Michaella Janse van Vuuren: Designer, Artist, Engineer

Life Lessons from the Women of TEDxJohannesburg

(Article 8/20 in the series)


August is Women’s Month in South Africa. To celebrate, we’re conducting long-form interviews with 20 women who have spoken at TEDxJohannesburg. Inspired by Huffington Post’s Sophia project, we’re asking them to share stories and advice about topics that are central to a well-lived life.

Michaella Janse van Vuuren at TEDxJohannesburg 2014 on how she uses 3D printing technologies to create sculptures that combine technical complexity with artistic merit. Click on the image to watch the talk.

What is a recent realisation you have had about living a more rewarding/fulfilling life?

Life is full of challenges, and on top of this we are bombarded with messages from advertising and other cultural pressures about what we should aspire to or want. It is hard to hear one’s own voice. I have shifted the focus from achieving unrealistic ideals to experiencing my own life. Counting the blessings that surround me and enjoying the “little things” that truly make up a rewarding and fulfilling life.

Tell us something about an area of your expertise that took you years to learn.

My expertise is in different areas, and they all took years or decades to learn.


My biggest advantage was that my parents allowed me to make a humongous mess!


I have learnt that art and engineering for me at least is the same thing. They both share periods of research, immersion, idea forming, prototyping and problem solving towards a final product. (there are no quick solutions)

What do you feel is the most helpful thing your parents did for you that many parents don’t do?

The biggest advantage was that I could make a humongous mess! When I was busy on a puppetry project I would start in the backyard cutting polestyrene, little static bits flying all over the place. Paper mache sculpting in the front of the TV, fabric swatches littering the floor when making outfits. I still prize the objects I made 25 years later and am grateful that I was allowed to turn the house upside down to make them.

When I was young we had lots of books, encyclopedias and informative reading matter. My mum is an artist and we had clay and materials to make things with. She got boxes of misprinted maps, one side blank. I would draw all the time and never run out of paper. I was very fortunate, my parents were able to provide me with many opportunities to acquire skills and learning.

Tell us about a book (or books) that had a significant impact on you.

In my youth I was captivated by the stories of Ruth Manning Sanders illustrated by Robin Jacques (A Book of Sorcerers and Spells). During my engineering studies Eugene S. Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (1994) showed me I am not the only person who thinks engineering and art are closely related.


No, again he asked “Why are we here?” I answered truthfully and said that I did not know. He thought a bit and said “I think it is for love”.


Lately I am fascinated by works such as Roman philosopher Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life that shows how nothing much has changed in 2000 years. The Epic of Gilgamesh dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC) describes a culture with emotions expressed so much more freely than ours.

It is fascinating to read “voices” that communicate so clearly over time.

What is something small or seemingly insignificant that contributes greatly to your happiness?

A smile makes the world a friendlier place.

Tell us about a memorable gift you’ve given or received.

I was sitting with my 3 year old son when he asked “Why are we here?” I knew what he meant, but I shied away from the answer, and asked if he meant why we are in this room.

No, again he asked “Why are we here?” I answered truthfully and said that I did not know. He thought a bit and said “I think it is for love”. I told him that I think he is right.

What a beautiful philosophical gift, I will treasure it always.

What is a regret you have that others could learn from?

If I do have a regret it is that I was far too hard on myself when I was younger. As I grow older I understand that it is essential to have compassion for yourself and others. Sometimes my best intentions can go wrong and things that I consider to be negative may have a positive effect in the long run. Life is too complex, you cannot foresee the effects of your actions, you can only control the intention of the action.

Tell us about a travel experience or destination that you would recommend to others.

Anywhere new and strange opens up one’s mind to ideas, and destroys preconceptions. Europe when I was 16, and our teacher left us to our own devices. The colours of India!


I would have loved to study engineering alongside art and philosophy.


But the best destination of all is home. Watching the braai flames and listening to my boys playing with the thorn trees silhouetted by the sunset.

What habits/routines do you keep that are especially unique or beneficial?

I am very bad with routines, I could make a list of routines I wish I had!

What apps (or other technologies) have the greatest impact on your happiness/personal fulfillment?

I love the Kindle and Audible Apps on my smart phone. I always have my books with me whether I am reading on trains and planes or listening while driving or when I lie next to my children when they struggle to fall asleep.

How would you have handled your own education differently?

I wish there were more options to educate according to individual interests. I would have loved to study engineering alongside art and philosophy. Higher Education assumes people have one interest and will only be working in one specialised field for the rest of their life.

What do you know now about living a satisfying life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?

In my twenties I was under the impression that a satisfying happy life is something you earned through hard work and was externally bestowed on you.


What seems certain is that we will not visit this life again


Now in my forties I understand that happiness and a satisfying life are things you accept from within. I also know that one should embrace failure, it is merely feedback. Readjust and move on.

What do you think about when you think about death?

When I think about death, I think about life. It does not matter if there is an afterlife, a heaven, or hell, or an unforming-back-into-the-universe-stuff that we are made of. What seems certain is that we will not visit this life again. I get anxious about how short the journey is, frustrated when my humanness makes me trip on the small stuff, fills me with anxiety about the darker things and gets in the way of appreciating the wonder of the world. I wish I would stop more often and appreciate the new leaves opening in spring, the life surrounding me, my family friends, husband, children, all my blessings.

Everything is fleeting.


Watch Michaella Janse van Vuuren’s TEDxJohannesburg talk: When 3D printing becomes high art

Visit tedxjohannesburg.co.za for more.

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