From his 2018 collection, Endangered: Porky Hefer, Orangutan
From his 2018 collection, Endangered: Porky Hefer, Orangutan
Image: Antonia Steyn Courtesy Southern Guild and SFA Advisory

Dangling in the playroom of the Malibu Binishell residence of actor Robert Downey jnr and his wife, Susan, is a large, hollow creature-like thing made of woven kooboo cane, rope and leather.

According to the Iron Man actor, the creator of this kooky, surprisingly comfy wickerwork pod is “this awesome South African designer Porky Hefer”. Downey first encountered Hefer’s Humanest hanging seating structure at Jeff Lincolns design collective in Southampton, New York. He says he climbed inside and immediately knew he had to have it for his house.

Hefer, a former ad agency account executive who abandoned corporate life in 2007, says Humanest is meant to be occupied the way hermit crabs inhabit shells. The rounded, nest-like structure has large openings through which to climb inside — gaps that create the impression of a mouth and eyes, giving the pod an animalistic air. 

Inside, suspended in midair, its cushioned interiors provide reprieve, shelter from the outside world, great space for sleeping, snuggling, unwinding.

Central to Hefer’s creative practice is biomimicry, emulating nature to formulate sustainable solutions for real-world problems. His large-scale nests can be found all over the world, dangling not only in private homes but in parks, on wine farms, safari lodges and in galleries and museums. They’re the result of analysing the intricate construction techniques of weaver birds to replicate their nest-building methods at human scale.

For Hefer, using natural or recycled materials is vital, as are the traditional handicraft techniques used to turn his ideas into three-dimensional immersive sculptures. “The problem with machine-manufactured goods is that the left and right are exactly the same,” he tells the FM. “That’s why they feel almost soulless.”

Imbuing the work with heart and soul is the whole point; he wants people’s interactions with his work to shift their consciousness, make them question what they think they know about their relationship with nature.

Porky Hefer, Humanest
Porky Hefer, Humanest
Image: Supplied

Natural inspiration

His largest project so far is The Nest, a house in a remote 24,000ha conservancy in Namibia. He was inspired by the labyrinthine multiroom communal nests of sociable weavers. It took five years to construct, working with local materials and traditional crafting and building techniques to come up with a true original. It’s so original that the engineer refused to sign off on the plans, saying that on paper, the house did not make sense.

It won Wallpaper* magazine’s design award for Best New Private House in 2019, confounding architects who say it defies convention and breaks nearly every rule.

I try to push things into another level, maybe using something for what it’s not meant to be used for. It’s a different way of looking at things. And — you know? — ‘No rules!’

Hefer doesn’t go in for tried and tested, nor for rules or convention. He’s trying, always, to break free of stereotypes and expectations, seeking to liberate his creative instincts through experimentation, inventiveness and true innovation.

I try to push things into another level, maybe using something for what it’s not meant to be used for. It’s a different way of looking at things. And — you know? — ‘No rules!’”

Much of his pluck, that daring to be different, comes from being born and raised in Africa, growing up on farms, being in the bush. He hints that if there’s anything being African bestows on him as a designer, it’s a kind of creative boundlessness.

The Nest was something of a turning point, a chance to create the unimaginable. He says it took having a client “mad enough to say ‘yes’” to have the opportunity to create an entire home based on what a weaver bird colony looks like.

While The Nest was taking shape, Hefer’s hanging pods were evolving too. He began designing mind-altering, animal-inspired chairs that he imagined could change how humans relate to other living beings. His first solo exhibition, Monstera Deliciosa, Volume I, was a series of fantastical handmade leather seating pods resembling zoomorphic sea creatures.

His first such “chair” was a killer whale named Fiona Blackfish. Its creation was well-timed, coinciding with the furore over SeaWorld keeping orcas in captivity. Fiona was meant to be part of Monstera Deliciosa, but she became such a hit at the 2015 Miami Design Fair that Hefer says she instead went around the world on her own, “swam off like a good orca should”.

Fiona made Hefers eco-activist tendencies clear: beyond the playful seductiveness of how his animals look and feel, theres a deeper message. A soul.

