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The Birth of Work Shop New Town

Marijke Willems

The development of new fashion and design market Work Shop New Town (WSNT), which is located within century-old iron railway sheds in Johannesburg's Newtown where produce was off-loaded from passing trains, has played a central role in re-establishing the area as a hive of commercial industry. But as much as this project is about the future of the district, it's been greatly impacted by the heritage of the city and its surrounding climate. Trevyn and Julian McGowan of Source worked tirelessly with Adri van Zyl from interior design and decor company Atelier to build a shopping arcade that would speak to Newtown's history, former role as a hub of trade and current feel while also providing a contemporary platform for up-to-the-minute African designers. Because Johannesburg itself was such a great source of inspiration for the market, we asked Adri to talk to us about five of the main facets of the city's history and culture that most influenced the design of the centre. Here's a round-up of what he shared with us: Work Shop New Town Architecture

existing architecture

The Atelier team tried to work around the existing structure of the building as much as possible. They demolished the top half of all dividing walls to not only create an open, unified space but also to draw attention to the beautiful roof, a main heritage element. Similarly, they drew inspiration from the iconic surrounding architecture, incorporating elements from adjacent buildings, like the large steel-framed windows and prominent arches seen at the Market Theatre and Turbine Hall, but taking them to a new contemporary level.
'By playing with the scale of the arches and constructing them in a modern way, we created a sense of grandeur and drama without detracting from the individual style of each unique trader,' explains Adri.
Work Shop New Town Plaque

the great gold rush

A key period in Johannesburg's history that greatly informed the look and feel of the market was the gold rush era, which was so formative in the development of the city of Johannesburg and its later wealth. A key example of how this reference was weaved into the design is the steel I-beam structure used throughout, which was inspired by the concept of an old mine shaft. 'In the design of WSNT, we wanted to capture the idea of civilisation rising out of the dry African soil, of prosperity coming out of humble places,' he says. Work Shop New Town roof and stall

the traditional marketplace

Like many pre-industrialised societies, historic Johannesburg had the marketplace at its heart, and the old potato shed that WSNT is now located in was a vital part of the trading hub of yore. Hence, the notion of an open-air meat bazaar was a huge source of inspiration for Atelier, referenced in the the stalls section and the open, unified space below the roof.
'We wanted to make the market story relevant again without having to completely retell it,' says Adri. 'So we pushed certain design boundaries while fully embracing the heritage elements of the space so as to recapture the market concept in a modern-day setting that's worthy of showcasing the work of today's foremost designers.'

downtown street style

'There has always been a vibrant street culture in the suburb of Newtown, from the sidewalk spaza stores to the barber shops and shebeens,' explains Adri, 'It was very important to us that WSNT formed part of this local identity.' To keep the feel of the marketplace true to the streets, Adri and Source worked with Joburg-based creative duo Jana + Koos to design signage that reflects the sort of lettering seen at street traders' shops - the focus being on old-school handwritten script and bold block letters. Work Shop New Town Fashion


It was important that the pioneering design of the market reflects its position as a stage for self-expression that has relevance beyond the borders of South Africa and that can play a role in promoting African creativity and fashion. As Adri explains,'our aim was to take our love for contemporary South African art and design and propel it into the greater African context, attracting top designers from Lagos, Luanda, Accra and the like'. To learn more about WSNT visit; for more information about Atelier go to
Read about Work Shop New Town and the adjacent Potato Shed restaurant in our March 2016 issue.