Story Vases

Five stories from South Africa

Think Milan and the first association is either high fashion or high concept design, and less about traditional handicrafts and advancing a social cause. Last year, during the 2011 Milan furniture fair,  Front Design, a Swedish design collective, unveiled Story Vases, which incorporated beaded personal narratives of five South African women onto a series of glass-blown vases.  

The five women--Beauty Ndlovu, Thokozani Sibisi, Kishwepi Sitole, Tholiwe Sitole and Lobolile Ximba--live in villages in KwaZulu-Natal, and they are part of the Siyazama Project, a collective of women who work with traditional bead craft. The project was founded in 1999 by Dr. Kate Wells, a professor at the Durban University of Technology as part of "Design Education for Sustainable Development, the Siyazama Project (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) was originally created to educate a group of traditional bead doll makers about issues concerning the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The purpose was to understand the effect of beadwork as a visual expression, and to promote the role of design as a vehicle to spread information about HIV/AIDS. The Siyazama Project is now a bead craft collective. The beadwork is primarily made for the souvenir market and it is the main source of income for many of its members.

In 2009, Editions in Craft first made the introductions between the South African collective and Front so they could join forces in linking traditional handicrafts with modern design, while sharing both techniques and design ideas. This collaboration produced a visual history of beadwork and glasswork that documented the stories of daily like for the five women in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Story Vases initially started with a series of conversations during a workshop in November 2010 with the design collective, Professor Wells and two interpreters who spoke Zulu and English.  The women spoke of their daily lives, topics jumped around from their husbands and children to their dreams, life and death, their beadwork—which in Zulu culture is an important form of expression—how HIV affected their community, and gamut of other subjects from poverty to unemployment.  

Snippets of these conversations were chosen to form their stories into text via the beadwork. The beads were threaded on metal wires that were shaped into vases where glass was blown by master glassblower Reino Björk in Sweden. Each vase is compelling and visually unique. The vase sizes are irregular, and the glass thickness varies with bubbles and bulges, but it’s the stories that touch the heart: 

“It was not possible to dream of being a doctor because we were not allowed to do that. Our role was to become a wife, a mother. I now have 10 children. God has been good because I have a home. I wish for many orders, so I can make lots of money for Christmas.” Lobolile Ximba

“I believe my beadwork can get the message across. Some of my dolls tell old Zulu stories others tell their own personal story. I once made a doll of a mother beating up her child because she had HIV. This doll was to tell people not to hit people who have HIV.” Kishwepi Sitole

“I always dream of having a big house and a posh life but because of my illiteracy I cannot achieve my dreams. The beads have changed my life. I have at least achieved part of my dream. I have a house and live more or less okay so I am happy about that.” Tholiwe Sitole

The Story Vases is an ongoing series and each vase will be available in a limited edition produced by Editions in Craft. For more information about the Siyazama Project, please visit,; for more information about Front, please visit  To read more of the stories please visit, www.



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