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Always Welcome Cape Town is here and this is what you should know

Always Welcome have opened the doors to their new showroom in Cape Town with a beautiful setup across multiple levels at the Heritage House building

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By Piet Smedy | December 6, 2022 | Innovative

We have always wanted to be in Cape Town but in two years never managed to find the right partner who shared our passion and vision,’ says Always Welcome co-founder Garreth van Niekerk. ‘But, on our last trip here, we connected with the founders of Habitus – developers working to create sustainable spaces that bring unique tenant mixes back to the inner-city.’ It was a meeting of minds and an aligning of objectives that would see Always Welcome join the Habitus team’s mission to create a design node within Cape Town’s CBD. ‘Alongside our stable of over 40 of the country’s leading designer-maker studios, you will be able to explore the works of our neighbours, such as the inspiring African surf brand Mami Wata, Asian-fusion restaurant Silk, confectioner Mochi Mochi, and more,’ says Garreth.

Habitus, co-founded by Victoria Engelhorn, Brad Armitage and Tim Harris, acquired the 108 Shortmarket Street building (an 18th-century former smithy and tobacco store) in 2021 from the Cape Heritage Trust, and found themselves faced with the challenge of bringing this historic – albeit neglected – building into the present. ‘It was in a very bad state, so we cleaned it up and took away structures and additions that were not part of the original build, bringing back the clean white walls and exposing some of the stone and brickwork that we believed indicated how, in the past, things were built,’ says Victoria. ‘We worked very closely with a Heritage consultant so that no mistakes were made. It is a challenge to be able to maintain the character but repurpose it for modern usage. We wanted to bring the building’s history to light but make sure it also serves Cape Town as it is today. This vision has now been realised and we are seeing a diverse group of locals and tourists appreciating the space, enjoying the art and design created by contemporary artists, and loving the incredible food from our new restaurants opening in the space.’

Garreth van Niekerk and Alan Hayward, directors and co-founders of Always Welcome stand at the building store front, Photograph: Greg Cox

What drives the concept behind Always Welcome Heritage House?

We want Always Welcome Heritage House to be a space that is about experiencing our country’s rich legacy of craftsmanship and design, but told through the lens of contemporary Southern African furniture and products. From collaborative chairs that connect traditional craft techniques with industrial processes, such as Houtlander’s ‘Woven’ tub chair created with the Hlabisa weavers in KwaZulu-Natal to works by young designers, such as Neimil, who explore their own story in pieces including their ‘Hut’ chair.

How closely did you work with local designers in the development of the showroom?

Collaboration is at the heart of how Always Welcome works as a collective. From the wall finishes, working with Robin Sprong and Fabric Bank, MONN Rugs on the floors, MOS Products, Mash.T Design Studio and Ananta Lighting Co – the space itself is a reflection of the best in South African design. Selecting the actual furniture and art pieces in the space is also a partnership between ourselves, the designers and our partner organisations, such as Art Gazette and the Spier Arts Trust, so it is very much a team effort.

The striking blue artwork is by Morné Visagie, Photograph: Greg Cox

Take me through the space. How does it flow?

The Heritage ‘House’ is split into two levels – on the ground floor, we have our gift store featuring a selection of award-winning, suitcase-friendly product designs. Then you head up the original staircase into a library, sitting room, dining space, bedroom and conservatory-style outdoor area.

There is a clearly domestic feel – what was the thinking behind that?

We wanted it to feel like a home. The pieces themselves are really outstanding objects that someone could comfortably show in a gallery-style white cube, but our designers created the pieces with a home in mind, and so we think it is important that they should make sense as furniture that anyone could own – chairs you could sit on, not just admire.

Always Welcome offers a way to interact with local design on a more cerebral level; occupying this liminal space between retail and gallery, past and present, present and future, heritage and the avant garde.

As the business is maturing and we are working more closely with designers in the collective, the store is really becoming about how we can include everyone’s voices while serving our customers in a way that is authentic and exciting. It is a little bit of everything – but, most importantly, we want everyone to feel welcome, that it is their space to explore and reimagine. It is in the name!

Contemporary sofas, artworks and bedding decor are all available at the Always Welcome showroom, Photograph: Greg Cox

Beyond the retail aspect, what sort of conversations do you want people to be having around SA design – and what place do you see Always Welcome occupying within that creative ecosystem?

Our designers are the inspiration for all our retail stores, campaigns and exhibitions. We get to see what is new and in development and then try to mix it all harmoniously. We try never to dictate what is coming out but rather celebrate the flare of originality our members consistently come up with.

How has Always Welcome’s philosophy evolved since you first launched?

Always Welcome is about connecting designers with their audience through beautiful retail environments and engaging content, creating a more holistic design ecosystem. I think the best part of visiting Always Welcome is that you never know quite what to expect, so expect the unexpected, and to be consistently surprised and proud of the work being done by our members – we are lucky to have them.

This green armchair is by TheUrbanative with cushions by Neiml and Sett & Beat, Photograph: Greg Cox