Functional art by Umdabu

Michael Ferreira and Robert Cunningham – the craftsmen behind Umdabu – reveal the roots of their designs

Michael Ferreira and Robert Cunningham are patient men. Most of the raw material with which they work takes years, sometimes a lifetime, to grow and die before it’s reborn as functional art. Their handcrafted furniture, decks and cladding turn homes inside out, with wood becoming the hero of the design rather than a hidden support as a humble beam. But for the lure of wood, Ferreira and Cunningham – ironically – might have been buried in the very byproduct of what they craft today: paperwork. They both started out studying finance at university before their eye for design – in particular the potential for handmade furniture – got the better of them.

Wood such as balau, garapa, massaranduba and teak that has fallen on hard times, so to speak, gets a second life in their hands. Leadwood, known as hardekool in South Africa, is painstakingly worked into fine, original furniture that’s functional art. Rosewood becomes a silky smooth headboard for a bed, and leadwood an imposing boardroom table. Private Edition favours their root bases. The fantastical and natural shapes of up-ended tree roots form the base of occasional tables with sturdy glass tops. It is impossible not to look down and marvel at the almost molten twists and convolutions of a root system brought to life and tamed for indoors.

‘All our slabs come from fallen trees, and our roots we get from construction sites that are being cleared for development. They would get burnt or buried if it wasn’t for us,’ says Ferreira. They’re 100 percent handmade and each one is a one-of-a-kind work that serves as a centrepiece at home, in a hotel or the boardroom. It’s work that they believe brings life and value to their raw material.

Call Michael Ferreira on 082 772 3593 or Robert Cunningham on 082 850 6400, or visit to find out more.

By Lesley Wolf, Private Edition, Issue 27