Scouring the South African second hand scene in all its guises for valuable vintage furniture turned out to be a way more exciting and engaging project than I though it would be. And I already had high hopes when we started out.
The stories attached to furniture are fascinating. The stories of the South African companies who made the furniture, what inspired them, and who they copied. The stories of specific pieces and the families that they belonged to for decades. The stories of how furniture traveled from one family to another. And of course the stories of the real heirloom pieces that were passed down through generations.
Real antiques never really appealed to us. It is the vintage stuff, the furniture from the late twenties and thirties onward up to the seventies, and even a piece or three from the eighties nowadays, that draw our attention. These pieces are mostly not as grand and valuable as great antiques, but they represent vast and interesting cultural changes that we can relate to.
One curious piece of furniture that peaked my interest was this little table. I found it in a second hand store in Gansbaai – a shop focused on selling affordable second hand washing machines and Bears-type furniture. The owner told me she was planning to paint it with chalk paint and make something completely new out of it – a practice that I have a number of difficulties with – so I bought it just to save it. It was so cheap she practically gave it to me!
Picture: Magriet Theron
I never found it pretty but it had a gritty personality, I thought. There was a bit of Baby Jake Matlala in there. It was certainly South African.
Something told me that it was from the sixties. I mean, those odd little bow legs couldn’t have been designed by a person who’s never experienced a cannabis euphoria. The sixties seem to have been the period of unexpected organic angles… which is probably one description of what psychedelia was.
But when we started searching for a style with connected legs on a base like that, the only examples we could find was art deco, like this Peter Rolfe table from London.
Picture: Peter Rolfe
So I went to my default design guru – my uncle Karre, who stays in India. He’s been in design and manufacturing since the early seventies and knows a thing or twenty more than I do. We chat on WhatsApp all the time. He liked it, but was not as enamored as I was with the little table…
“Mmm, Scandinavian 60’s,” he said. “But I think it is what the Dutch would call ‘Kopie Styl’. When someone understands and copy the form, but misses the essence. Those lines are Scandinavian sixties but I miss some of the underlying elegance that should come with it.”
Yebo, Baby Jake, then…
“The base is a bit heavy. Good Scandinavian designs are light and elegant, which is difficult in wood, so sometimes mass is used to get structural integrity. Sometimes the legs are bound like that because they are so fine and break easily. Despite the rather heavy lower end, I quite like this.”
I think I liked it a little more than he did but he was spot on. It was a South African design inspired by the Danes and Swedes. And it was from the sixties, which was confirmed by the little fittings into which the legs screwed – almost all the South African made mid-century modern pieces used these rather peculiar fittings.
The fittings used in South African mid-century modern furniture.
So without knowing what the brand was, we sold it to a client who wanted to use it with some heavy art deco furniture. So the rather heavy base found a great place in which it “worked”. Just look at how flyweight Baby Jake holds his own with heavyweights Ali and Foreman!
So one evening some months later I was stumbling around cyberspace when I came across this picture below on BidorBuy. I immediately recognised it as the coffee table version of our side table and there was the brand as well: Airflex. So we were right. Scandinavian inspired South African modernism. Some call this type of table "Scandinavian surfboard style".
Picture: Justus Wagener on BidorBuy
Like Duros and Frystark, Airflex manufactured quite a lot of mass market mid-century modern furniture in South Africa. It seems that the company closed down in the nineties after sixty years. It is difficult to find much on the history of Airflex on the internet – please let us know if you know of anybody who worked for the company who can give us some insight.
Airflex made lounge suites in various different styles. This side table is part of an embuia suite that had a three seater, a two seater, two one seaters and the long coffee table. Obviously the reason we took so long to identify it was because it wasn't part of a set anymore. Some of the embuia suites they made were quite odd and humorous. Some of them were just baffling!
An Airflex lounge suite from the sixties. You decide whether you like it... Picture: BidorBuy
But some of the vinyl sets they made were just fabulous – Huisraad had refurbished a few. The vinyl sets possess a rock and roll vibe that leans more towards an American fifties rockabilly style than any of the other South African furniture brands.
A vinyl Airflex set that Huisraad recovered. Note the amazing wood panels. Picture: Magriet Theron
So a South African furniture brand existed that were willing to have a bit of fun with Scandi design and the spirit of the era. And very little is known about the company. In the end we thought up our own names for this South African style: ‘Railway House glam’ and ‘East Rand Scandi’. What do you think?
Picture: Magriet Theron
- If you want to own some East Rand Scandi you can follow this link for the side table. The whole set that goes with this table (three seater, two seater, two one seaters, and a coffee table), will soon become available on Huisraad.co.za.