Handmade with Love― EnlightenMe

Handmade with Love― EnlightenMe

Our "Handmade with Love" series is staying in South Africa.  #JointheJourney with us back to South Africa... 

Welcome to our blog post series, "Handmade with Love," where we explore the world of artisans and their unique creations. In this edition, we travel back to South Africa and delve into the inspiring journey of Georgine, the founder of EnlightenMe. Her passion for designing accent interiors and transforming materials into beautiful pieces is at the heart of her brand. Join us as we uncover the origins of EnlightenMe and how it has become a reflection of her personal values and ethos. From eco-friendly practices to the selection of materials, Georgine's commitment to sustainability shines through. We'll also explore the distinctive techniques and textures she has developed, adding individuality to her designs. Get ready to discover the fascinating world of EnlightenMe and the remarkable pieces crafted with love and creativity.

This interview below was completed by Georgine, Founder of EnlightenMe

kanju: Tell us about your path to designing accent interiors? You mention an 18-month journey that first led you to launch EnlightenMe in 2016, and clearly a passion for transforming and recycling materials is a part of that journey. Tell us more about how it all began!

EnlightenMe: Back in 2014 I decided to step away from my long career in Information Technology to pursue something more creative. During that time, I came across interesting crocheted lamp shades on Pinterest, which I shared with an interior designer friend. She suggested that I consider paper mache or felting as possible mediums and also stressed the importance of making sure my creations were distinct from anyone else’s. This last piece of advice proved to be invaluable and I still treasure it to this day. 

Since I’ve always had a passion for upcycling and we were sitting on a mountain of office documents that had to be disposed of at the time, the choice was a no-brainer. I immediately began to search the Internet for paper mache clay recipes, but quickly realized that I would have to develop my own recipe using eco-friendly and readily available ingredients. After perfecting my basic recipe, I experimented with adding texture and color, focusing on intricate weave-like textures resembling African basketry. This was one of the most exciting times for me, as I eagerly awaited each morning to see how my pieces had transformed as they dried overnight. Days always felt too short!

Fast forward to 2016 and the end result was a strong, durable and aesthetically pleasing product range that was well received in the market. This led to the establishment of the EnlightenMe Home Décor brand. 

The name EnlightenMe was originally selected as a play on words, as the very first paper mache clay pieces I produced revolved around lamps and lampshades. The archaic meaning of the word “enlighten” meant to “light up” or to “illuminate”. Over time, the meaning has evolved and taken on a more figurative sense, referring to the act of shedding light or understanding on a subject or idea. These two meanings aligned perfectly with my vision for my company: to create beautiful pieces that not only brighten up interior spaces, but also enlighten or raise awareness for recycling, by showcasing the potential of waste and how it can be transformed into something beautiful and functional.

kanju: Your brand seems to also be a strong reflection of your personal values when it comes to selection of materials, repurposing, etc. Can you a share a bit more about your ethos and how it is expressed through your business?
EnlightenMe: Living sustainably has been a lifelong journey for me, which began well before I established my business. As a passionate upcycle, particularly with furniture, I enjoy giving new life to used materials. For any recyclable items, such as glass, paper, tin cans, and plastic that I am unable to upcycle, I ensure they are disposed of responsibly at a recycling facility, which minimizes waste and supports the proper handling of these materials. I am also very mindful of minimizing consumption of water and electricity, especially given the scarcity of these resources in South Africa.

My personal values are embodied in EnlightenMe's practices, where we aim to use the most eco-friendly processes to create beautiful home accessories from wastepaper. We prioritize natural drying methods such as air and sun drying to reduce electricity consumption, and carefully select eco-friendly materials to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and minimize our environmental impact. Furthermore, we strive to further minimize waste by reusing supplies such as packaging materials and plastic mold liners, whenever feasible. Finally, our products are crafted with longevity in mind, meant to last a lifetime and beyond.

kanju: The materials themselves, and your personal passion for recycled, upcyled, and eco-friendly materials are at the heart of your brand. And so unique! Please tell us a little bit about the materials you use, why they are chosen?

EnlightenMe: To create our paper mache clay, we utilize a variety of recycled paper types, such as white office paper, newspaper, egg cartons, brown paper bags, and cardboard. Any paper that is unsuitable is sent to a nearby recycling facility, ensuring nothing goes to waste. In addition, we also incorporate cotton and other recycled materials, such as wood and sawdust into some of our designs.

