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MEET THE BOSS: Top South African interior designer, Nthabi Taukobong

In a career spanning more than two decades, the Soweto-born interior design genius Nthabi Taukobong, has managed to demonstrate a high level of design skill and creative vision that sets her apart from her peers. Known for pushing the envelope when it comes to efforlesslly fusing vibrant African aesthetics with classic, modern detailing, she gives us the lowdown on her newly released book, 'The Real Interior'.

A HIGHLY sought-after interior design professional with a knack for turning ordinary spaces into the extraordinary – be it residential or commercial projects – Nthabi Taukobong has curated awe-inspiring spaces for presidents and the who’s who of South Africa’s business, entertainment, and some of our biggest and most respected of political figures.

In her new book, The Real Interior, the globetrotting entrepreneur turned author gives readers a peek into her humble upbringing in Soweto, her student days at Natal Technikon (now Durban University of Technology) and her dream job at a major interior design firm in Parktown North, Johannesburg.

The book also charts some of the introspective moments in her illustrious career journey as she continues to break new gounds in interior design, a career once reserved for the elite few.

As the title of the book suggests, The Real Interior points to the many existing misconceptions surrounding the often glamorized world of interior design which she was propelled to from the start of her career. Consequently, it’s Taukobong’s self discovery journey – finding her real self (real interior) – as she looks back into her own personal victories, blunders and uttermostly the lessons learned along the journey.


Q: As one of the first well-known black female interior designers in South Africa and the continent at large, what attracted you to the profession – especially since it was not an obvious choice at the time (’80s and ’90s)?

A: I was drawn to interiors out of pure passion. I grew up with parents who were always doing something to better our home and garden, and I had a natural pull to watching and learning from them and wanting to do the same. Creativity doesn’t take on a specific form – back then, I wasn’t aware that loving and enjoying making spaces beautiful could be an actual profession. Luckily, I had a brilliant guidance teacher who took us to our local Technikon, where I discovered all sorts of creative paths that an artist such as myself could pursue – and interior design was my most suitable fit.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions you wanted to clear with the book?

A: The myth that I needed to dispel for myself – and to my readers – is what was really going on inside me over the past 21 years. I needed to get real. The assumption in my field is that we know what we are doing, that ideas and inspiration just flow out of us and that we never put a foot wrong. Of course, there’s also the misconception that what we do is very glamorous, and in the book I highlight some of the most grueling projects that I have worked on and the toll they took on me.

Over the years, I found that the more I complained, the more I was simply shut down – to a point that I even began thinking maybe it was really me who was crazy. Writing everything down and breaking up each project so that I could see the lessons learned was very revealing. It reminded me of one of the biggest misconceptions out there: that artists make great business owners or, put another way, that we understand the business of design and are good at it. This was hardly my personal experience.

Turning clients’ dreams into a reality also can be a double-edged sword, but I learned that when we just keep it real and simple, we all win at the end of the day.

In a nutshell the title of my book, The Real Interior, hints towards what was going on in my own life, how this drove the decisions I made and how, over time, I needed to get my ‘self’ right before I could be right with the world.

I believe that we all reach this point in our lives, some sooner than others. It’s a point we have to master so that we can design the world we want for ourselves, starting from within.

Q: What exactly do you the hope for the reader to take away upon reading book? 

A: Firstly, that life is “real” and that it is through dealing with challenges that we get to know and understand ourselves better. We shouldn’t fear the hardships or unexpected dips and curves in the journey of life, as they are all part of the process that leads us to our final moment of clarity and breakthrough.

As a designer, I wanted to share what really happens ‘behind the chair’, as I like to refer to it – the facade of luxury and opulence that we all don. Regardless of money and social status, we are all just humans going through real life experiences.

I hope that sharing my story, with all its ups and downs, can inspire and encourage people to keep going, and help them realize that even at your darkest point, the light can still come in and guide you to a happy place of understanding.

Q: Women vs men in interior design: what have you learned from navigating this minefield? 

