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The Pony Desk Chair

HL chatted to Y. Tsai about his latest work and the importance of social responsibility in design. It’s well known that social responsibility plays a key role in your work. What effect do you believe design can have on South Africa? Design has the power to turn a negative problem into a positive situation. It is about lateral thinking and looking beyond the obvious. I believe that, given the current issue of the world economic crisis and the future sustainability of our planet, design should be concerned about the potential of its contextual impact, and not be satisfied to just bring about visual impact. In other words, the world does not need another beautiful chair, but a chair, for example, that can help solve the problem of inadequate school furniture. South African designers are exposed to these problems on a daily basis and I think there are more designs starting to address these problems. Another note is that social responsibility does not mean non-profit; it is very much about addressing a need while being economically sustainable. You recently delivered 30 of your Pony Desk Chairs to the Visserhok Primary School in Cape Town, where you previously built a beautiful and space-conscious classroom out of a container. Are there any more plans on the horizon for the Pony Desk Chair? The Pony Desk Chair is designed in collaboration with All Office Furniture as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programme. As a furniture manufacturer, they undertook the prototyping of the design, refining the details and ergonomics over a six-month period. The delivery of the first 30 units to Vissershok Primary School was the beginning of their commitment to CSR outreach, with more in the pipeline. The Pony Desk Chair is also commercially available, currently only through the studio. What was the inspiration behind the design of the Pony Desk Chair? The Pony Desk Chair was a challenge posed by a teacher after the completion of the container project. Well aware of our previous design – the Nested Bunk Beds – he asked if we could come up with similar space-saving furniture for the kids at his under-resourced school. Determined not to be a one-hit wonder, we took up the challenge. The design is inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’s beautiful plywood Elephant Chair, however the Pony Desk Chair, as the name suggests, is a combination of a desk that comes with its own small blackboard and stationery tray, a chair designed specifically for children between 4-6 years old, and a simple storage system inside the belly of the pony. Since we believe, when it comes to children’s furniture, the rule of form-follows-function does not have to apply, we worked hard to create the profile of a small pony to enhance the playfulness of the design. How important is multifunctional design in your work? Generally we like to set some challenges before starting a design project. For a project that has a social agenda it is about trying to maximise the design’s full potential with a small budget. Often it is about the issue of sustainability: can we design a single piece of furniture instead of a chair and a table to reduce production and material waste? The question of longevity also plays a role: can a design that is multifunctional have a longer life cycle since it can perform more tasks than a single purpose item? In other words, our design methodology is to experiment with ideas that challenge the conventional standard. Multifunctional design is part of this experiment. Do you have any exciting projects coming up? As design experimenters, we are always cooking up something. We are currently developing a mini stand-alone aquaponic home-kit, based on our recently finished Moyo restaurant and urban farm at the V&A Waterfront. On the drawing board is an exciting architectural project for a football club, in collaboration with Design Indaba, not to mention our Your Street competition-winning entry - Urban Mosaic, which has just got the green light after two years of fire tests, to proceed to doing a pilot in a township. Lastly, we are part of the creative team that is bringing Cape Town its first design festival under the name Open Design. For more information about Y. Tsai and his projects, visit Interviewed by Lindi Brownell Meiring