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Crafting Design: A Hands-On Approach to the Future

April 24, 2010

Hella Jongerius' collaboration with Ikea-Unicef. photo: Dezeen

Craft has long been the quaint cousin of Design. While ‘Design’ might evoke sleek lines and minimal chic, Craft conjures crocheted tissue boxes and Christmas bazaars. Design is a profession; Craft is a hobby. In recent years, the lines between Design and Craft have blurred, as big-name designers have incorporated elements of traditional craft within their work. This fusing of Design and Craft can be seen to reflect a number of contemporary trends: a new interest in collectivity, sustainability, storytelling, multiculturalism and the trace of the hand. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort speaks of an emerging collective desire to return to old values, traditions and crafts. Communal interaction, creative collaboration and families of choice are replacing the Age of the Individual. Craft, with its roots in community, history and tradition, has been thrust into collective consciousness: “The world is now a market, governed by mega-mergers and mega-brands. Suddenly, almost naturally, men and women are looking again at handmade, man-mastered, artisan arts, as a refuge from mega-monotony” Edelkoort says. Does this cultural moment present us with a new opportunity to re-examine Craft and the role it might play? Can various craft traditions from around the world enlighten us not only to our pasts, but also to our futures? For Edelkoort, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’: “In terms of economy, employment strategies, and social development, [I] believe that quality arts and crafts will have a very important revival.”We live hurried lives. Modern technologies crowd the marketplace with the promise of new speed, new efficiency and new capabilities. The internet puts the world at our fingertips while our mobile phone puts the world at our ear— instantaneously. The rise in popularity of yoga and the Slow Food movement reveal a longing for stiller lives. Increasingly, we are looking to our past to recall a calmer time: a time when Time itself seemed more abundant. The use of craft in contemporary design appeals to this desire for the familiarity of tradition and for items that exhibit slow and meticulous production by hand. It brings a sense of history that modern manufactured objects cannot. The trace of the human hand affords the sense of comfort, nurturing and warmth lacking in Modernist environments. The irregularities and subtle variations associated with craft give a visual complexity and uniqueness to the forms themselves, as well as to the consumers of these forms.

Droog: Lace Fence by Demakersvan

Droog, the Dutch design collective that burst onto the scene in the 1990s, is well-known for its affinity for craftsmanship and craft-infused designs. Droog products emphasize tactility and individualization, intentionally departing from the perfection of high-end design objects. Other contemporary designers such as Patricia Urquiola, Marcel Wanders, Tord Boontje, Hella Jongerius and the Bouroullec brothers have also played a major role in melding craft with design. Through works such as Wanders’ Knotted Chair, Urquiola’s Crochet Rug, and Jongerius’ Embroidered Table Cloth, we see these designers working to adapt old typologies and traditional materials in new ways.

Inherent in this renewed affinity for manual production is a concern with sustainability and the ways in which things are manufactured. Intentional ‘slowness’ can be seen as a reaction not just to the speed, but also to the ills, of modernity. Sustainability is seen not only in terms of material and recycling, but also in terms of artistic traditions and artisanal skills. The value of artisan-made goods has always been appreciated, but with the globalization of trade, village artisans have become divorced from their traditional markets and insulated from the potential demand for their craft. By engaging with local craftspeople around the globe, many designers are also looking for ways to develop responsibly produced goods that not only rekindle an interest in traditional crafts, but provide important economic opportunities for challenged communities.

Heartwear: Benin indigo

Li Edelkoort is one such designer turning her attentions to Craft. The former chairwoman of the Design Academy Eindhoven is the co-founder of Heartwear, a non-profit organization devoted to finding, developing, sustaining and promoting the living artisanal expressions left in the world— within the disciplines of interior design and fashion. Heartwear collaborates with artisans to tailor their products for export, providing trend forecasting and marketing insight while remaining historically and culturally sensitive. How does it fight the tidal wave of mechanization that is systematically washing away time-intensive craft traditions? One artisan at a time. “You must get to know an artisan first,” explains designer and Heartwear founding member, Karen Petrossian: “You show interest in what he does, you appreciate his savoir faire, you take time to visit his workshop. You ask questions about his techniques and products, about how he acquires his raw materials. You get acquainted with his family situation, and even with how he plans to pass his skills on to the next generation.” With this detailed portrait, Heartwear members put together a design brief tailored to each artisan that they work with. Heartwear’s thoughtful approach has received generous support from European press and earned the organization enough of a following not only to sustain it for sixteen years, but also to allow it to fund multiple design and development efforts. Since its inception in 1993, it has worked with indigo dyers in Benin, knitters in Bosnia, potters in Morocco, basket weavers in Kenya and makers of khadi cotton in India.

Artecnica: Enrico Bresson & Tahmineh Javanbakht

While it is challenging for larger companies to achieve such an active collaboration with craftsmen and women, two European collaborations have pioneered interesting alternative models. Artecnica, the Los Angeles-based design company, launched Design With Conscience in 2002 with the desire to promote self-sustaining communities of talented artisans in underdeveloped countries. Artecnica believes that the key to sustaining artisans is to provide them with two key tools: the designer and the project producer. The designer can dovetail the capacities of artisans with! the needs of the international market-place, while the project producer provides the logistics, marketing !and art direction necessary to bring the work to the consumer.! Since its inception, DWC has partnered with some of the industry’s leading designers— among them Tord Boontje, Stephen Burks, Hella Jongerius, and Estudio Campana— who, similar to the Heartwear approach, each spent time in their chosen artisan communities, understanding their skills and resources and collaborating in the creation of new products that are both sustainable and commercial.

