Living in South Africa for three years of my life has been an immense privilege. Not just because I fell in love with the country, but because I’ve been inspired by so many of my fellow expats who’ve gone on to do amazing things. I don’t know if South Africa is special in that way or if it’s just something expats – especially expat spouses – are good at. What I mean is the ability to reinvent yourself and create a whole new life borne out of the expat experience.
The Founding of Ngala Trading Company
Lawson Ricketts and Nick Geimer are two expats who did just that. Nick, a London School of Economics graduate, came to Johannesburg via Charlotte and London to pursue a career in banking. Lawson grew up in Virginia, met Nick in London, and eventually gave up his budding teaching career to follow him to South Africa. Like so many of us, he found himself in a bustling new city with time on his hands and a strong desire to use it for something meaningful. This is how Ngala Trading Co. came about, a luxury home décor brand blending raw, earthy African materials with contemporary American styling. In other words, the “safari chic” look we’ve all fallen in love with ever since we set foot in our first luxury game lodge.
Now headquartered in New York, NY, the Ngala Trading Company is an inspiring success story that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Nick and Lawson – who now both manage Ngala full-time – graciously agreed to let me interview them for this article. If you haven’t seen any of Ngala’s products, check them out!
“We lived in South Africa while Nick served in multiple executive roles in a large bank. We renovated two houses, and my interest in interior design was piqued,” Lawson begins their story. This led to him opening a furniture and décor store called Plaid Cabbage Interiors. For several years, he learned all about retail and developed relationships with suppliers. More and more American tourists wanted to have items shipped to their homes. “You shouldn’t have to pay safari prices to have a piece of Africa with you” became their unofficial motto, and when it came time to move back to the United States, Lawson and Nick knew they wanted to stay connected to the African designs they’d grown to love, and to their growing community of suppliers.
Falling in Love With South Africa
The words “renovated two houses” caught my interest. Most of us expats rent while living in South Africa, so renovating isn’t something we typically get to do. When you see one of the houses this refers to, you’ll know why Nick and Lawson have been so successful in the luxury décor business. It’s not just any old house. Instead of retreating behind walls and high-voltage wires of a security estate in the Northern suburbs like so many expats, they decided to locate right near infamous Hillbrow and Yeoville in the old Cullinan House. It’s also the place of their fondest memory: getting married on the main staircase of the house in 2014. Read the backstory and take a peek at the incredible interior of historic Cullinan House.
I asked Lawson and Nick to describe their experience in South Africa. “We like to say that we didn’t choose South Africa, but it chose us,” they said. Both grew up in small towns and never imagined life would take them to live in Johannesburg for almost 10 years. They had the same frustrations we’ve all had – crime, corruption, and the culture of bribes and kickbacks that inevitably spoiled your Friday evenings with a roadblock in Sandton. Most infuriating for Lawton is the lack of access to education for most South Africans, and the educator in him would love to see the government finally taking the necessary steps that would improve the lives of millions of people. But they also came to love the bush with its awe-inspiring wildlife. One of their favorite pastimes became escaping the hustle and bustle of Joburg to “be one with nature” at Jamala Madikwe lodge, where they could kick back, sip sundowners, and “watch a pride of lions and a crocodile fight over a water buffalo carcass.”
Their fond memories also revolve around the relationships they cultivated with their household staff and far-reaching network of suppliers. Not wanting to lose touch was perhaps the main inspiration for founding Ngala Trading and creating a viable business to stay connected to Africa from their new home in the United States. Their business model allows them to visit South Africa four times each year to source products, forge new relationships, and promote job development. It is my secret hope that their business continues to grow so rapidly that they’ll have to hire more people – see my eagerly raised hand there? – to fulfill this role.
One of Ngala Trading’s signature products is their leather chandelier. Before I heard about these, I never would have put the words “leather” and “chandelier” together in my wildest dreams, but trust me, it works. To fully appreciate their beauty, you have to see one lighting a room and creating intricate patterns of light and shadow on the ceiling.
How Ngala’s Leather Chandeliers Are Made
The production process is fascinating. “The leather is tanned by a local tannery in Johannesburg,” says Nick. “They can customize to any color – though in typical South African style this is a very slow process.” They use a cow hide – on average it takes three hides for each chandelier – that incorporates the leather and suede sides so you can see both ‘finishes’ on the complete chandelier. Each hide is then hand stripped centimeter by centimeter, which takes a full day for one person to complete. After the metal frames are welded together, the assembly begins. It’s an elaborate process that can take up to a week for the larger chandeliers, draping and gluing layers upon layers of leather strands over the frames in intricate patterns. After a final peer-led inspection (“if you don’t inspect you lose respect,” says a sign) the chandeliers are hung up in special crates and begin their long journey to America via Cape Town (and Nashville!) in groups of around 25 pieces. They range in price from $1,650 to $7,000.
Each of Ngala’s products has a unique backstory and is inspired by Nick and Lawson’s “best of Africa” ethos: Curated, handmade, ethical and sustainable luxury goods made in Africa. Their buhera basket lamps, sourced from the Buhera tribe in Zimbabwe, were inspired by women carrying water on their head in woven baskets. Their Ethiopian Coffee Tray tables, bamileke stools, and Ghanaian recycled glass bead, among many other products, have similar stories.
Nick and Lawson take pride in supporting artisans in so many African communities, though it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly how many that is. “For example, for a kudu horn lamp with a leather base and an ostrich feather lamp shade, we purchase the kudu horns from a tannery that must clean and polish the horns, the leather base comes from another supplier who uses discarded children’s school shoe leather to wrap the wooden base in leather, and the ostrich feathers come cleaned and dyed from an ostrich farm in the Karoo to our lampshade factory who then individually sew the feathers onto the shade.”
As to what the future holds, the pair hasn’t decided yet whether they might one day return to South Africa, or perhaps retire and divvy up their time with eight months of American summer and an escape to South Africa for four months of winter.
Given their creativity and hard work, I doubt very much that “retirement” will truly ever be on the table for Nick Geimer and Lawson Ricketts. In the name of beauty and good taste, I hope that they continue to grow Ngala Trading for many years to come.