Lance Surgeson and Paul Rabinowitz, partners who created design company Arkivio, believe that Durban is seeing something of a renaissance. People are buying local and they are excited to be a part of this growing trend.

As Surgeson explains, they are in the business of functional art, building premium objects using traditional stained glass techniques – although they do not use stained (coloured) glass.

They started out with a range of succulent vases and now produce lights as well.

“Innovation is just a new take on something that already existed,” he explains.

Intending to move into the design space, they began browsing the web, looking for a platform to express their own creativity. They found something similar to what they now sell produced by Japanese crafters and expanded on it, making it their own.

“Inspired by this incredible build ethos, we came up with a vase design and then used Southern African succulents. It was our way of making it local, of bringing it home,” he says.

“We saw we could add value through design. Local manufacturers cannot compete with cheap imports but they can compete this way. The design element gives local manufacturers a point of difference,” says Rabinowitz.

The only problem was that neither of them knew a great deal about stained glass.

They had gone to school together and then gone on to travel and to tertiary education.

Surgeson studied economics and then moved into a company doing lighting design and manufacture. “I guess my last boss took a crazy chance on me. He could see a creative spark and that I wanted to design and make things,” he smiles.

After that, he headed off to teach English in South Korea, building up the savings that he would ultimately invest in this business. 

Rabinowitz says his passion for creating beautiful things saw him study industrial design, completing his last two years in Milan, Italy.

Their stained glass skills came through plenty of time spent on YouTube and guidance from an expert living in Durban North who took them under his wing. Many of the tools they’d purchased at the outset were unsuitable for the job but they built up their equipment as they grew their skills.

Rabinowitz says that Arkivio embraces the concept of a lean start-up. “We want to get a working product out there as soon as possible.”

Succulent vases fitted the bill because they were an “accessible product” that would be an affordable and ideal gift.

The initial design and development phase was rapid and, just R 1000 later, their first succulent vase was good to go. It was mid-2014.

They started out at a market in Hillcrest. After realising their product was popular and hearing plenty of positive feedback, they decided that that was the last time that they would second guess a product. But they also realised the value of taking new ones to markets first to test the response to both the designs and price points.

They started out working in a tiny empty room at the back of Rabinowitz’ s apartment, moving to their small Glenwood workshop in the middle of this year as demand for their products began to grow. Now, they have taken on a staff of two to help them make their products. “The last room was a quarter of this size. As soon as we moved into lighting, we needed more space,” he explains.

When it comes to succulent vases, Surgeson says they are by now on version 30 with the product consistently being improved on every new take.

“That’s the beauty of local production. We are always innovating and improving,” adds Rabinowitz.

They went straight into lighting after they were approached to make a pendant light.

They moved to yet another level through “jumping in the deep end” and participating in the 100% Design section of Decorex Johannesburg.

The Johannesburg leg was a last minute opportunity and they had just a 10 hour turn around, driving to Johannesburg to set up on the same day. Here, lighting took centre stage, although their vases also proved popular.

“It was cool to get to understand the Joburg market. We were seeing a different type of client and had an opportunity to network with other designers, interior designers and architects,” says Rabinowitz.

It is here that they see the future of their business and want to move into the high end of design, ultimately including additional lighting and even furniture in their offering. This will make their business sustainable and allow them to work more closely with design professionals in creating a variety of products that provide continuity in interior spaces.

That’s why the partners intend setting up a second workshop in the near future. “We would like to have a manufacturing space where we can work with other materials such as wood and steel so that we can move into furniture,” he continues.

Meanwhile they are making strides in building Arkivio and are encouraged by the fact that they are growing in tough times. “Now we just need to prove ourselves. The more people know about us and can experience our work, I’m confident we will grow,” he says.

They currently sell at the I Heart market although, for now, their primary sales come through a network of design shops and retailers in Durban Cape Town and Johannesburg. They also sell on line through their website.

Although they initially believed that online sales would increase rapidly, it proved slower than they thought. “People still like to buy in shops. Originally, we thought that 60 percent of our sales would be on line, but they weren’t,” says Rabinowitz.

Nevertheless, this remains a space where they would like to drive more traffic and build up and grow their brand, Surgeson adds.