Design Collaborations Revitalize Traditional Craft Techniques

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Keeping alive traditional craft techniques and methods in the age of globalization is a tricky balance to get right. As countries seek to increase living standards and income, traditional craft-making methods are often jettisoned in favour of attracting manufacturing and other high-value activities – meaning rich and potentially lucrative skills can be lost.

One promising new initiative is bringing craftspeople in the global South together with established and well-known designers in The Netherlands to create the market incentives to continue using traditional techniques. It is establishing a brand and a business model to sell unique and original craft products into the European marketplace. By doing this, it hopes to open up new markets in Europe – and in time, the rest of the world – for craft makers from the global South so they can continue to earn an income using their traditional skills and techniques.

The brand is called Imperfect Design (http://www.imperfectdesign.nl/) and was founded in 2011 by Monique Thoonen, formerly the managing director of Dutch Design in Development (ddid.nl) – a matchmaker between Dutch designers, producers in developing countries and European importers. Imperfect Design takes the idea a step further: It is a brand dedicated to creating high-value, well-designed craft products for the European marketplace.

The idea began to percolate in Thoonen’s mind in 2010. She received a good response from some of the Dutch designers she approached – who were keen to work with craft workers in developing countries – and this gave her the confidence to launch Imperfect Design.

“We saw that many designers were very interested to work with craftsmen/small workshops in developing countries,” she explained, reflecting on her previous experience working with Dutch Design in Development. “The designers and the crafters learned a lot about the inspiring cooperation and it resulted often in good quality products/collections. However, it was hard to find good sales channels for the products. In 2010 the idea came about to set up an own brand.”

Thoonen was seeking a business model that could be sustainable and rewarding for all the participants along the value chain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_chain).

“The cooperation is inspiring for Dutch designers,” Thoonen said. “The craftsmen will learn a lot about product development during the project and will earn money from the orders. The idea is to build up long-term relations with producers in three countries in three continents – each continent one country.”

For Thoonen, the business model approach is at the core of Imperfect Design.

“The idea of my business model is not doing good. It must be a profitable business model, otherwise it can’t be sustainable. Making it profitable is a big challenge and also forces us to keep the commercial aspect every day in mind.”

The criteria for selecting the designers includes a resourcefulness and creativity that can shape a high-quality craft product with the resources and tools at hand for the collaborating craft workers in the developing country. It is also crucial they understand how to shape the craft product into a high-value item that can command a high price back in Europe.

According to Thoonen, “the products must be differentiated from the market, otherwise it can be copied easily by large producers in China. It is really important to create new things, as the prices are in general higher than from mass production, so the consumer must understand why the price is higher.”

So far, Imperfect Design has begun working with craftspeople in Vietnam and Guatemala, and it is currently selecting a country in Africa. Craft workers can contact Imperfect Design about collaborating but the number of people it can work with is limited at this stage. Imperfect Design places emphasis in taking the time to build sustainable relationships.

A common criticism of craft products sold in many markets is their sameness and sometimes poor and inconsistent production quality. Trying to enter an overseas market and understand what consumers want or desire is a very difficult thing for a craft worker to get right. This is where the experience and knowledge of a designer can make a big difference. Designers can help to hone the craft product, improve the production methods and position the product in the overseas marketplace.

“The workshops have fantastic qualities and materials to work with,” says Thoonen. “When you combine that with the strength of our Dutch designers, you can create products which are commercial, of high quality, and beautiful.”

One of the first collaborations to bear fruit is between Dutch designer Arian Brekveld (arianbrekveld.com) and craft workers in Vietnam. The collaborations have resulted in lacquer tables, trays and candlesticks, ceramic vases, iPad bags and throw cushions – all made using techniques and materials unique to Vietnam.

Imperfect Design allows the designers to select which country they would like to work with. Brekveld’s previous experience travelling widely in Asia tipped his interest towards a country in that continent. He appreciated the friendly and welcoming contacts he had made in Vietnam, who showed a strong interest in collaborating.

Brekveld wanted to bring a “designer’s eye” to the possibilities in Vietnam. He asked: “How could they make the crafts more beautiful and customized for the market in Europe?”

He found Vietnam was not just an interesting place to work, but also a country undergoing significant change. As a result, he found it critical to go and see what was happening in the country and to see first-hand the working conditions in the workshops.

This was a contrast to many of the design briefs he normally undertakes in Europe, where there often isn’t the intimacy of working directly with the craft workers in their workshops.

The time spent in Vietnam was intense and involved visiting multiple workshops to see which would be the best partner.

“We visited four or five lacquer companies to see what their skills were, looking for possibilities,” he said. “It is very special to see by yourself, to really to take a look by yourself, to see what companies do.”

Brekveld was surprised to see that concepts that had been discussed and explored earlier in the day would be presented to him as completed works by the end of the day. The quick work pace and precision really impressed the designer, and the project took months to complete in comparison to the years required by some projects he works on in Europe.

A group of women from the ethnic Catu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co_Tu_people) community in central Vietnam weaved the fabrics for the iPad bags and cushions. It was very valuable to work with them in person because he could see what they were – and weren’t – capable of. The fabrics are made into iPad bags and cushions in the capital Hanoi by disabled craftsmen.

Brekveld said visiting the remote workshop saved a lot of time and frustration.

“It was a big difference compared to sitting behind a desk and sending designs. You really see all the possibilities that are there.”

Brekveld is seeking to design products that do not fit in with a clichéd idea of what comes from a developing country.

“If you look you can see the imperfections but they are not obvious. These designs would not necessarily sell in their own country. We try to design products showing the skills they have, using their techniques – not using patterns they would use for themselves. We look at their process and say ‘you can make that and that’. On the other hand, we don’t want to tell them to do something completely different. We look at the technique – a combination of European design language with their abilities.”

But what about quality control? Brekveld says that is an issue he looks at right from the beginning of the design process. “I am a maker, try to make myself – try to think about it before hand.”

He is ambitious for the collaboration to flourish.

“We hope these relations are long-term relations,” he said. “We hope to expand the collection.”

He will present the collections during Dutch Design Week at the end of October 2012 in Eindhoven (ddw.nl).

For Thoonen, success will bring many benefits. “If we manage to sell the collection well in the market, then we can give more orders,” Thoonen said. “In short: it will create work, but also development in quality and design.”

Resources

1) An online film showing Arian Brekveld’s trip to Vietnam and the craft collaborations. Website: http://imperfectdesign.nl/index.php?route=product/category&path=72_91

2) Dutch Design in Development: DDiD is the agency for eco design, sustainable production and fair trade. They work with Dutch importers and designers and connect them to local producers in developing countries and emerging markets. Together products are made that are both profitable and socially and environmentally sustainable. Website: http://www.ddid.nl/english/

3) Dutch Design Week: Groundbreaking ideas, mind-blowing experiments and extraordinary forms of collaboration – that’s what it’s all about during DDW. With the boundless creativity of hundreds of renowned designers and young talents, each year the leading event offers a unique look into the future of design (Eindhoven, The Netherlands: 20-28 October 2012). Website: http://www.ddw.nl/

 

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