A few years ago, we might not have considered who made the things in our shopping baskets, or whether they were produced by ethical means. But as consumers in the face of current environmental issues, our hunger for provenance has spread into fashion and homeware – and the stories behind our purchases now matter as much as their aesthetic or functional qualities. It’s a stance that’s set to strengthen, too, as a number of remarkable organisations and brands are embarking on collaborations with artisans across the world, empowering communities and safeguarding heritage crafts for good.
The primary way of achieving this is by applying modern sensibilities to traditional production techniques – this protects and guarantees the survival of long-established methods of making, ensuring they remain in demand. Turquoise Mountain, an organisation set up in 2006 by HRH The Prince of Wales, invests in traditional crafts and provides jobs and skills in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It works with a number of brands, including Christopher Farr, which presented a collection of rugs made in collaboration with the enterprise at the London Design Festival in September.
‘We work with carpet factories to help them upskill with trend- based weaving, colour matching, finishing, quality control and logistics,’ says Jenni Graham, head of communications at Turquoise Mountain. ‘We have around 5,000 weavers in the network and the largest factory has around 400 to 500. The big difference is that they often work on home looms – meaning they can take their kids to school, then get together and weave.’ They are also paid at least 10 per cent more than the market rate and the programme educates them about workers’ rights, so wherever they go in the future, they have that knowledge.
On a smaller scale, London-based design house Tiipoi has collaborated with Indian artisan Mathew Sasa on a range of ceramics that uses a unique type of pottery from the remote village of Longpi. In a method that fuses contemporary design with an ancient technique, clay is manually shaped over a plaster mould and burnished before being left to dry in the sun. The objects are then fired in an open bonfire, and smoked in sawdust made from local foliage, giving pieces a distinctive black colouring (top).
For Tiipoi founder and creative director Spandana Gopal, working with artisans to produce pieces fit for 21st-century living is key to securing a place in the future for these rare crafts, reclaiming them from ‘the tokenisation of handcrafted souvenirs. We have also intervened to help Mathew establish production systems that upscale his process, making his craft more relevant for the modern industry.’
Lél, a collective dedicated to preserving and evolving the ancient art of handcrafted stone inlay (pietra dura), shares this sentiment. Founded by Farhana Asad, who learnt the technique from an immigrant Afghan craftsman over 20 years ago, the company now employs around 15 Afghan refugees and artisans in Peshawar, Pakistan, who make exquisitely intricate furniture and objects. ‘In a way, Lél’s very origins are linked to these refugee artisans. So continuing to collaborate with them is integral to our ethos and philosophy,’ says Farhana’s daughter Meher Asad, the creative director who now co-runs Lél with her mother. Before joining the firm, some artisans had just the basics of beading and stone cutting, while others were primarily employed as house helps or labourers on small construction projects. ‘The only way to ensure pietra dura survives is through making it a viable source of income for artisans and their families,’ she adds.
Whereas most brands begin with products and then find ways to support communities through manufacturing, Manos del Uruguay started with a people-first approach. The raison d’être of this unique not-for-profit organisation founded in 1968, is to generate work for women in rural Uruguay, making hand-dyed yarns and textiles. Comprised of 12 cooperatives, each located in a small village in Uruguay’s countryside, Manos del Uruguay’s artisans are also the owners of the company, with profits either shared among the cooperatives or reinvested in the brand. Every product bears a tag with the artisan’s signature as well as the name of their cooperative’s village, reminding the user of the human story behind the product.
But the concept of supporting collectives through craft is not just reserved for boutique luxury companies. Leading the way for high- street retailers is Ikea with the ‘Hantverk’ collection, created in collaboration with social enterprises in India, Thailand, Jordan and Romania. Its partnership with Jordan River Foundation started in 2017 in response to the Syrian crisis, and has since generated jobs for 250 female Jordanian artisans and Syrian refugees. ‘We want to offer them the opportunity to develop their business and become more self-sufficient. They learn about design, production, export, environmental issues and more. At the same time, our customers get to buy beautiful handicrafts with a social mission,’ says Vaishali Mishra, Ikea’s head of social entrepreneurship initiatives.
Even at its most considered and sustainable, consumerism can’t solve all our problems. But if this social-purpose-driven approach was the future, we’d surely live in a much more balanced world.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020
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