A: I have never really paid attention to gender roles in anything I do. I think creativity must trump, regardless of gender. My own experience has taught me that you need to show up and commit to your highest ability when taking on a project.

Creativity is a given factor, but professionalism and dealing with clients must be honed to become a fine skill. I also learned quite early in my career how to grow from constructive criticism, rather than shutting down and sulking in my corner.

Q: Interior design is a fascinating career with good earning prospects. What’s your message to anyone considering getting into this field?

It is a beautiful profession, and when you get the right mix of project, designer and client, magic happens. My message is this: know yourself and what you stand for, and design from that point of power. Lead more than you follow in design, beat your own drum and let the world be guided by your sounds and creative flow.

It gets tricky when you do nothing more than follow directions; a part of you slowly begins to fade away – so don’t be afraid to be your own brand, and be bold about it. Clients will start to choose you based on what you stand for and or represent.

Q: You clearly have to be tough cookie to make it in this competitive industry. Do you consider yourself as such?

A: Business is not for the faint-hearted, no matter the industry you are in. Over time, yes, one does develop a tough skin, but we still bleed like everyone else and feel pain when we are hurt.

I am not afraid to speak up and or defend my case, no matter what I am facing – that’s just how I was brought up. But I always operate from a point of respect and humility. There is no room for diva behaviour in any of my projects.

Q: What has been the steep learning curve in your journey?
A: I’ve learned to master the skill of listening not only with my ears, but with my heart. As designers, we can get quite preoccupied with own designs and creativity, and completely miss the clients’ needs and creative directive. So I slow it down and work through it more carefully now – no more working through crazy deadlines. I have accepted that it’s not all that serious, really. Just enjoy and bring lightness where you can.

Q: Who are some of the people that you look up to?

A: I celebrate anyone who is running their own business, and any designer who is still at it years after they began. It’s such a tough space, always trying to create beauty for others’ personal needs, so a salute to all of those who are still at it and doing their best in their job. 

I am very self-driven and determined to figure out for myself what success truly means, both personally and professionally. I can only get there through trial and error, and only now can I honestly say that I am having the time of my life figuring it all out. It all used to be so daunting, but I understand now that life is exactly that: figuring it out for yourself. 

Q: Where to from here?

A: For now, I am enjoying having the space and opportunity to promote my book and sharing the lessons and ‘life nuggets’ that have emerged from my journey.

I want the next chapter to unfold naturally, without too much of a push from me. But I have an idea that I will be leaning towards more public speaking, motivation and mentoring opportunities, as this is where the book has led me.

Fact File

  • Born and raised in Soweto, Nthabi Taukobong moved to Durban at the of 10
  • After matric she was sent to Canada (International Rotary Exchange Student Calgary) for a year in 1993
  • She holds a three-year national diploma in interior design from the then Natal Technikon 
  • Her first job was with design company, Wilson & Associates, which services many of today’s top luxury hotels
  • She founded Ditau Interiors, a Johannesburg based interior design consulting company servicing a niche clientele in leisure, spa and residential markets
  • In May this year (2019) she released a candid book detailing her 23 years of experience in interior designing called, The Real Interior, published by Tracey McDonald Publishers

*For the latest profiling of South Africa’s movers and shakers (Meet The Boss) across various industries, make sure to visit NOWinSA daily

Tankiso Komane
Tankiso Komane
A Tshwane University of Technology journalism graduate, Tankiso Komane has a vast experience in print & broadcast media business and has worked for some of the country’s biggest daily newspapers, including The Sowetan, The Citizen, The Times, and The New Age. Through her varied work as a journalist, notably as a copywriter for SABC1 (On-Air promotions) and as a publicist for Onyx Communications, she has developed an in-depth understanding of the nature of the media business and how to use it for the purpose of exposure. Her expertise in journalism across various disciplines, coupled with a good reputation, has laid the foundation of a new kind "trust in Journalism" as the media ecosystem continues to digitally evolve.
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