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The Ardmore Ceramics & Design: The SA Brand That Partnered with Hermès

It’s not every day that a 179-year old fashion house wants your work associated with their brand. Yet, the luxury French brand invited Ardmore in 2013 to collaborate on a series of silk scarves for its 2016 collection. The two scarves, La March du Zambèze and Savanna Dancewere based on designs by Sydney Nyabeze (one of the artists under the Ardmore studio), and are available at all Hermès stores. This collaboration is the first time the French brand has worked with a South African company. But who is Ardmore and what does ceramics have to do with silk scarves? Perhaps introductions are in order:

Zimbabwean-born ceramic artist Fée Halsted founded The Ardmore studio in 1985 at the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains. There, she met Bonakele (Bonnie) Ntshalintshali who she trained in the delicate art of ceramics. Five years later, the duo’s talent led to the largest ceramic studio in South Africa; proof of the symbiotic growth of the brand. Although, Halsted credits the growth to Ntshalintshali, “Ardmore became a success because of Bonny’s craftsmanship, skill and meticulous attention to detail.” And the recognition kept rolling in. IN 1991, Charles Greig Jewellers purchased and displayed their ceramics in their upmarket stores and have been supporters of the brand ever since. Then in 2003 and 2004, Christie’s hosted landmark auctions of their ceramics in London, and even describing them as “modern collectibles”.

Trumpeting elephants decorate this exquisite vase created by Somandla Ntshalintshali and painted by Jabu Nene [Image: Courtesy of Ardmore Ceramics & Design]

Thulani Mntungwa’s balancing act of rhythmical rhinos in this vase, is exquisitely painted by Siyabonga Mbaso. [Image: Courtesy of Ardmore Ceramics & Design]

By 2004, they’d grown to the point that they could employ close to 70 artists. Which led to a move in 2005 to Caversham in the Natal Midlands, with new stables, ceramic workshops and a gallery building, which houses the Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum. According to an interview with Africa travel channel each artist receives continuous training, tools and materials. While Ardmore has an identifiable brand identity, the gallery of work is essentially made up of the creative input of approximately 80 artists. “Each piece is a distinctive expression of their imagination, as well as, based on wildlife, folklore, and Zulu culture. The variety on display is simply breath-taking.”

There’s a reason that the pieces fetch a pretty penny and have an international following. A lot of moving pieces come together to manifest just one piece. The first step begins with the sculpture who makes the finely-moulded art forms and animal figurines you see incorporated in the pieces. It’s them moved on to the painters who create designs from their own inspiration and hand paint the piece. On average, the process for an averaged sized piece can take six weeks.

The flamboyant nature of the designs gave Halsted the idea to stretch the brand into another creative sphere. In 2013, Halsted, along with Jonathan Berning and Fleur Heyns started Halsted Design which they later changed to Ardmore Design in 2017. Through this branch of the brand, they were able to translate the ceramics into the creation of luxe furnishings, interior design offerings, contemporary fabrics and dining accents. The most recent collection available is called the Zambezi Collection which they did in collaboration with Cole & Son, the UK wallpaper company. Launched in 2017, the theme was an invitation to return to the grandeur of nature and was heavily inspired by the flora and fauna around the Zambezi. It flips the relation the ceramic side has with the design part, in that, the ceramic side of the business uses the art created for the collaboration to make works.

Their growth has come largely for being in the right places and making the right collaborations to introduce them to international audiences. For example, 2012 saw the brand enter a partnership where their pieces would be hosted at The Patrick Mavros flagship store in London every May annually. Ardmore has also had its work showcased in prestigious galleries and collections around the world. According to the Arthus Gallery, this includes, ‘Gerisch Museum in Hamburg, Germany in 2013, the Museum of Art & Design in New York, the Museum of Cultures in Basel, Switzerland, and the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.’ Is it, then, any wonder how Ardmore pieces are part of prestigious public and private collections globally. To the point where they are often given as state gifts; with one being gifted to Queen Elizabeth II and Empress Michiko of Japan.

Their work, whether limited in number, such as the Qalakabusha sofa, or continuously available is done with meticulous result in mind. It’s a testament to the brand that they have a strong brand identity through their colours, patterns, 3D signature shapes and humour. In the same instance, they give the artists a space to express themselves to further grow the rarity and extraordinariness of each piece. As Bird and Design verbalized it, “It’s a luxury lifestyle brands that brings the original African story into the home and connect[s] the customer to the African roots of Ardmore whilst retaining an international look and feel that works in almost any environment.”

WTM Africa 2020