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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Helen de Leeuw and the shaping of modernity in South Africa c1950-1997

From c1950 by Helen de Leeuw began a lifelong challenge to the South African market to rid itself of erstwhile preferences, both anglophile and American, for mass- produced inferior products that began to overwhelm local markets and suppress extant and emerging local art and craft. She almost single-handedly, as shop and gallery owner, designer and entrepreneur, provided various outlets for local artists, juxtaposing their work with innovative Nordik and Germanic modernist production. In her emphases and in her selection of local craft production she shaped an innovative aesthetic.



Writing in 1965, Isobelle du Toit noted that Helen de Leeuw’s name at the time was synonymous with ‘good, modern and imaginative taste’. As the doyenne of what was perhaps rather loosely described as ‘modernist design’, de Leeuw’s distinctive selection of items for her enterprises functioned as ‘counter- cultural’, challenging the taste and fashion fads of the time. It was also expressed in innovative furniture design, gallery display and interior design.

Esme Berman noted in 1980: ‘ Helen de Leeuw has been responsible more than any other single person in South Africa for developing in the public a sound taste and a feeling for good design and craftsmanship’. (Esme Berman, quoted in The Star, 4 Aug 1980)

While de Leeuw catered predominantly for an emerging white middle class, it was in shaping their preferences that she contributed to the widespread embrace of local art and design. She was central in supporting a vast body of black South African artists, their studios, workshops and creativity in providing an outlet for their work as well as in providing moral and financial support for their endeavours. By coupling this work within a context of contemporary international design de Leeuw ensured their significance in both a local and international context.

Born in 1917 in South Africa of Greek parents, Helen de Leeuw (nee Mentis) initially had no claims to an artistic or design training per se, having majored in English and Latin at the University of the Witwatersrand. On completing her Masters in English she relocated to London to complete her PhD on aspects of the writing of Virginia Woolf. She never completed this, opting instead to acquire skills in pottery at Camberwell College (School of Arts).

With this rudimentary training abroad and an innate flair for design, she developed a deep respect for fundamental values in post war design in Europe. On her return to South Africa she set about exhibiting her pottery. With the trained eye of a craftsperson, she was particularly desirous that standards and taste in South Africa improve. She consequently set about reflecting her personal taste in her shows, drawing on her diasporic background and idioms which had been nurtured during her travels to diverse geographic regions when abroad and locally.








































The Scandinavian link
De Leeuw became particularly known for embracing Nordic design, especially from the post war period. Having opted for neutrality during World War II, Swedish infrastructures were largely intact at a time when those in Europe were not. Auspiciously termed ‘Scandinavian’ at the time, and consequently less tainted by its German Bauhaus inspired association, design in the Nordic countries flourished in the post war period, in the developing of local industries and actively seeking an international market. 
A distinctive Nordic aesthetic was widely disseminated and popularized internationally, the result of sustained marketing strategies which developed outlets in as far afield as America, Australia and South Africa, the latter the only country in Africa to trade in Nordic derived goods. Central to Scandinavian design was a return to the organic sources and truth to materials. In the late 1940s, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany, in a bid to restore the economic infrastructure and not least regain their respective sense of national identity, began a concerted effort to reposition their industrial production and design in a range of accessible spheres.


With a strong apartheid Rand and initially little international opposition to trade with South Africa, relatively inexpensive ‘Scandinavian’ goods were imported by de Leeuw. To her, many Scandinavian/Nordic products not only echoed local craft traditions in South Africa but she also sensed affinities with emergent workshops in South Africa that echoed the Nordic aesthetic (such as Rorke’s Drift). Her juxtaposition of the local and the global therefore established an important precedent in South Africa, in which local craft, art and design were regarded as significant as international ones.



In 1959 de Leeuw first went to Finland and fell in love with Marimekko fabrics. She was to become one of only seven outlets in the world for such fabric, others in New York, Cambridge Massachusettes, Dallas, Chicago, Toronto and the other in Woollahra, NSW Australia. Marimekko was founded by Armi Ratia in the 1950s, and she and Helen became close acquaintances. Marimekko was foregrounded internationally when Mrs Lyndon Johnson (probably influenced by Jackie Kennedy ) bought 42 dresses from designer Armi Ratia. At the time Marimekko represented ‘cult clothing’ worn by ‘barefoot singers, women’s libbers and those who delight in a simple uncluttered way.’ (The Star, 14 Nov, 1972). Soon de Leeuw had the largest collection of Marimekko dresses in the world. Armi Ratia apparently advised her clients to go to South Africa to see the wide range of clothing made from her fabrics. (Die Transvaler, 11 Jan 1968) - image below.


