When Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel renovated its entrance it turned the hoardings around it to positive effect. First, the wooden panels were transformed into an artwork. Then, they became some of Cape Town’s smartest school desks.
The children at Vergenoeg Primary School in Vredendal, Western Cape, are beaming. Last week they were sitting on a hotchpotch of plastic chairs, cardboard boxes and even cross-legged on the floor. Today, they have silky smooth wooden desks and benches, crafted by one of Cape Town’s finest furniture designers.
But it wasn’t so long ago that these smart tables were panels of hoarding outside Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. “We were doing refurbishment work,” says the hotel’s Louise Pheiffer, “and we wanted to do something useful with the plywood. After brainstorming with our design agency, Bittersuite, we came up with the idea of turning it into furniture.”
One Billboard Fills an Entire Classroom
Andrew Hofmeyr of Bittersuite takes up the story. “Louise put us in touch with James House, an NGO they collaborate with that supports troubled children in disadvantaged communities. I discovered that, due to relying on donations, they had an odd mix of furniture. We saw an opportunity to furnish an entire classroom with just one billboard to encourage the children to take pride in their learning space.”
Before the hoarding was erected, a local street artist, Lee Herbert, was enlisted to decorate it. He depicted chairs and desks in disparate, flatpack form, creating intrigue as to what they were or would become. One panel encouraged the nurturing of a vegetable patch. “Seed bombs” – vegetable-shaped pockets of paper containing seeds - were attached to the hoarding. The seeds would eventually go to the children, so they could learn how to grow their own food.
Art Raises Awareness
For three months the eye-catching billboard masked the hotel entrance, raising awareness of the charity among guests. When the renovation works were complete, the hoarding was dispatched to renowned Cape Town furniture designer James Mudge who took on the project pro bono. James explains, “We used the plywood to make a total of 12 tables and 12 benches. We needed solid wood for the table legs and Ian Burger from Ian Fuller Agencies kindly donated this, along with table oil for finishing, donated by Pronature.
Twelve craftsmen were involved in the project, employing both traditional and new technologies – including a CNC router, a fantastic computer-controlled cutting machine.
“We’re firm believers in education and in assisting people with different advantages in life,” he continues. “In South Africa, there’s a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots, which is especially pronounced in rural areas. We hope the furniture has made a big impact on the lives of the users, not only in a functional way but hopefully as aspirational design objects as well.”
Education Drives Aspiration
James House, established in the Hout Bay community in 1986, helps underprivileged children learn basic life skills. At the newly spruced-up working space at Vergenoeg school, they benefit from educational support, group therapy and classroom intervention. Alene Smith and Siya Manqunyana from the charity add: “Now that they have beautiful tables and chairs, they engage more effectively and participate in the different activities with more enthusiasm. The learners are more willing to attend as a comfortable, safe room has been created.”
New Desks Help Children Learn More
The James House training centre in Hout Bay also received some of the furniture. This is where staff are given the necessary skills to meet the organisation’s needs and where the charity’s knowledge is shared with other NGOs. “Our trainees love the pleasant learning environment we now offer – the desks have engendered a more professional atmosphere,” says Alene.
Belmond Mount Nelson’s General Manager, Xavier Lablaude, sums up: “Renovations are always challenging – no pain, no gain, as they say. My initial approach was to find the best way to hide the misery, but Louise and her team took it to the next level and came up with a meaningful project. The panels had a story to tell, which is truly in line with our hotel’s personality and involvement with the local community.”
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