The first step in making paper mache clay is to turn the paper into a pulp, which is then combined with eco-friendly binding agents to achieve a clay-like consistency. We carefully select these binding agents to minimize our environmental impact and ensure the safety of our team by reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals.  All of our binding agents are water-based, non-toxic, and locally sourced.

Our sealants meet the same eco-friendly standards, providing a sustainable way to protect our products inside and out.

kanju: To someone completely unfamiliar with these materials, how would you describe them in terms of look, weight, feel? What are the unique characteristics you would point out.

EnlightenMe: The look and feel of our pieces are largely influenced by the type of paper and construction techniques used. The surface texture may vary from smooth to rough, while the edges can be clean-cut or intentionally frayed for a more rustic effect. Many of our pieces closely resemble pottery or ceramics, with some clients even referring to them as paper mache pottery.

While the weight of our pieces may vary depending on their thickness, they are generally much lighter than ceramic pieces of comparable size, making them easier to handle and transport. Despite their lightweight nature, they are very durable and sturdy, and highly unlikely to suffer breakage or cracking in the event of an accidental drop.

Our vessels are water-resistant, but not fully waterproof. They are ideal for displaying dried flowers, but can also be used for fresh-cut flowers by placing a glass or plastic container inside the vessel to hold water. If the vessel gets wet, simply leave it out in the sun to dry.

Vessels looking beautiful with dried florals.

kanju: What unique techniques have you developed to create your pieces, textures and colors, and how do you choose or develop those?

EnlightenMe: It took a substantial amount of time and effort to develop my coloring techniques, which involved extensive research and experimentation, using various mediums ranging from natural plant dyes to acrylic paints and organic oxides. During this process, I considered several factors, including the messiness of the process, time and energy consumption, the feasibility of coloring large batches, the ability to achieve relatively consistent outcomes, and most important colorfastness. It took several months of work to develop our range of distinct colors, achieved by carefully combining a few basic colors in precise ratios.

When it came to developing techniques for creating textures, I found that I relied more heavily on experimentation rather than research. As a result, I often stumbled upon unexpected but delightful discoveries. One such example was when a failed attempt to incorporate supplementary materials into a bowl resulted in the creation of the first piece with a weave-like texture. This chance discovery then became the basis for further exploration and development of similar techniques, which ultimately became a defining feature of my work.

Paper mache clay test swatches.

kanju: Do you create all of your pieces entirely yourself, or have you trained any artisans or apprentices to assist you along the way?

EnlightenMe: EnlightenMe initially began as a one-woman operation but has since expanded to include another talented member. The family’s long-time gardener and handyman joined the team in 2019. He has brought a fresh burst of energy into the venture with his eager-to-learn attitude and amazing ability to master new skills. Not only is he a skilled craftsman, but he is also an avid sewist, often arriving at work wearing one of his colorful and unique creations.

kanju: Where do you turn for inspiration when beginning to build a new collection or piece? 

EnlightenMe: While inspiration can be found in many places, much of my work is directly inspired by nature. For instance, my signature asymmetrical vases were inspired by the shapes of the Sisal nesting logs in my garden, while my Pebble and Calabash range speaks for itself. At times, I find inspiration by exploring with different materials or techniques, and often, one idea sparks another. Regardless of the source, most of my designs take shape from ideas that have been brewing and evolving over a considerable period of time.

kanju: What role does South Africa play in your designs? How does it influence the brands’ overall ethos?

EnlightenMe: South Africa plays an important role in my designs, serving as a source of cultural inspiration, and raising my awareness of social and environmental issues. 

I incorporate elements of South African aesthetics into my designs. EnlightenMe pots feature natural, earthy tones and organic shapes with intricate weave-like textures. These vessels are carefully crafted by hand using locally sourced natural fibers, combined with organic pigments for color, and textured using impressing techniques before being dried under the warm African sun. This sustainable and ethical production process bears a striking resemblance to the traditional method of making clay pots and reflects my belief in ensuring the well-being of South Africa’s people and environment.

Some weave-like textures. 

kanju: Whether with experimental hues or unexpected materials, what are some of your favorite ways to add individual personality to your designs?

