Hostess with the Mostess

Adding magic to the everyday, Hannerie Visser has a taste for life

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Bevan Davis

Working from the third floor of the New Media building, Hannerie Visser rents her corner office from the same company she used to work for before deciding to have it her way in 2008.

Together with Peet Pienaar, Hannerie made her first foray into the entrepreneurial life with The President, the bespoke agency fondly remembered for – among other things – the Toffie Festival, Church shop, Menu and Paris magazines, the work they did with MTV, and giving Daniel Ting Chong an internship.

After Peet moved to Argentina, Hannerie still wanted to create designs, products, and experiences inspired by Africa, and so with a focus on authenticity and the creation of things that are relevant to consumers, she started her Cape Town-based multidisciplinary design company, studio.H.

Fiercely independent, studio.H separates itself from the rest of the building by substituting the corporate furnishing with oversized desk lamps and inflatable burgers.

“I bought these on Superbalist,” laughs Hannerie. “Actually, everything in the studio is from Superbalist. Tables, lamps... I’m your biggest fan.”

What can we say, the woman’s got taste, and don’t just take our word for it – Li Edelkoort thinks so too, and she's one of Studio H’s longer serving clients. Others include Spier, Woolworths, Hope Gin, Ash restaurant, a film company…

Nosing about the deep-set shelves in her office I recognise a few of the interesting things accumulated during a career built on doing interesting things: the billion-dollar note printed with gold glitter, which The President used as an invite to their launch party; cereal box magazines; weird plastic food. All of these are displayed as proudly as the awards Hannerie has won, which stand among cook books, design books, art books, and a pile of novels.

“The novels are from a pyramid scheme I joined on Facebook. I gave someone on the top of the list my favourite book and now there’s always a pile of new ones arriving at the office for me.”

Hannerie started out as an intern at SL Magazine, and one of the jobs that she is now working on is a native content project for Woolworths with her editor from back then, Kate Wilson. Despite a focus on experiential events, is there any desire to do a magazine again?

“It’s a good time for independent publishing and for people doing interesting things with magazines. It’s just hard to make money. One of my favourite magazines is The Gentlewoman, they’re part of Fantastic Man, and we brought the editor down for Toffie Fest. We actually also brought Apartmento. And I love Lucky Peach. I think the guys who got in early are doing really well, but I still don’t know if they make any money. Food is the passion for me, it’s fun, so we tend to do more food-related things. So there is a magazine, Chips, that we’ve started designing and will eventually publish, but the focus is food.”

Will Chips make any money? Probably not. “Cash is king. Rule number one: if there’s no money coming in then there’s no money going out.” However, Hannerie is big on passion projects and insists on giving her young team crazy briefs so that they can push boundaries and do exactly what they want without clients getting in the way.

One such example is the Street Food Festival. This year there’ll be a tin-foil photo booth where groups of friends can dress up as sandwiches, there'll be a cereal bar, a pigs head pop-up, a samoosa-eating competition, Patrick Visser (no relation) as a human beatbox…

“And just a lot of silly things where you don’t have to be too serious. I’ve always done whatever I like. I don’t like to do things the way other people do them. And I also don’t like doing the same thing twice. That freaks out some of my clients, but I think it’s good for a client to be pushed, and they’re often as pleasantly surprised as the guests are. We’ve been very lucky with our clients who tend to leave us alone. They trust us completely.”

A sensory creature, Hannerie’s activations have always been immersive experiences and she loves the non-permanency of events.

“Today you set up and tomorrow you break it down again so that you can start something new. Everyone lives such crazy lives, so when your guests arrive at your event you must allow them to step into a new world. Unless you have a mechanic lined up for that they’re going to keep thinking about all the emails they have waiting for them. We help them snap into a new mindset.”

That translates as invites that double up as silkworm hotels, lunches where you bake your meat and vegetables in clay, and slipping into a butcher coat and brandishing the work tools before eating an entire beast from nose to tail…

Last year's Street Food Festival was themed ‘Africa’ with a menu of Nigerian bitter leaf soup, Malawian grilled tilapia with nsima, Zimbabwean mopani worms, Somali-style kid meat stew and Ghanaian plantain milkshakes. The market side had more typical South African fare with things like askoek, smileys, walkie talkies, samoosas, shisa nyama, bunny chow, gatsbys, rotis and vetkoek. This year’s dinner takes on an Indian theme and in typical Hannerie fashion, along with the hand-washing ceremony and learning how to tie a turban, dinner will be served off of cars.

“There are these guerilla dinners in India where people pull up in their cars, level the bonnet with a coke can, pack all the food on top and then eat off of that.”

Naturally there’ll be plenty of food, as well as food for thought in the form of a conference with talks by the CEO of Order In, Dinish Pattel, along with Georgia East on food-blogging, Alice Toich launching the second issue of her food zine, a conversation with the Hope on Hopkins gin guys, the First Thursdays guys, and more.

“We have this speaker who claims to have invented the gatsby. Did he? I don’t know, who am I to say? But his shop in Athlone, Super Fisheries, has the best name ever and so we’ve invited him to tell his story.” 

Besides for food, Hannerie’s other passion is travel, and says that if she were to win the Superbalist 100 thousand rand she'd spend it on an overseas trip for her and her employees. Last year was India and Japan, and this year was London with another trip east planned for the future. Something Hannerie has noticed on her travels is how food tends to bring people together. It is far less intimidating than say, art or design, and there seems an international trend for the simplification of food. “The way people eat has changed so much. Fine dining won’t disappear, but there’s less of it, and if you look at the restaurants in New York and London it’s so much simpler now. No drizzles and bubbles and foams. Just really confident, simple, cooking. Toasted cheese sandwiches are such a big trend now. That will make its way here, definitely.”

And to pair?

“That can get so pretentious. No, I’m not that much into pairing. You should just drink what you like.”