By Melanie Farrell
This week I chat to designer Das Lyon who lives on the Garden Route with his ‘incredible wife, two cats, two dogs, five chickens, many wild birds and all the other creatures on a smallholding on the Garden Route ZA’.
I ‘found’ designer Das Lyon on Instagram, via Garth Ensley who lives in a *tiny house on the Garden Route.
Just before lockdown started in South Africa I met Das in Muizenberg after I sent him a spur-of-the-moment WhatsApp query about an eco retrofit reno idea I was working on.
He replied immediately, suggesting coffee. I thought he was in the Garden Route but he was in Cape Town for a week. Das Lyon is an award-winning designer and I was talking about an essentially small reno on a suburban house. And yet he was keen to take a look and his ideas were wonderful. Das is now back on the Garden Route and in lockdown. I catch up with him to find out more about his life, pre- and in-lockdown.
How old are you, where did you grow up, what did you study, when did you become interested in architecture and eco design in particular?
I am 43 years old, born in Scotland in coastal farmland, moved to Dubai, UAE in the mid-80s with my family, where I lived until University in the UK (a Master of the Arts from University of Industrial Arts Helsinki (UIAH) in Industrial Design, a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Industrial and Product Design from Kingston University UK, and a Bachelor of Technology in Design and Manufacture from Canterbury UK). I have travelled extensively and lived and worked in many industries across the globe.
I moved to Dubai when camels still roamed the sandy streets, and growing up in what at the time was the world’s fastest-growing city became fundamental in many ways to my development, ideas, and subsequent interest in architecture and design. Even the beauty of the naked desert inspires me to this day – sometimes in the pursuit of natural abundance that I have brought to my work – of ‘biophilia’.
After realising that my early idea of a military career would ask terrible things of me, I ventured to become educated as a sculptor! The opportunities to study furniture and industrial design in Europe, however, along with a parallel apprenticeship as a fine cabinet maker in world-class facilities, was more appealing than the white sculptors’ studio filled with plaster dust and vacant expressions, so I took the design route instead.
As a direct reflection of the rapid change and even damage that I saw as Dubai ‘developed’, I immediately began to integrate peripheral studies of some of the leaders in environmental design, such as Victor Papanek, which influenced me and, by osmosis, my fellow students. At this stage, I was more interested in furniture and industrial products.
Eventually, I became an interior architect, and then a young partner in what is now one of the top commercial design companies in the Middle East. My educational background brought the great benefit of construction and detailing knowledge to my work, and the custom furniture and fittings design focus helped to distinguish my work from the crowd. We completed some amazing projects, and I have a proven history of award-winning, successful, high-level project deliveries in residential, retail, commercial and in the hotel industry. I also championed eco-materials and technology in my projects from the beginning and was published as a leading voice in the design and construction community at the time, even advising the Ministry of Arts and Culture on requirements to encourage the creative economies in late 2009.
It was at this stage in my career that I began to work on buildings with more influence, with some global architectural and project management companies, growing my enthusiasm for international architecture. However, I had been disillusioned by the wastefulness of the design and build process at this luxury level, and so moved to South Africa to find a better life balance.
Where do you live? Do you share your home with anyone? Any pets?
I live with my incredible wife, two cats, two dogs, five chickens, many wild birds and all the other creatures on a smallholding on the Garden Route ZA. We are busy renovating and have been for some time as I’m doing it myself!
When and why did you start your business and what did you offer pre-lockdown/during lockdown?
My design business started before I left the ME in 2009, where I worked as a consultant to other design firms, on large restaurants, offices and hotel projects. Immigrating to ZA at this time, I opened a bespoke furniture making company and art gallery, gaining recognition at international level for our design products and at the local Design Indabas, with our ‘Love table’ being voted as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Objects in South Africa’ in 2010.