On her return from Britain in 1950, de Leeuw held a small pottery exhibition and set up the ‘Craft Centre’ upstairs in a building in Union Centre. Norman Herber, the Greaterman’s department store manager, visited her studio and was very impressed by her work. In the process of enlarging and modernizing Greatermans, he suggested that her ceramics would bring people into his store, but was not certain whether they would buy ‘good stuff’. Bluffing, she convinced him that she had contacts with many craftspersons like herself and could fill the space he allowed her. Her bravura initiated a frantic search on her part, but ultimately she was able to fill her store. 


By the late 1960s she had opened 6 stores: -The Craftsman’s Market (Greaterman’s basement, President Street, Jhb), image above; Outlets in Pretoria- initially in Polly’s Arcade and later at The Helen de Leeuw Gallery,13 Steyns Arcade, Schoeman Street); Helen de Leeuw, Hyde Park (16 Hyde ParkCorner, Jan Smuts Ave Johannesburg) 1980(?); The Cottage 1967(c/r 8th avenue and Main Rd, Melville, Johannesburg); Helen de Leeuw, 1967 Stuttafords in Claremont, Cape Town; Ibi in Kimberly,1968 (at Flaxley House,34 du Toitspan Rd, which closed its doors on 26 January 1970.

In 1956 de Leeuw curated an introductory exhibition of a new design center, known as the Design for Living exhibition at 52 von Brandis street, in a venue close to her own shop, the Craftsman’s Market (in the Greaterman’s basement). Here she hoped to have a permanent exhibition of the best of local and international design on display. She was prompted in this by the eagerness for good work among a select Johannesburg public. The exhibition included what she regarded as modern furniture, pottery, glassware and jewelry.

Dining Room Furniture(1960s) courtesy of Modernist. Parkhurst. 


Dining Room Furniture(1960s) courtesy of Modernist. Parkhurst. 
In this she was inspired by two similar ventures:  The Design Centre of Great Britain, opened in 1956) by Sir Gordon Russell, who had been involved in the 1951 Festival of Britain, who considered ways to reform the education and training of new industrial designers. It was supported by the Council of Industrial Design, which had for years been instrumental in the fostering of good design and the raising of general standards of craftsmanship in Britain. In addition she was inspired by the Danish Copenhagen-based Den Permanente, a state-aided exhibition that foregrounded the best in Danish design and craftsmanship (including other Nordic design). The idea was initiated in 1929 by Kay Bojesen, a Danish silversmith and designer and became a commercial endeavor in 1931 under Christian Grauballe.

Aiming to have her design center equated with these examples, de Leeuw believed that the South African public was ‘hungry for good things and eager for positive direction’ (Letter by de Leeuw to Oliver Walker c1956). She added that she felt it to be the duty of the artists and craftspersons to produce of their best and set standards that enabled the buyer to be more discerning. 
The Design for Living exhibition space itself set an important benchmark for de Leeuw; ‘…wherever possible we used simple and fundamental materials – brick floors, bagged walls, terracotta tiles, unplastered wall, unpolished timber’.(ibid) with the idea that items set against this ‘unpretentious’ background would allow one to appreciate the excellence of design.  She noted: ‘If it is a little ambitious to establish a sort of South African Bauhaus, at least it is not a personal ambition but something based on the core of excellence I am able to cut out from the soft apple of mediocrity’ (ibid).


‘My aim in this design centre of mine is much the same. I have great confidence in and respect for the very excellent craftsmen of this country and a belief that the public is hungry for good things and eager for positive direction. I maintain that it is the solemn duty of the artists and the craftsmen to set the standards of taste; let him give of his honest best and the public will soon learn to discriminate between the shoddy and the sincere. I feel that it is up to those of us who have a standard never to deviate from it..’ (ibid) (my italics)

She intended to use the basement for exhibitions, including work by local and international artists. A subsequent exhibition at her centre included the work of  Bernard Leach, painter Joan Clare, artists Cecil Skotnes, Eduardo Villa, Douglas Portway, Stanley Dorfman, Monty Castle, Arthur Goldreich and Monty Sacks.


