Mema designs’ studio is the result of a collaboration between Sian Eliot and Ari Geva. With fourty years’ experience between the two of THEM, and a year of play, research and development, THEY offer a unique product to the lighting industry.
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: SARAH dePINA
Are you working with MEMA fulltime now or are you still consulting parttime as ‘projekgirl’ as a designer and manufacturer?
I’m juggling a few different projects while building and launching mema designs. So apart from mema, i also consult as a product designer helping other people to design and manufacture their products, as well as designing and manufacturing bespoke lighting pieces.
Was is it a conscious decision to get involved with lighting again after willowlamp or where there any other options you were considering at the time?
I left willowlamp in order to diversify my designing/making experience, so the idea is always to try different things when i get the opportunity. However working with light is so much fun – i love engineering little bits and pieces which click together – it’s a bit more technical which is always more fun. Also i think the way the object/light fitting transforms at night after the light is switched on – it has a magic to it which never fails to please me.
Fortunately i have found time to work on other products too, mostly keeping with metal because i have a few really great engineers and metal workers who i work with. R&d on developing new products requires time and money so i need to be patient and know that it’ll take a few years for some projects to come to fruition. Some ideas might only find their moment in the sun next decade and that’s ok.
How did you end up meeting the electronics engineer ari geva and what led to the decision to start a business together?
Ari’s son is my friend, so he introduced us. When we met, ari told me that after 30 years of being an engineer he wanted to finally make art. I ultimately want to bring electronics into the work i do, so that it can be more interactive. So 2+2 and the collaboration between us happened. I can teach him how to make things and he can teach me how to put a circuit board to it. He’s a lot older than me and so he’s a good coach when it comes to dealing with people and making business relationships. We joke that he’s my psychologist! And he brings me food! I am the one with the mechanical engineering experience, and he is the one with large scale project management and electronics experience, so we are learning a lot from each other. I’ll do a maths course and he can be my tutor! He also has a wonderful fun-loving nature which brings a much needed light-heartedness to our creative process, since i tend to be a bit hard on myself in the learning process. All of these combined qualities are what makes the collaboration endure and grow J.
Is there anything behind the MEMA name, where does the name stem from?
I have been learning a bit of zulu (dropped out of class recently) and i love the simplicity and visual element to the phonetic words you find. I wanted to find a word that meant ‘calling’ or ‘invite’ and mema is an isizulu and isixhosa word for ‘send out an invitation to others’. I was looking at many different languages, but i liked this word the most. You see i want the work we make to draw people in and engage them.
What led to the idea of working with ‘fine aluminum woven mesh’, was it a material that you worked with before mema?
I previously worked with steel mesh and i loved the way light reflected from it. I knew immediately that it would make a good material for sculptural lights.
What was it about the material that appealed to you?
It looks like silk fabric but it is metal! I love metal. And i‘ve done pattern making and sewing in the past, so the two elements are coming together quite nicely for me.
It seems that you had to experiment quite a lot with constructing the ‘tool’ or mold you use to sculpt or emboss the material with?
Ari and i have been experimenting since late 2013! It’s been really fun and i’m glad that i’m working with someone who is as hardegat as me – we might have given up long before we cracked the process j we’ve tried approximately 4 different techniques so far and are happy with how it is going now.
How long does it normally take to construct a lamp in its entirety and what part of the process would you say is the most difficult?
The commercial lead time is 6-8 weeks, because we have a variety of parts and suppliers. But once all the materials and components are at hand and the mesh has been prepared, it takes me about 8 hours to ‘stitch’ it together and do the final forming. The final forming happens with everything joined together. That is definitely the trickiest part. Metal doesn’t like to be bent twice!
If the demand allows it what sort of procedure would go into mass producing a certain design or pattern?
We’d have to develop a digital/robotic process….we’ve discussed it and it is possible (ari can do that! Like wow!), but we’ve decided to keep our business within a human scale. So we’ll continue to develop tools, but they will mostly be hand operated by people and ultimately the work remains a handmade product. This is also more appropriate for a south african context.
The designs come in a very unique color way. What made you decide on the colours, does the material come in silver and what do you use to coat them with?
It’s anodized, which is an electro-dyeing process. This color way was chosen by me and developed with our supplier who does the dyeing. Basically the metal gets dipped into a tank with magnesium or other chemistry ‘stuffs’ j and when a current is charged through the metal it causes the natural oxide layer on the aluminum to go hard and be dyed. It’s really interesting and has taken us a while to get it right! I am very excited about the colors we can do – the designs we launch in late 2015 will probably have bright colors!
How many different styles do you have within the range right now and is the ‘ukhamba’ the most prominent model at the moment?
The ‘fan’ is the first design in the ‘ukhamba’ range – it’s the only design (in 3 different sizes) currently available. We’ll be launching a new design within the next 6 months. At the moment we have the first batches of production to manage as well as the business systems like crm and accounting software to set up. I’ve recently designed the website which took me a while because i am a novice at that. Everything takes time when you are diy-ing a business, but i am happier to be slow and thorough, and launch just one product at a time.
Do you see yourself moving towards producing the lamps on a much a larger scale like the sculptures you produced with willowlamp?
That’s always a goal. I love working at an architectural scale! Right now because i’m dealing with a whole new process, which has no prior examples, i am happy to be working at a smaller scale for now. The giant sculptures can come laterj. That’ll be amazing (not just because i love scampering up and down scaffolding)! Planning for a large scale project is also more daring and requires a bigger team. So it’s more exciting and rewarding as a group effort…it’s lovely.
Upon planning a new mesh design, what sort of work goes into constructing a new prototype for a potential new design?
We are working with a 2d material and creating 3d structures, so there’s a series of tests that go on. I use rhino 3d to create some tests first, and then transfer onto cardboard which gets formed. Once i am happy i will make a prototype in mesh. It’s pretty hard to get software to flatten out a 3d form without breaking it up into many pieces…. The biggest design challenge is to construct a 3d object with the fewest seams/joins as possible.
Where do you draw most of your inspiration from while working on new designs?
The material and the physical process is most often where i get my ideas, but there are many things that spark an idea. Sometimes ridiculously ordinary objects make me think – because of a construction detail i never noticed before. I also looked at millions of fashion references last year. Iris van herpen is a mind blowing fashion designer. Sometimes it’s combinations of colors that get me excited, maybe in a painting or the sky. You never know where you’ll find the inspiration. And you don’t always know what to do with it either.
‘The World Of ’
Soul Jazz Records
‘Astrud Gilberto album’
‘I Put A Spell On You’
‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’
‘The Whole Story’