Winning Women: Gifted ‘soft rock’ art star

2013-05-05 14:00

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Ronel Jordaan produces unique, inspiring, hand-felted and wool products used by architects and interior designers across the world, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

You know you have arrived when Li Edelkoort, the internationally famous Dutch trend forecaster, tells the world about your designs and products.

That is now the happy fate of Ronel Jordaan, whose unique hand-felted interior and fashion products are in demand in Europe and the US, in up-market safari lodges locally and across Africa, and on islands off the continent. They are also to be found in art galleries.

I first noticed her extraordinary rock-like cushions, pebble “riverbed” carpets, curtains and vases a few years ago as a guest at a luxurious Waterberg lodge.

Her rock cushions are amazing because they look just like beautiful rocks, yet they are soft to the touch. No wonder, for they are made of pure wool, as is nearly everything else she makes.

Everything about Jordaan’s work is inspired by nature, whether that is intricately accented “falling leaves” wall hangings, floral-patterned throws or ottomans.

The effect when you walk into a room with her designs is that of strolling into nature and not of moving from the outdoors into a house, office, or hotel – some of the many places where her exquisite work ends up.

I’m not expecting this as I drive up to her brick-walled, typically ugly factory near Randburg. Her office inside is workmanlike. No matter, for Jordaan’s brilliant brain creates designs that the women working inside know will be things of beauty. Some are stirring huge saucepans of dye on gas stoves; others are carding and weaving the merino wool.

Jordaan had been a textile designer for 26 years, working in a freelance capacity for companies ranging from Barlow to the Orient Express and De Beers, when in 2004 she began to use felt as a creative medium.

She had been to art therapy following a family tragedy and was working with street children, using felt, when she had a flash of inspiration.

“I took wool and, in a process of washing it and creating friction, I made something unique,” says Jordaan, in her quiet, understated manner.

She is entirely self-taught and, by following her creative instincts, she began to turn fine gossamer threads into robust felted forms, like rocks.

She’s so low key that, standing in this functional factory, it’s hard to imagine that container loads of beauty will soon waft across the world.

A decade ago, Jordaan began to train four unemployed women in the garage of her Joburg home. As demand for her products grew, she moved into a couple of rooms in a little shopping centre and then eventually bought her current factory.

Her goods were on show in 2005 at the Design Indaba in Cape Town when Li Edelkoort noticed them and took some of Jordaan’s pebbles, rocks and throws to Paris and Stockholm.

The trend forecaster enjoyed Jordaan’s ecofriendly approach to her entire production. The soap she uses, which is essential to the felting process, is fully biodegradable. Dyes, imported from Germany, are lead free. Waste grey water is recycled into organic food gardens on the factory grounds and the resultant vegetables, mainly spinach, are for the women to take home or to sell.

Jordaan says she doesn’t use a process traditionally used in wool production, called carbonisation, to clean it. This requires bathing the wool in hydrochloric acid and other chemicals. She has her own, natural way of doing it. No wonder orders began to flow in.

“My value system is creating products that uplift people, make them smile, as well as ensuring they are organic and have truth.”

Women sing in the factory, “so their energy is absorbed into what they’re making”.

But this isn’t enough to drive a successful business and the global economic crunch, combined with the wool price increasing, “meant that I needed to upskill and to understand more about business”.

Jordaan applied to the Goldman Sachs-Gordon Institute of Business Science 10?000 Women entrepreneurs course.

“I was happy to be accepted as it gave me the  opportunity to improve my marketing skills and ability to strategise in an increasingly difficult international market.”

In the year she was at Gibs, her sales dropped as work overload hit her, but within a couple of months of completing the course and fired up with her valuable new set of business skills, her sales took off.

“I now feel comfortable. It’s a great feeling.”

Within the next two years, she plans to double her sales. She’s targeting Africa, particularly Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Morocco. Owing to Europe being so hard-hit by the economic crunch, she’s now eyeing Japan, South Korea, China and Australia for future markets.

Back home, she is working with street crafters, who are making scores of metal-framed sheep she’s covering with her merino felt for the Cape Wools SA stand at Design Indaba 2013. We will also shortly see some of her sheep this month when Cape Wools SA will host Wool Week SA at Sandton City.

Ronel Jordaan the artist is now also proudly a businesswoman heading for even greater heights.

»?If you are a female entrepreneur who needs a springboard to more success, sign up for the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-Gordon Institute of Business Science 10?000 Women Certificate Programme for Women Entrepreneurs

»?Visit www.gibs.co.za/10000women

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