Cafe designed for pop-ups

WORDS Maciek Dubla PHOTOS Fay Jackson 

Lees in Afrikaans.

Merchants on Long have opened Merchants Café, a restaurant that intends to bring African flavours to Cape Town through a series of pop-up restaurants. Designers Liam Mooney and Michael Chandler chat to Maciek Dubla about creating a versatile space using bathroom tiles, chipboards and 16 000 fairy lights.

First built in the late 1800s for reasons unknown and passing through many hands to eventually become a purveyor of contemporary African design in 2010, the Merchants On Long building’s history can hold its own among some of the oldest establishments in Cape Town. Now, adding another page to the history books, is the new Merchants Café in the equally historic building across the road.

“The Café is a collaboration between some of the top creative minds in Cape Town; a place for African chefs and designers to showcase their styles,” Hanneli Rupert, the grand dame of Merchants on Long explains. “The design is upscale, contemporary and African, but it is also simple so when pop-up restaurants come in they can restyle the space to make it feel like their own.”

Step inside and you quickly see that the detailed interiors of this pop-up eatery are a collaboration of design in every sense of the phrase; a six-month journey in the making, in fact. The top creative minds Hanneli is referring to are designer Liam Mooney and decorative artist Michael Chandler. Liam was tasked with crafting the look for the interiors of the space while Michael moulded and designed, by hand, the crockery off which the patrons of Merchants Café will find themselves indulging in its African cuisine.

“Hanneli wanted a very versatile, simple space that could be transformed easily according to the tastes of the restaurants taking it for the week of the pop-up,” Liam says of the brief. “It needed to speak to the ethos of the Merchants brand and had to have an African feel without being themed or kitschy. The space had to be sophisticated but comfortable.”

Wanting to incorporate the history of the building and still creating a youthful energy in the café, the walls are a combination of exposed brick and stone with certain sections tiled using matt and gloss white bathroom tiles. The first impression is of stark contrast, but the way the tiles compliment the raw textures of the walls soon becomes apparent. 

The furniture is a mix of expensive with the inexpensive. Although seemingly under-detailed, the simple six-seat tables made of powder-coated mild steel, lacquered chipboard and a lightly woven fabric soften the space. The visual impact of the 16 000 fairy-lights that cover the ceiling reflecting in bronzed mirrors on either side of the room is arresting.

Merchants Cafe from Merchants on Long on Vimeo.

While the furniture intentionally fades into the background, Michael’s handmade and designed range of blue-and-white ceramic goods stands out against the simplicity of the chipboard. He decorated over 300 hot beverage containers, vases, platters, plates, dishes, bowls, jugs, pitchers, teapots and salt-and-pepper bowls, each carrying a whimsical and hand-painted insignia of Merchants Café. In other words, no two are alike.

On hearing about the thousands of lights, Michael finished the dishes with a super gloss so as to reflect the lights and meaning that the food looks like “it’s resting on a glimmering sea of twinkling stars”.

Of course, aesthetics is one thing, but practicality is as important as the finished decoration and design. “The most important thing that I had to remember when doing this commission was that all the ceramics had to be functional and be able to withstand the abuse that ceramics undergo in a restaurant,” the aesthete admits. “We used a material that was fired at a higher temperature to ensure maximum strength. To soften the hard nature of ceramics, we glazed the outsides of the dinnerware in a matt glaze. This feels silky to the touch, like an ostrich egg. I wanted people to walk away feeling special about the moment they had with the ceramics and the food.”

Michael also designed the wine label for the Café. The Rupert’s red blend is served as the venue’s unique house wine and the label is inspired by a 17th-century etching that Michael found in an ancient tome.

Together, Liam and Michael have created a space that lends itself as much to a quick lunchtime coffee as it does to a lingering late night dinner. Merchants Café continues the vision of Merchants on Long as a supporter and patriot of Africa and, if the calibre of talent in Cape Town is anything to go by, VISI can’t wait to see what Africa’s foodies and creatives have in store for us!

36 Long Street, 021 422 2828,

The four winners of the competition to win a Merchants Cafe bottle of wine and unique Michael Chandler plate are: Nelda van Staten, Jacques Nel, Jayshree Govender and John Maarschalk. Congratulations!