Hella Jongerius: Beads & Pieces

While all the DWC designers have worked with disadvantaged communities, some of them have developed products directly inspired by the local culture. Hella Jongerius’ Beads & Pieces collaboration with Peru’s native Shipibo tribe, is one such example. Each of the four ceramic vessels employs a traditional Peruvian black pottery technique that is then embellished by delicate pink beaded motifs indigenous to the Shipibo culture. Similarly, industrial designer Stephen Burks worked side by side with South African artisan Willard Musarurwa to reinterpret the common wire animal roadside souvenirs as TaTu, a brilliant steel wire modular furniture collection that meshes traditional with contemporary. The press has been quick to applaud Artecnica for its efforts, praising it as a leader in combining design, purpose and beauty as important factors through which to push design forward. The company’s traditional high- end retailers have, however, been less forthcoming with their praise, initially skeptical of adding craft to the mix. This is, perhaps, predictable. The story is an easy sell, but the business model for such a venture is more complex. Timelines are long and learning curves must be steep. Artecnica principal, Enrico Bressan, is quick to admit that though he finds Design With Conscience projects to be the most rewarding, they alone could not sustain the company.

Moroso: M'Afrique

When Moroso debuted M’Afrique, their African outdoor furniture line at the Milan Salone del Mobile last year, they heralded a new emerging force in the design world: South Africa. Owner Patrizia Moroso, married to a Senegalese and long interested in African cultures, unsurprisingly turned to many of the designers involved in Artecnica’s Design With Conscience initiative. Tord Boontje initiated the project and was the first to collaborate with local artisans in 2007. He was later joined by Bibi Seck and Ayse Birsel, Patricia Urquiola and Stephen Burks (whose previous South African collaboration, TaTu, was likely an inspiration to Moroso). Burks spent time in Dakar, where he was drawn to the low seating in many of the cafes, and the casual chic that they imbued. The resulting line of outdoor furniture, M’Afrique (a play on ‘my Africa’ and ‘Moroso’s Africa’), is a collection of work inspired by Africa’s visual and material language. Handmade in Dakar from the durable plastic twine used for fishing nets in coastal West Africa, the colors and shapes exude the warmth and creativity that characterizes the country. This creative spirit is also evidenced by the individuality of each piece: the craftsmen resist uniformity by varying the colors and patterns, rendering every item unique.

Thankfully, foreigners are not the only ones to capitalize on the African creative élan. Isolated during the long years of apartheid, South Africa had no choice but to look inward for inspiration. Its own multiplicity of cultures— Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Bushmen, Afrikaner and European, among others— provided rich sources of stimulation. In the two decades since Nelson Mandela walked out of jail, and 16 years since its first democratic election, the country has undergone an explosion in creativity in everything from graphic design to architecture. Design infuses every aspect of life, transcending race, religion and nationality and imbuing the country with a new inner confidence. Heath Nash’s Leafball flower lights, made of recycled plastic, and Mielie Studio’s Fluffball ottoman, fluffed with scraps from the country’s fashion and textile industry, embody the resourceful ingenuity that is so much a part of the culture. Owing to the dearth of major industry in South Africa, almost nothing is mass-produced. Consequently, as with M’Afrique, every piece tells a story. These stories sell, as evidenced by the fact that the Conran Shop, ABC Carpet & Home, Bergdorf Goodman, Takashimaya in Tokyo, and Mint in London are all clambering for South African design.

Design Indaba

Perhaps the rightful superhero in today’s South African design story is Ravi Naidoo. Every February, Naidoo, the Managing Director of Interactive Africa, a Cape Town based marketing and media company, turns his city into the hub of the design world. Design Indaba, the result of Naidoo’s belief that creativity will fuel an economic revolution in South Africa, gathers the world’s leading creative voices— Stephen Burks, Li Edelkoort, Hella Jongerius and Tord Boontje among them— in a yearly series of discussions on all things Design. An exhibition of South Africa’s current design work accompanies the talks. This year, more than 35,000 people descended on Cape Town to see what was happening. Naidoo sees, with each passing year, a new national confidence growing: an Africa beginning to celebrate its heritage. Design Indaba is as testament to his conviction that design is a strong national asset that is helping South Africa to find its voice on the global stage.

Due to its ability to be produced by hand, Craft plays a central role in the design identity of developing countries, occupying the most complex of spaces between archaism and modernity. Among the visual arts, Craft has the unique ability to straddle the boundaries of populism and elitism. While being fundamentally global, craft traditions are crucial to our understanding of locality and ethnicity. As developing countries seek to design their future, can Craft offer opportunities to bind communities together on a global scale much as it once did locally? Similarly, can Design act as a potent economic tool? More and more, leading Design minds believe that it can:

“Design is a powerful force in business in the first world, so why can’t it be acknowledged as a potentially powerful business force in the developing world?” asks Stephen Burks. “Look at how postwar Italy developed out of ruin to become this powerhouse of design in only 60 years! I like to use that as an analogy for what can happen in the developing world, if we use design appropriately; if we work with existing cultures…”

It just may be that the future, quite literally, is in our hands.

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