“I am a modernist,” says Nqobile Mthembu, co-owner and director of MAD Design Studios. “I like clean and open designs, but combined with soft, lush textures. I just love luxury!”
Nqobile is the kind of woman who owns who she is and has a clear vision about where she is going. And for this issue of WALLS & ROOFS, she is our mystery guest editor, sharing a bit about her journey and experience in building a turnkey architecture and design firm.
“When you are studying as an architect or interior designer, you are taught how to design or furnish all kinds of beautiful big buildings. Your study projects are based on doing this one day . . . and then you finish. Soon you realise that, as a young black architect, you and your classmates are all vying for the same government tenders. Because there is so much corruption, these tenders often end up being awarded to people who don’t even have qualifications – instead of coming to you, the professional architect,” she states.
Building a private business
Having started MAD Design Studios, an architecture, interior design and custom furniture design studio based in Durban, with her husband, Mholi, the duo quickly realised that they have to think out of the box, be innovative and change their course.
“We decided to find our own niche in the private sector and focus on solutions instead of crying about tenders that didn’t come through. It is a struggle,” says Nqobile, “because if you want exposure, a website and marketing to win projects, you need money. On the other hand, you need work to get money.
“However, we are hustlers, and we are constantly looking for opportunities where new developments are coming up. Sometimes our approaches are met with positivity, and other times it’s not, but it is truly satisfying when a multi-national corporate give us the nod, and then is pleased with the final product.”
Staying focused on networking and proving their worth through the success of their projects, Nqobile and Mholi are thankful for each referral that leads to another project.
Within the past year, the firm has completed several commercial projects, amongst others for 2Cana, NPC Intercement, ISON BPO Experiences new call centre, as well as a number of high-end residential projects. Their latest project is an Italian-inspired music lounge in the entertainment hub of the famous Florida Road in Durban.
Each client and project are different, notes Nqobile. “Therefore, we take the time to sit down and listen to the brief, consider the client’s brand in terms of the logo and company colours, and visit the current working environment to understand the dynamics of the business and its people. Only once we have done that, do we start to formulate a design, select materials and present to the client what the new space could look like.”
Getting down to detail
“Right now we like to keep things natural,” says Nqobile. “Many of our clients are mindful of sustainability and are thinking long term, so we use materials such as stone and a lot of timber,” she says. Also for the interiors, Nqobile loves using natural products and greenery on walls.
“Even on the roofs, one often sees corrugated roof sheeting in simple, neutral tones, as people are going for a low-profile yet elegant look on the exterior and then accentuating the interior, opting for oversized windows that bring in natural light from the outside,” she adds.
MAD Design Studios also likes to mix it up when it comes to roof styles. “Some parts of a house may have a pitched roof, such as above the bedrooms and in areas where one wants to bring in a lot of natural light, such as the entrance. In other parts, like the lounge area, we may do a flat roof and, in turn, accentuate larger windows to facilitate an almost 360 degrees view,” Nqobile explains.
Another important part of a successful, growing business is its people. Nqobile and Mholi have put together a young dynamic team and give them the freedom to come up with innovative concepts and solutions.
Also, unlike many bigger firms, they allow their young employees to have direct contact with the clients. “Mholi and I love to see our staff developing. We take them along to presentations and to sites, so that they can understand what we need to do and also see the implications of their decisions. Something as simple as detailing how big a passage needs to be is important, and what better way to learn and improve than by experiencing every step themselves.”
Talented furniture makers
In addition, the duo is talented custom furniture designers. “Spending time in the industry, my husband and I realised that there is a gap in the market for bespoke furniture,” says Nqobile. “Especially our upmarket clients don’t want to buy readily available furniture that someone else might also have. They want a degree of customisation and sometimes a small adjustment is just not enough. These clients want feature pieces that would contribute to the overall design and that would speak specifically to the space that we have designed.”
According to an excited Nqobile, they work mainly with wood. “We love wood for its textures, the various finishes and its imperfections. When you choose the right type of timber, it can do everything for a furniture piece. To keep it interesting, we like to add different materials such as brass, luxurious fabrics and a bit of steel. As we combine the materials, glass and resin, the result is a beautiful piece every time.”
MAD Design Studios also employs artisans to manufacture the pieces they design. “When we don’t have the skills or capacity in-house (yet), we use our network of manufacturers to get the job done. We have had some beautiful collaborations with skilled makers.”
In 2018, MAD Design Studios was in the top five nationally in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Furniture Design Competition. Last year, after entering again, the firm was selected to showcase its products in Johannesburg.
“So we definitely have the talent and would like to grow more and more into the space, and one day have our own furniture brand,” Nqobile states.
A future-forward approach
“It is a lot! We have big dreams, but we are confident that it can happen. At MAD Design Studios we are trying to change the market bit by bit, to change people’s mindsets about small, black firms and give young designers an opportunity to become great architects and designers,” she concludes.
MAD Design Studios
Tel: 076 971 6815
Nqobile Mthembu of MAD Design Studios
Nqobile Mthembu is the co-founder and managing director of MAD Design Studios, an innovative an dynamic architecture, design and custom-made furniture studio.
It is the balance of her creativity and professionalism that makes her a force behind the brand that is MAD.
A born creative, Nqobile has been fortunate to gain adulting, leadership and business lessons when she worked (for almost a decade) in one of the world’s biggest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) organisations, Unilever.
She studied and qualified as a professional Interior Designer while working her corporate job, and once she gathered the courage, she took the plunge to join forces with her Architect-husband, Mholi Mthembu, and together they now strive to make the MAD Design business a success.
Nqobile’s view of WALLS & ROOFS magazine…
Paging through the latest issues of WALLS & ROOFS, I enjoy that it contains a bit of everything that has to do with the Architecture and Design industry, from style inspirations and trends, to new developments, informative articles and adverts that are relevant for our business. The beautiful cover images makes me eager to see inside and discover the latest projects and insights.
“Our company culture, no pun intended, is ‘mad’ crazy. We are a fun bunch, but we push each other to do more.” – Nqobile Mthembu