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Zimbabwe: Conflict and Currency

The Republic of Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, carved from the former British colony that the imperialists called Southern Rhodesia. The Rhodesian dollar was replaced by the Zimbabwe dollar at par, and at the time was actually worth slightly more that the US dollar. For the first ten years things went pretty smoothly. Crops were good, the tobacco industry was thriving, and economic predictors were strong.

In the 1990s, the Zimbabwe economy began a sharp downward spiral. The reasons for Zimbabwe’s financial collapse are myriad and complicated, but include the usual suspects of political corruption, war, excessive printing of money, and more war. By 2000, the inflation rate was at 55%.

That was just the beginning. At its peak, in 2008, hyperinflation was estimated to be running at 79 billion percent per month. That made one US dollar worth 2 billion Zimbabwe dollars. By 2009, Zimbabwe stopped printing its own currency altogether and used that of neighbouring countries. The economic outlook for Zimbabwe continues to be fraught, and most goods are now exchanged for US dollars.

When a client came to see us with a fistful of Zimbabwe currency, we were floored. The lowest denomination had a face value of $75,000 and they went all the way up to $100 trillion dollars, the highest bill ever produced before the currency got scrapped. He wanted them framed, and Amanda and Richard took on the challenge as a Designer’s Choice project.

We started as we usually do, with a brainstorming session. We like to get creative with the matistry, but felt that the colors on the bills were so vibrant that anything more would be distracting. Our client has a room in which he keeps mementos from his world travels, and we knew this piece would be hanging in a place of thoughtful reverence. We needed to create something subdued yet regal.

Our first step was to hand-wrap a decorative leather fabric around a foam core. We then cut mats on which we could archivally attach the currency without damaging the bills. The mats were then carefully affixed to the leather foundation.

We found some classic furniture nails which we decorated with a metallic copper paint. This was the perfect accent for the look we were trying to achieve for a rugged adventurer’s study – upholstered leather, but well-worn with a story to tell.

This was a precision piece whose success would be measured in millimeters. The spacing of the nails, the spacing of the currency, and the width of the borders all had to be exactly right. It took us almost 5 hours to complete this project, and an awful lot of that time was spent bent over a ruler.

We toned the frame and added a sienna glaze to really bring out the grain in the wood. We finished the piece with museum UV glass to ensure that the money would last a lot longer than it had in its country of origin!

Like many Designer’s Choice projects, this one took something that was important to our client and displayed it in a way that really brought out both the aesthetic of the currency, and the captivating history behind it.

We’re glad he didn’t use the 100 trillion to buy a cup of coffee.

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