Mention Tonic and those who follow or work in design will make a mental link to the brand’s growing collection of contemporary furniture or to their revolutionary design of our airport SLOW Lounges. Founders Greg Gamble and Philippe van der Merwe have made their mark on the South African design landscape. They recently re-opened their Kramerville showroom, after a major expansion, showing off their new furniture collection and toasting two decades of premium design with a soiree.
Take us back to where it all started.
Van der Merwe: Having worked at separate businesses, we were getting close to 30 (years old) and had itchy feet. We happened to be free at the same time and thought, “Let’s do this.” It’s a lot harder than that in reality! (Laughs.) But we were lucky from day one - we had work. The challenge was trying to position ourselves in the right place.
Gamble: We started out in about 1999 as Fresh Design and began with the fit-out of News Café; Mimo’s followed on from that, so we spent our lives working in malls and casinos and getting referrals to do more of the same work. It wasn’t where we had actually wanted to position ourselves.
Van der Merwe: We realised that you only get the work that you put out - restaurant design got us more restaurant design.
What changed that?
Gamble: We had split from Fresh Design and had been working out of a tiny little studio at the back of the Dunkeld Centre as Tonic. We decided to design a small range of furniture and put it into our window. At the same time, we took a 3x3 stand at Rooms on View, which gained us our first residential project.
What did the design landscape look like at that time?
Van der Merwe: It was a period where there wasn’t a lot of local design but rather copies of iconic original designs. There was one tier of product available; everything else local was very commercial. Our annual pilgrimage back then was to Sean Weldon’s Innovation in Cape Town, which was one of the most outstanding shops, with a lot of Memphis furniture and European classics in it.
How did you want to add to that design offering?
Gamble: We wanted to break the mould. From the very beginning we wanted to create really beautiful, handcrafted furniture, designed and considered with the intention of it being timeless. If I think back to what we had on that Rooms on View stand … we still have a few of those first pieces in our showroom and use them in projects, which speaks to their longevity.
Tell me about your latest furniture collection.
Gamble: When we sat down and thought about our new pieces, we decided we wanted to use materials we haven’t used before, rather than brass, walnut and oak. Why weren’t we using them? In the early ‘90s everything was in beech veneer ... and then it all stopped. Then stainless steel was big and now it’s just black steel, brass and copper. So, among other unexpected materials, we have included stainless steel in our collection, which may take a few years to start to sell but it should become popular again.
Van der Merwe: We want to get the brand out there beyond Johannesburg, to grow our presence in Cape Town and, after we have established that, we’ll look to penetrate the overseas market.