Carrol Boyes is a household name that has graced dinner tables and offices across South Africa and the world. Read on to find out how an artist turned her talents into a global business. Do you have a favourite South African product? Then tell us about it and you could win.
This story was first published in the October 2012 issue of SA Country Life and was updated on 24 May 2019.
🕒 8-minute read
The sensual metal tableware of Carrol Boyes has made her a worldwide name but her roots remain in Tzaneen, says Lisa Martus.
I still clearly remember my first Carrol Boyes factory sale. My girlfriends and I were squeaky-voiced with excitement as we joined the throngs of bargain-hunters ready to rugby tackle a Water Jug Man and fight to the death for a set of pewter Soulmates Salad Spoons. Our mission was clear: to lay our hands on as many sale-priced items, covering every birthday and Christmas present for the next year. How were we to know that we would later justify keeping every fun and funky item for ourselves, thus joining the ranks of Carrol Boyes addicts across the planet?
Boy, oh Boyes
From her simple beginnings of making a set of Man and Woman salad servers in her basement, Carrol Boyes has become a household name, a South African icon and a worldwide distributor of distinctive tableware. Carrol moved from her basement to a small factory but had to find even bigger premises within six months. Today she has a staff of 150 people split between her Letsitele and Cape Town facilities, and Carrol Boyes stocks stores in over 30 countries worldwide.
But she remains at heart the country gal who grew up in Pretoria with trips to her father’s farm in the lush subtropical area surrounding Tzaneen in Limpopo province, north of the country. As a child, she was intrigued by artists who painted portraits realistically. Carrol drew her parents and grandparents relentlessly and thus honed her skills for drawing the human form. When she was starting her factory, Carrol turned to the local Shangaan artists to help her bring her vision to life. Their age-old talent for three-dimensional design through wood carving, as well as their ability to see things and translate them into form were skills she admired and could use in her factory.
“I wanted to bring sculpture into the home,” says Carrol. “People find sculptures daunting so I made them practical. Beautiful things enrich us, but these pieces are not meant to be serious. We are meant to talk about them, feel them, enjoy them and use them – not simply stick them in a display cabinet to gather dust.”
From the laid-back man balancing the chip-and-dip holder to the table service of diving figures or the curvy nude woman reclining across a fruit knife, Carrol’s designs are organic and flowing. “From people to places, the best source of inspiration is usually part of your immediate environment,” she says.
An eye for art
As an artist, Carrol sees something new in everything around her, from the patterns in the cobblestones to the soap foam swirling down the plughole. “If you are creative, it is part of your make-up to see everyday things in a new light. If you get stuck, you don’t grow creatively, so for your own sanity and creativity you need to explore new colours, patterns, materials and techniques,” she says passionately. It’s obviously a winning formula because Carrol has a slew of awards under her belt, including SA’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government, and the 2008 Rapport/City Press Prestige Women’s Awards for Phenomenal Women.
However, the success of Carrol’s unique and sensual metalwork has surprised even her.
She says, “Expanding so rapidly was certainly not in my vision for myself. I just wanted to satisfy my creative needs and put food on the table. However, because the business grew so rapidly, I was able to make others’ lives better as well as my own.”
Essentially though, Carrol has a Proudly South African soul. She says, “I have travelled the world, seeing beautiful places and meeting amazing people but, as soon as I get home, I know this is still the best place on the planet.” Carrol feels it is important for her products to be recognisably South African. Not so much in the subject matter, which is universal, but in the ‘South African handwriting’ of the aesthetics of her work, which reflects all her past experiences growing up in this country. “South Africans have embraced my product and are proud of it. Somehow people responded to it and there’s nothing more satisfying to an artist,” says Carrol.
More than just a business
And her artistic heart responds in the same way to the young people she has nurtured and trained to become designers in her company. Developing new talent through a mentorship, gender empowerment and skills development programme is essential to her.
She is equally passionate about social responsibility enterprises like MonkeyBiz, which empowers women to earn a living from their beadwork. It was started by Carrol’s late partner, ceramicist Barbara Jackson, who also believed that if rural women, who are the nurturers, can improve their own existence, they can advance their children’s lives. “In my heart, I am determined that this is where it all starts,” says Carrol passionately. “The children are our future in this country and, if women can give them hope and resources, it will make all the difference in the long run.”
Passion, empowerment, inspiration and creativity are clearly part of Carrol’s recipe for success. “Spending every day in a job you love keeps you energised,” she says and this is why she still plays such an active role in the company. It also drives her philosophy to constantly try something new. As she says, “What have I got to lose? Why not just try it?”
Carrol has expanded her original pewter tableware range to include office and bathroom accessories. She has more than 1 000 items in her range, creating whimsical, functional and imaginative pieces from spun aluminium, stainless steel, wood, glass and ceramics. She says, “New materials are being developed by very clever people all the time, so you need to keep on top of things to be able to try something new.”
“It’s not the big that eat the small but the fast that eat the slow,” she says, “If you are creative and first out there, everyone else becomes a copier.” Carrol also brought out from her old sketchbooks a series of images for decorating a porcelain backdrop of plates and mugs.
These innovative, contemporary designs are bringing functional art into 22 stand-alone stores in South Africa and countless homes around the world.
The creative process
Although the production method varies greatly depending on the materials used, the creative process remains much the same for Carrol. She visualises something in her head and immediately jumps in to begin the moulding process, or else she draws a sketch first, builds an armature and then a prototype in Plasticine and clay. This is then given to the art department which moulds it and creates a resin casting. If everything works, the design goes to the mould-making process and is sent to the factory for production.
Carrol is enthusiastic about all the modern options to be creative. She says, “I love technology. There is a part of me that loves the gadgets and the hectic pace.” However, she acknowledges that it can take its toll, which is why she regularly takes time out. For her this means retreating to her studio with a drawing book, music and a chance for some quiet time alone. Carrol’s home is filled with treasures from her travels and she says that these things also make her happy. “Life is precious and every minute is important. So why not choose the beautiful things in life? Every time I pick them up, I get pleasure from them, and I make a choice to enjoy every minute and every mouthful. Don’t choose the mundane, choose the unusual.”
As I enjoy the aesthetics of her sensual swirl of metal alongside a sun-ripened mango on my plate, I know she is absolutely right.
Head office +27 (0) 21 424 8263; [email protected]
+27 (0) 21 426 0145; [email protected]
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Words Lisa Martus
Photography Lisa Martus and Supplied
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.