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A Design Ethnography of South African Barbershops & Salons

What the history of Apartheid has to do with signage design and communal storytelling.

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for innovation through collaboration.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

In many was, South African Township Barbershops & Salons is both a parallel and opposite of last month’s Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, the vernacular design of the barbershops’ signage standing in stark contrast to the overdesigned vintage type of New York’s storefronts and yet just as evocative of its community’s spirit, the social norms and function of its physical place, and the cultural traditions of its location.

Out of — of courseMark Batty, my favorite indie publisher.

Published May 17, 2011




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