I then designed and built what at the time was my Magnum Opus – an off-grid luxury lifestyle farm, the Barefoot Palace, in The Crags, Western Cape. Designing this project allowed the time to educate myself on and experience working with passive architecture, alternative living systems, and cutting edge ideas on the subject, from both ancient and contemporary leading architects, landscapers, permaculturalists, farmers, philosophers, and others in many different fields.
The experience of building this farm and living there for a decade was the basis for the work to follow: biophilic eco-architecture, designing off-grid eco-homes, from simple tiny houses to larger luxury houses of a high standard. Almost all of my work from this time to date has been of this nature, where I conceptualise, design, detail and advise on the holistic, ecological development of new eco homes on environmentally sensitive sites and areas.
What has been the effect of lockdown on your business?
2020 was set to be our best year yet, with enough successfully completed, unique projects to become noticed, along with a growing interest in our work. We also have the largest projects to date in studio, and we were about to hire some staff to grow the business. Our corporate rebrand has stalled mid-sketch, as our clients react to the circumstances and our design business falls away. We still have some great work to come out of the Lyon studio this year, so look out for those projects!
What the collapse of the project funnel has brought is the life-changing effect of following my interest in to natural farming in general, and herbal and mycological medicine in particular. I see this as an opportunity to serve in a more holistic way, with the ultimate intention of working to restore large ecology through mycological bioremediation.
Lockdown Life: Five favourite green spaces and places, preferably accessible during lockdown and within 5km walking distance
We have the privilege of rural, small farm living where we don’t have to leave for any favourite green space! My other personal favourites are the Robberg national park and Nature’s Valley beach, both of which of course have been Covid-closed!
Again the freedom of a piece of land and forest is the liberty we all need to be mentally, physically and spiritually healthy in this upside-down day, which I do believe is possible if the right political will matched the skillsets available in the ecological fields.
Typical day in lockdown with Das Lyon
Awake before the birds, get up when the hadedas determine it’s light enough to fly, get to work in the design office, admin, or straight out to work the farm before a healthy breakfast: green smoothie with spinach and gooseberries from the garden, for example. I train and teach martial arts, weapons and self-defence every week, so my ad-hoc personal regime and my students keep me focused and fit, along with farm work: #farmfit is holistic living at its best! I work all daylight hours before retiring early in front of the fire with the whole family, crafting, sewing new clothes, discussing politics and personal projects, making music, and watching the occasional new documentary.
Tell me about the projects you’re working on, some of the designs that you’ve done in Plett/Knysna/Garden Route.
At present on my desk is an awesome private eco house in Plett overlooking the beautiful ocean and the bay, and set in incredible indigenous fynbos and forest. This luxury timber home is one of the world’s first designed to deal with mitigating the effects and intrusion of harmful electromagnetic waves from telecom and satellite systems, due to my clients’ EMF hypersensitivity. The research for this has generated a unique and beautiful concept for this home, due to be built this year.
We have a corporate branding manual to complete for our client that has also awarded us our largest-ever job, at least four different eco accommodation offerings in untouched rainforest, where we are designing cutting-edge architecture, and ‘geotechture’ with one of Africa’s first contemporary earth-sheltered buildings, to be hand-built using locally available sustainable materials.
There are a couple of projects on-site, and more in the pipeline. Almost all of our work on the Garden Route has been off grid, passive eco architecture on new sites, which have most often been on regenerated or improved land.
The Barefoot Palace is for sale. For more details see Private Property
Tiny House South Africa *Garth Ensley has built a tiny house on the Garden Route and vlogs about it here
Lockdown Life: is a series that I started during lockdown where I catch up with foodies, designers, gardeners, growers, farmers and eco-conscious entrepreneurs in South Africa to find out what they’re doing during lockdown.
To read about Pamela McOnie from Cape Town Eats and her City Bowl click here. To read about The Cape Town Vegan Garth Tavares‘ Sea Point click here To read about my life in lockdown with Waffles the Wonderdog click here
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