In 2018, at Design Miami/Basel he exhibited Endangered — an orangutan, a polar bear, a sloth, a blue whale and a great white shark, all cute as hell and extremely tactile, all inviting playful engagement, all handmade by South African artisans using eco-friendly and recycled materials, all excellent structures on which to sit, lie or cuddle. And all on the brink of extinction.

From the Endagered collection: Porky Hefer, Great White Shark
From the Endagered collection: Porky Hefer, Great White Shark
Image: Supplied

Each creature in his dystopian 2020 collection, Plastocene — Marine Mutants From a Disposable World, including a gigantic mutant octopus named Buttpuss, imagines how sea beings might mutate in the presence of the endless waste — plastic bags, takeaway cups, earbuds, fishing tackle, cigarette butts — that ends up in the ocean.

The thing about Hefer’s work is that it is larger than life. The scale is attention-grabbing, meant to awe us, and he says he wants adults to feel a bit like they are children again when they encounter it.

He also says he wanted to fly in the face of what was happening in advertising. “We got to a point with ads where it’s ‘show me a dead dog and I’ll give you your award’. It was about the scariest image you could put out there, the more shocking the better. I think we got desensitised to shock.”

The idea for his latest show, no bats, no chocolate, was rather: “Don’t shock!”

“How could we talk to kids without scaring them? How could we just gently nudge them into understanding the benefits of saving animals?” he asks.

Energy transfer

Answering these questions is his current crop of lovable, larger-than-life functional animal sculptures, showing in Galerie56 in Tribeca, New York, until August. “It’s about trying to get kids to live with animals,” says Hefer. “To have those animals in the house, to put more elephants in the room.”

Except, it’s a case not of having a pachyderm in the lounge, but a few overlooked and even maligned creatures. They each have a story to tell; the exhibition’s title refers to the fact that cocoa plantations depend on bats for seed dispersal and pest control — without them, chocolate would be compromised.

Apart from the bat, there’s a walrus, a wildebeest, and a pair of beavers named Maria and Kevin. “The beavers are such fun and they’re so cute,” says Hefer. “Children love them. They can lie on them, jump on their heads, roll on them, sit on them upside down, whatever their imaginations and bodies allow.”

Getting them to that point — where adorableness and functionality intersect — starts with a series of tiny drawings. “I sketch maybe 40 animals to begin with. Then I sketch them from all angles as I try to understand how I’d inhabit this animal, how you’d use it. And I steadily whittle them down to the animals I fall in love with.

“There’s a point with each creature where I realise how it’ll work. With the bat, it was deciding to have it hanging upside down with the wings pulled around, so it became a wingback chair. Eureka! A bat hanging from the ceiling and it’s a wingback chair! In that moment, I got a feeling, and I knew: it’s amazing, it’s going to be wow.”

Porky Hefer designs
Porky Hefer designs
Image: Supplied

He says that when there’s a physical connection of people engaging with the animals, they come alive. “They become animated because there’s energy being transferred. That’s why I make them so comfortable, so you want to touch and climb on top or inside.”

As much as they’re a kind of furniture, he wants them to become like living things, to animate people’s homes. He says he put the zebra on wheels “because I want the kid who owns it to take it from the bedroom to the lounge — I don’t want them to be apart for a second because the child loves it so much”.

Of course, that requires first getting it sold. The market is fickle, he says. “Sometimes a piece will go within a month, but because there’s such new, freaky stuff that people aren’t really used to, they tend to take three years to sell.”

Hefer is in no rush. He sold maybe eight chairs last year, which he says is “not bad business”, given that his wingback bat Tao and Warren, his bushbaby, are $65,000 apiece. Paul the walrus and Robert Nesta the wildebeest are going for $75,000 a pop.

Meanwhile, Hefer’s interest in nature-inspired houses continues. In Arles, France, where he now lives, he’s convincing Europeans to embrace organic materials and rediscover local craft techniques. He’s designing a house that will, should it make it beyond the drawing board, be built using rice thatch, of which there is an abundance in the Camargue, just south of Arles.

While he’s managed to convince people to go with vernacular architecture, his next step is convincing them to let him build it in the shape of a flamingo. “Because we’ve got a lot of flamingos here,” he says.

He’s not sure if his client is mad enough to let him execute his wild plan, but Hefer isn’t about to stop dreaming. Nor will he ever refrain from trying to make humans a little more like animals.

This article was initially published in Financial Mail. 

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