat people properly, be strong.” When you’re grown up, you see how important all these little teachings are, and this is all a celebration of that.

Nwa-Mulamula's Chaise by Rich Mnisi. Image by Hayden Phipps.

What’s your own personal relationship with furniture?
I’m very big on my home décor and am very particular about every single piece in the house, especially since I moved out of my mother’s place. It’s given me the chance to fully express myself. My lounge is color coordinated in navy, with a velvet navy Chesterfield and a navy rug and a beautiful old TV stand. It’s very considered.

What are you busy with now that these furniture pieces have been realized?
I’m working on my new fashion collection Nwa-Mulamula: Mother, which is being launched in the first week of March at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia, and a video to go with that whole collection, which will include the furniture and runway collection.

Your furniture is sold as collectible, limited edition pieces. Are there any plans for a more commercial range?
For now I want to keep it very niche, so this collectible situation works perfectly for me. But trust me, this is just the beginning. 

Interview by Tracy Lynn Chemaly.

Portrait by artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni for PIN–UP.