Partnering with the finest craftspeople, whose skill and artisanal expertise shines through their creations, has been a mainstay of our collections ever since we founded OKA more than 20 years ago. Without the passion and hard work of makers across the globe, our visions for beautiful furniture and homeware could never be realised. The designs you’ll find in our Spring Collection are no different; exceptional craftsmanship, showcasing skills that have been fine-tuned over generations, shapes our new designs. This season, we’re particularly excited to be working with a new maker, whose skilled craftspeople have not only produced our striking clay accessories, but who have an inspiring story to tell of their own.
It all began in 2009, when Merewyn De Heer swapped her job in advertising to found a business close to her heart. Located in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, a province home to the nation’s thriving Zulu community, Merewyn wanted to build a company that showcased the area’s rich crafting heritage, but also empowered local women whose opportunities had been limited due to circumstances beyond their control. The area has one of the highest infection rates of HIV in the world, and with a heavy stigma surrounding the virus in the area at the time, many of those affected were struggling to find employment. “I wanted specifically to help local women, as they are the pillars of their communities, and many can’t find work as they are sick or looking after family,” Merewyn explains. “I came up with the idea of making clay beads and designing products around them, as anyone can roll beads.”
She began by employing two women who she met through the local AIDS centre, and in the 14 years since, The Handmade Story has grown organically to specialise in bespoke lighting and artwork. Each piece is crafted from clay – the material is chosen specifically for its natural qualities and manual production process – providing essential skills and employment to women who have been affected by HIV, either directly or indirectly, in the province. “Our products are specifically designed to create employment for our people,” Merewyn explains, “and for this reason I made a critical, strategic decision in 2010 to never work with wood or plastic materials.”
The production process is lengthy and intricate; the clay is sourced directly from a mine five hours away in Gauteng, before being distributed to women living in rural villages in KwaZulu-Natal. These skilled makers hand roll each bead in their homes, enabling those who are sick from HIV or caring for families to earn a living despite their circumstances. Once the clay has been rolled, the beads are set out in the hot sun to dry. The Handmade Story then buys the beads back and collects them for kiln firing. The latter is an arduous process, requiring a heat of 1,110°C to create the perfect beads, a current challenge with South Africa’s regular power cuts. The clay beads become porous, allowing for them to be hand-dyed. Then, work begins in the studio, where three more teams of local women use their expertise to string together chandeliers, jewellery or other home accessories. “Every single, perfectly imperfect clay bead is unique, as they carry the fingerprints of our talented women,” says Merewyn.
In our Spring Collection, you’ll find this intricate craftsmanship in our Eris Bead Range, a selection of two pendant lamps and a complementary wall art piece, which have been designed and made exclusively for us. Elsewhere in the collection, the Albion, Fiovana and Metamorph Wall Art pieces showcase the extent of the makers’ skills, with hand-rolled clay batons and textured clay sheets that are hand-dyed to achieve a dramatic monochrome palette. “This range is super exciting for us; it’s a story very close to my heart,” Sue Jones, our Co-Founder and Creative Director, says of the new pieces. “I am incredibly proud to be introducing these stunning pieces into the collection, as they represent all of the qualities I love: beauty, quality, attention to detail and hard work.”
You can discover more about The Handmade Story here.