South African designer-artist shows that one man’s trash can truly be another man’s treasure.
You can either see the ugly in something that is, or you can see the beauty in what it can become…” This is Roche van den Berg’s motto when it comes to upcycling. It’s what keeps her motivated to giving waste tyres new life in the form of furniture, décor and jewellery.
Born and raised in Paarl, South Africa, Roche has always been a creative soul, with a love for the environment. They say dynamite comes in small packages – andwith her petite physical frame, her determination to work with such a tough material to create beautiful, durable upcycled rubber pieces, as well as to make a stand against wasteful living, is
something powerful to observe.
From Old To New
Internationally, Roche’s work has already travelled as far as Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. Locally, you’ll spot it in the form of furniture and décor at Charly’s Bakery; in one of the quirky trailers at the Old Mac Daddy in Elgin; as well as at
Hotel Verde; if not in passing dangling from someone’s neck or ears in the form of jewellery.
After school, Roche did what most South African 18-year-olds at the time did – went to London for a two-year gap. However, she didn’t find herself working at a restaurant or as a nanny for a family. Instead, she worked in a care home for the elderly.
“I was disturbed by how alone and helpless many elderly people were. I decided to sign up for a six-month course through the home in order to expand my knowledge on everything related to my work and to improve my skills.
I wanted to do my job to the best of my ability,” she recalls. “After my return to South Africa, I worked as a junior designer for a bit but soon realised that I wanted to physically create things with my hands. I quit my job and took to the streets of Cape Town looking for inspiration.
I walked past a Chinese shop in Adderley Street and saw a big basket in the window, filled with the rubber ‘inners’ of soccer balls. For some reason, I just couldn’t get those soccer balls out of my mind. I went back the next day and bought them all but for about two weeks they just lay in my apartment.
One day, I spontaneously started making foldable flower pots out of them and when they all sold to a gallery owner in Amsterdam, I started thinking of all the waste rubber out there and simply knew I had something special going,” she explains.
Inspiration From Unexpected Places
Looking back, she believes her time working at the care home in the UK was instrumental in her life: it birthed a desire in her to change the way people think about and treat anything that has lost its ‘practical use’ or ‘sell-by date’, so to speak… And it’s clear that this principle is an integral part of her work and designs.
“I could change the way people look at something so harsh and ugly as a used and broken tyre and make it worth something again by giving it practical and functional use,” says Roche. What further drew her to waste rubber as her material of choice is that it’s everywhere and it’s free.
She started small so that she could get to know the material and its constrictions. After the foldable flower pots, she proceeded to make small accessories. She then took her motto even more to heart (and her designs to a new level) as she didn’t want to use any other material to cover the rubber. She restricted herself to using only tyres as is, and manipulating it by hand through classic techniques such as cutting, punching, knitting, crocheting and hand stitching.
After multiple people told her that she should start selling her creations, she went straight to Long Street in Cape Town to see if someone would be interested. The first shop owner and designer she showed them to, took the lot – about 50 brooches! “This showed me that rubber was accepted and I could expand my ideas and designs,” she says.
“Although at first it was a challenge to work with, the material’s durability and the different shapes it comes in, is
now what inspires and pushes me to create. I love connecting those shapes with the environment around me. “I am busy with collaborations and new décor collections, but I’ll never lose my love for accessory design. There is still so much more to explore with waste tyres and I feel like I am only getting started… ”
Words: Ilse van den Berg