EnlightenMe: Some of my favorite ways to add individual personality are:

1. The use of contrasting textures and embellishment

2. Inlaying – pressing a contrasting color clay into the base color while still wet, to create interesting patterns

3. Adding interesting materials like sawdust, cotton, or pieces of jute to add texture

4. Adding a crochet edge around the rim of a piece

5. Leaving the edges raw or frayed

kanju: How many one-of-a-kind accent pieces can be batched using the handmade paper pulp templates before the template is worn-out, and the design is discontinued, making way for new designs?

EnlightenMe: The durability of the texture templates depends on both the material used and the degree of strain placed on them during use. Early versions had a limited lifespan, with some lasting only 15 uses and one being discontinued after 35. Since then, I have started using a more durable material and as a result the templates last longer. For instance, there is one exceptional template that has been utilized over 100 times. Nonetheless, each piece maintains its uniqueness since it is impossible to replicate the precise application of the template as well as the color variations that occur from the one item to the next.

Vessels looking beautiful with fresh florals.

kanju: On average how long does it take to create a piece, and what does your design process look like?

EnlightenMe: Creating a piece from start to finish typically takes between 7 to 14 days, except for very large or intricate designs, which could take much longer. However, we have the ability to work on multiple pieces simultaneously, utilizing our time efficiently, while waiting for pieces to dry.

When starting a new design, creating a mold is important, as the paper mache clay will otherwise warp and lose its shape while drying.  One option is to use an existing object as the mold or base-form, and then modify it to achieve the desired shape, if necessary. Another option is to construct a new mold from scratch.

After the mold or base-form is prepared, the paper mache clay is layered onto or inside the mold and left to air dry in sunlight, which can take several days depending on the weather. Once dry, the items are gently sanded and coated both inside and out with an eco-friendly sealant, enhancing their durability and making them resistant to water and stains, similar to wood products. The layering technique used to craft our pieces allows for a great deal of flexibility in our creative process.

kanju: Are you seeing any trends that are starting to manifest in EnlightenMe, that we will see in your collections over the course of the next year or so? In short, what do you think is next for your brand and the directions you may want to take your unique talent?

EnlightenMe: My aim is to include more crochet as well as weaving elements in my pieces. Additionally, I am very excited at the prospect of crafting sizable sculptural pieces, as this medium is perfectly suited for creating large structures.

kanju: What do you enjoy most about your business, and do you have any particular goals for the business in the future? 

EnlightenMe: There are so many aspects of my business that I enjoy, with one of my favorites being collaboration with clients. Working together is a wonderful way to create a more dynamic end result. During my early days I used muted colors only, but fortunately, a client encouraged me to experiment with bolder hues. It's exciting to have clients who push me to try new color combinations, textures and effects. This allows me to explore new possibilities and develop my skills even further. 

At present, I’m involved in the production of every piece that goes out the door, whether it’s in a small or large capacity, such as adding finer details or creating texture. As a result, I’m left with limited time to work on new designs, so we need to expand our team and train additional artisans.

kanju: From dining out to hidden gem destinations, what are some of your most favorite spaces or places in South Africa at the moment?

EnlightenMe: While I currently live in Gauteng, which is situated in the northeastern region of South Africa, I spent my early years in the Western Cape where I grew up, received my education and began my career, so my preferences may be somewhat biased.

My favorite city is without a doubt Cape Town with its incredible scenery, beautiful beaches, and world-famous Table Mountain, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Visit to Cape Town would not be complete without a hike up Lion’s Head, which is part of the Table Mountain National Park. The breathtaking 360-degree view of the city from the top of Lion’s Head is definitely worth the effort. However, if hiking is not your thing, you can still reach the top of Table Mountain by taking the cable car.

Then there is the Cape Winelands, about an hour's drive from Cape Town. It is known for its picturesque wine estates, beautiful towns such as Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, award-winning restaurants, and art galleries. I would hate to single out one particular place, but a day visit to Babylonstoren is highly recommended. It is a working farm in the Franschhoek Valley, with beautiful gardens and great food and wine.

kanju: In your opinion, what makes a piece of home décor timeless?

EnlightenMe: I think something that has personal meaning and can easily fit into many different interior design styles, will stand the test of time.

Shop our latest collection of vases and vessels by EnlightenMe.