‘Success is about showing up’ – interior designer Nthabi Taukobong on her 23yr career

Well-known South African interior designer Nthabi Taukobong – who is the Founder and Managing Director at DITAU – African Luxury Lifestyle has just published a book highlighting her 23-year career in the space. Taukobeng has been a trailblazer, thanks to her work for several high profile people and establishments on the continent. In this interview, she opens up about her life journey and her new book, ‘The Real Interior’. – Gareth van Zyl

It’s a pleasure to welcome Nthabi Taukobong who is a well-known and established interior designer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nthabi, thanks for joining me today.

Thank you so much, Gareth. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

In your interior design career of 23 years you’ve worked on residential and leisure projects for presidents, African royalty, captains of industry and even 5-star hotels, just to name a few. Your career has also allowed you to study and work in Africa and abroad. Can you give highlights of some of the high profile people that you’ve worked with over the years?

Wow, African royalty, well I can tell you one funny story that actually happens to be in my book as well. I designed the AU Summit villas, at the same event that was being held in the Congo, and it included about 18–22 villas that we had to do in two weeks. Attendees came from Zimbabwe to Botswana and included all the presidents in the SADC area, and we had to get it ready in record time. So that was very exciting for me because I once read a passage in the bible that said, ‘Your gift will give you room and place you in front of great kings and queens’. So when I had that moment of being able to design for presidents – over 18 presidents – I thought that that was my biggest career highlight. I remember when the president of Zimbabwe arrived and they asked for extra sheets, I had to pinch myself before I responded to say, ‘Oh ok, go get the sheets’. I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, they asked me for more sheets. Mugabe wants more sheets!” I’ve also done hotels in Mauritius where I designed them for Sun International in the first week I started working after I qualified from Natal Technikon. I arrived at the company and the head of the business that I worked at said, ‘You can’t learn by being in an office; somebody take her to site and what site are we working on currently?’ The team then said well, ‘We’ve actually got projects in Mauritius’ and I then said, “Oh, my god. I’m going to Mauritius!” So I also went to Mauritius in my first week of employment.

And it basically hasn’t stopped since. You’ve really become a real trailblazer.

No, it hasn’t stopped. We’ve done work in Ethiopia and Ghana. I’ve spent two weeks in China looking for furniture and fabric for client. I cried every single day. So, yes. I’ve done it all and seen it all.

So, can you tell me a little bit more about where you grew up? You are from Soweto, correct?

Yes, I was actually born in Baragwanath Hospital. I grew up in Soweto until the age of 10 and then my father was transferred to Durban and I grew up there until adulthood. As soon as I applied for my first job, it was back in Johannesburg. So, between Johannesburg and Durban was my upbringing. I initially went to township schools, but my Dad just decided that there was no way we’d have a brighter future by just staying in those schools. I think it was during the ‘76 riots, schools were shut down for anything from two to four months, so we were taught at home during those times when there was rioting and then he started approaching the private schools in the suburbs to say please can you take my kids in. So, my schooling changed drastically from just speaking the home language of Tswana to having to learn English overnight, as I started school and we just worked our way through there.

And what got you interested in interior design?

I would say it’s a passion. The career just happened to have a title that I could relate to. So I’ve been designing and decorating with my Dad and my parents at our home since about the age of 7. I used to leave Christmas decorations on for the year, so from the time it goes on in December to the next Christmas, that would be my decoration in my room. So, it was just a natural born passion of mine and luckily I had parents who could recognise it, I had a school teacher who was able to also direct me in the right path. From the minute I registered and I saw the people I’d be studying with, I knew I was in the right course.

And did you expect your career to take off in the way that it did?

No, not at all. Even when I used to go for internships while we were studying, we would be at the most boring of companies. I remember at one company, I had to get them toasted sandwiches while on duty. That was my job – to get them toasted mince sandwiches. But when I joined a company that was specialising in hotels and they said come through, come to Joburg, and I entered their beautiful offices and saw fresh flowers, I was blown away. I thought, wow, that’s me.

You’ve now also written a book entitled “The Real Interior”. It’s published by Tracey McDonald publishers. The description on the back of the book says that it was sparked off by a LinkedIn notification that you received. Can you tell us more?

Yes, I always get LinkedIn notifications, but this one, in particular, hit me hard because it said, “Congratulations. You are 21 years in the industry!” And I thought ‘21 years’. It actually felt like I’d been doing it for maybe 9 years and then I thought, ‘What is there to celebrate if I’ve already been doing this for 21 years?’ That means everything went so fast and I couldn’t remember anything. So, I let it go, I hid the notification. I actually erased it. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t celebrate the 21 years. Then, a year later, I thought ‘Oh my, it’s gonna tell me again that 22 years had passed.’ I needed to do something to quickly remember before LinkedIn reminds me, so I thought let me just write a letter to myself and just a note on all the projects that I’ve been through – the highs, the lows, and the lessons learned and then I sent it to my social media person, to say try to put this on Instagram or on our website, and his response was “Oh, this is just too long. This is like a book. Why don’t you just write a book?” And I said – “Ah, good idea’. So, I started writing a book, then I just got into more detail about what the projects were. It was more like writing to the little girl in me who hadn’t had a chance to just take a breather and take this whole project or this whole career in. So I wrote to her to say, you know what, well done. By the time somebody says you’re 21 years in the industry, you want a 10-storey building with your own receptionist, and I thought, well that’s not success. Success is just that you showed up, you were there, and you went through the projects. With some of them, you did very well. With others, you went horribly wrong – and what did you learn from those experiences? I though, let me write that down and let me congratulate myself that I’m still here 21 years later and what more can I do in this exciting career?

And did you find it to be a cathartic experience, writing a book?

Oh, my word, I’m so free. This is the happiest I’ve been in my career… It’s almost the therapy that every businessperson needs. You need to take a moment in your life where you stop, you evaluate and then you continue. We get into this go, go, go, go, go, go, go, and then before you know it we’re all living the life that we completely hate. This allowed me to say, alright, let me do my own roadmap and see how I got here and what I need to do in moving forward. So it was the most beautiful experience and luckily for me my son had just found a new computer game, so he was able to absorb himself completely in that, giving me time to write my book.

For people that are reading the book, what do you hope they’ll get out of it?

That life is tough, but you’ll get through it. That not all of us are born understanding what we’re going to do in our life. I’m an interior designer who is transitioning, always trying to figure out what is my magic, and how do I connect with my clients – how do I connect with my life? And I think you get that from the book because you see all the different journeys that I’m taking, I’m trying this. I’m failing at that. I’m trying this. And then, at the end of the book there’s a very, sweet innocent message that learnt from it. Every project leads you to a further understanding of yourself.

Nthabi, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

Thank you so much, Gareth. I can’t wait for you to read it and let me know what you think.

Great, definitely will. Thank you. Thank you so much.