Precision, Imprecision, and Politics

Gregor Jenkin’s steel creations

Internationally acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge was the first patron to buy a Gregor Jenkin steel table, which was followed by a proposition to collaborate. Kentridge would send Jenkin jagged paper collages, the exact shapes of which would be laser cut to form the legs of tables – an exercise in imprecision and precision. Each leg of each table would be different from the next and these new works, which ranged in height and shape, would become display platforms for a series of works on paper. The exhibition of paper and metal works toured around the world and sold to respected collectors and institutions – five pieces are in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in Philadelphia. The collaboration perfectly illustrates the ease with which Gregor Jenkin straddles the worlds of art and design.

Gregor trained as an engineer and an architect, and after a spell in London working in visual display at Ralph Lauren, he returned to Johannesburg to open his eponymous studio in 2004. 

From the outset he was fascinated by the physical act of creation and manufacture --the way that things fit together to create meaning and beauty. Although striving for a new way of doing something old, he sought to uphold the principles of bygone eras, industry, craftsmanship and work ethic. His studio functioned as an engineering environment, a systematic workshop that set out to deliver solutions to certain problems, and in this way Gregor and his small team created functional objects that were at once thoughtful and, by extension, thought provoking, extremely relevant, almost political.

New work was released in short run exhibitions that closely explored themes that intrigued the studio. The brutally single-minded purpose of military hardware and its innate durability was the focus of Post-war Mentality, a range consisting of interventions on products of army surplus that retained the sinister beauty inherent in their manufacture. For Industrial Revolution, a tribute to the humility of mass-production, office furniture was plucked from the anonymity of the hardworking back-offices of the city of Johannesburg, cross-referenced, and refigured in the study of their components and their assembly.

Kaapentry, a year-long collaboration with antiques dealer Deon Viljoen, married early twentieth-century ball-and-claw Cape Dutch collectible pieces with contemporary applications of profile cut steel and cast aluminum. Infrastructure, a series of furniture that brought the ‘outside in’ for Johannesburg residents who prefer to stay at home rather than venture out onto the streets. The range included ‘street light’ lamps, ‘bridge’ benches and ‘a walk around the block’ coffee table.

Alongside these fascinating explorations, the studio was producing their van die Stel range, a series of pieces that included tables, consoles and lighting in laser cut steel, produced in flatpack for easy transport and assembly. These contemporary works retained the sophisticated grace and nostalgia of their Cape Dutch inspiration, and soon became the biggest selling dining table in the history of the Conran Shop in Paris, this only two years after the studio’s inception. A while later they were supplying the Conran Shop with both the most expensive and the cheapest dining tables in the store.

Gregor’s success owes as much to his truly unique voice and enigmatic persona as it does to his down to earth approach and old-fashioned work ethic. He has been recognized locally with many awards, including Designer of the Year several times, the Johnny Walker Strider, Verve Cliquot, and Institute of Steel awards.

Most importantly in 2011 he became the first African designer to be accepted to show at Design Miami, through my gallery, Southern Guild. The exhibition presented Migrant/Migrate, a reference to South Africa’s migrant labor history, represented by a collection of furniture whose forms suggested herd of wildebeest poised in motion, an introspective and curious metaphor.

“Narratives and even socio-political overtones are inextricable from every aspect of design, in every country. These things are not the preserve of fine art, and realistically, they're more often promulgated by design than anything else. I think that the reason the 'socio-political' aspect of my work is prevalent is because it's made in the politically-charged context of the country in which I live. It's important to remember that, for me, this is a resource - the same way that Danish design has a traditional relationship with wood, and therefore a particular mode of craftsmanship, and outcome,” Jenkin says in describing his work.

Having worked with Gregor for over seven years, the greatest lesson he has taught me is that for design to have longevity your first response should feel a little difficult, familiar yet strange, compelling yet awkward. It is this struggle to come to terms with a new work that ultimately results in the most satisfying relationship. 

Trevyn McGowan is the co-founder of Southern Guild, which will feature a 2012 collaboration between Gregor Jenkin and William Kentridge later this year. For more on Gregor Jenkin, visit http://www.gregorjenkin.com/

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