De Leeuw’s stores or galleries were in many ways an extension of herself, her taste and preferences. In this she typically reflected a changing attitude to taste - it was no longer dictated from above, but was eclectic, idiosyncratic and flexible. Her outlets were typified by an uncanny aura of the authenticity and clutter of a lived space that she craved. They contained articles of natural materials that were well designed and unusual. 

Her theme was truth to materials, natural fibres, and the durability of materials. In her stores she intentionally recreated the atmosphere of a market, where an amassed collection of goods could be browsed through at leisure. All items would thus be contained in one store:- clothing, cooking utensils, carpets , furniture, cloth, weaving, ceramics and art. Typically her venues became meccas ‘for progressive artists and bohemians’ (SA G&H Aug 1969). The stores also served as important venues for interacting with craftspersons and designers, artists and architects’ (The Star, August 1980).

Early anglo-oriental traditions initiated in Britain was based on the direct importation of a stoneware aesthetic from Japan and other east Asian sources. De Leeuw became acquainted with many of its exponents when in Britain, such as Bernard Leach. This neo- oriental English influence was reflected in de Leeuw’s preference for stoneware ceramics and glazes identified at the time in the work of emergent ceramicists such as Esias Bosch, Tim Morris and Andrew Walford, their work consequently readily embraced by her. Soon her ‘stable’ of potters included Sue Gilland, Mollie Fisch, Rita Tasker, Sonja Gerlings, Natasha Downs, Charles Smith, Gillian Bickel, Ian Glenny, Traute Bruck, John Dunn  and  Digby Hoets.

De Leeuw  included a range of chairs, tables and benches in her outlets. Many of these emulated well known styles that originated in European prototypes, such as the bubble chairs; campaign or safari chairs; the Harp Chair by Charles Smith (c1966 and 1974); the Thonet Rocker; the butterfly chair; the Springkaan chair and Spanish workers’ chairs. Over the years Indian, Turkish and even Chinese furniture were held in her stores. She believed that in furnishing one should not follow fashion slavishly but rather use what is suited to one’s needs : ‘..it is style that counts, not fashion, and basic good design, which is tightly married to good craftsmanship, is far more enduring than the latest novelty.’




Many jewelers trained in Europe settled in South Africa in the post war period. Names such as Erich Frey, Dieter Steglich and Otto Paulsen becoming prominent jewelers. De Leeuw always had a wide range of jewelry that included local and imported ware, as well as ethnic jewelry. In the 1960s Elsa Wongchowski jewelry was marketed by de Leeuw, and from the 1970s that of  Margaret Richardson (who had studied in Germany) and Eicke Schmidt became widely available in her stores (Star 20 Oct 1978). In 1980 jewelers who exhibited at de Leeuw’s outlets there included Mike Cope, Elaine Hofmeyr, Christina van Rensburg, Dieter Dill, Katryn Engelen and Gita Finlayson. (Die Beeld 28 Aug 1980) In the 1980s she exhibited the work of Kurt Jobst. De Leeuw supported the arts from the outset – one of her first exhibitions was of the Polly Street Art Centre at the Craftsman’s Market in 1956. This trend was followed over the years with some of South Africa’s notable artists exhibiting in her venues.




In 1968 Cecil Skotnes was to note that while Johannesburg had a large number of people who ‘vigorously collect art and crafts and appreciate the good and worthwhile things of living’ he added that: ‘To the refugees of the 1930s, the post-war immigrants and the new generation of local craftsmen, a great deal of the credit can be attributed. However, without enthusiasts to organize the distribution of their products, enthusiasts like Helen de Leeuw, who are basically craftsmen, who understand the craftsman’s personality and attitude towards work- there could never have been such a rapid growth of good taste in Johannesburg. 
Helen is the pioneer in this field, but her aims have not only centered around the crafts. She is counted among the few individuals who have contributed to the rise of the urban non-white artist. It was Helen who gave the Polly Street Art Centre its first kiln and she organized the Centre’s first public professional exhibition which included among the exhibitors many of the now well known sculptors and painters. If I were to compile a publication on craft and craftsmen in our country, I would undoubtedly dedicate such a book to Helen de Leeuw. (Artlook, September 1968)

Exhibition Curated by Juliette Leeb-du Toit.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Indeed a formative influence.
    I do believe that Norman Herber was the owner of Greatermans rather than the manager. He himself was a great patron of architects, artists and crafts people.

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