Artisans toiling in the developing world, barely eke a living is essentially the same story now as was told in the 60s when attention was first brought to their plight. Before that, interlopers had a field day brokering the skills and materials of indigenous peoples for next to nothing, which can be traced back to the history of colonialism. But as the planet's social self shrinks to global village scale, indigenous artisans, local manufacturers, government and non government agencies, and the designers who consult to these parties, are all tied to the objective of generating fair trade employment, so the story is on a grander scale than in the 60s….and more complex. In responding to the economic problems in developing countries, aid for its own sake fed a vicious circle, so ‘trade not aid' became the new tagline, yet this line too is loaded with economic and political…and cultural implications. Treating the developing world as a source of raw material, not to mention (colonial) labor, to be exploited at will, is responsible for a large part of the imbalance at the outset, but in an altruistic grass roots effort to address the tale of the toiling artisans, how does one create ‘new models of viable design and craft collaborations in the developing world.'
This new model tag line belongs to Patty Johnson's North South Project (NSP), a consultancy that ‘reaches across a global North/South axis (as opposed to East/West),' Johnson explains, positioning herself and NSP within this political economic north south term coined by Li Edelkort, director of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, and owner of a significant trend forecasting agency. ‘Canadian designer, Patty Johnson has collaborated with partners in Botswana , Africa and Guyana , South America to bring new product collections to the North American market,' the 2006 North South Project released reads. Launched at New York 's International Contemporary Furniture Fair that year, North South Project garnered the ICFF Editors Award for Craftsmanship. And this past summer, Johnson curated an exhibition at the York Quay gallery in Toronto 's Harbourfront Centre with Melanie Egan head of craft at the Centre, who gleaned the exhibition title Massclusivity from trendwatching.com. Limited edition exclusivity is creating niche markets in various sectors, this popular trend site reports. As a furniture designer, Johnson has identified the mid to high end home décor sector in the North American market as the target for North South Project, and lent the NSP tagline to the exhibition.
Massclusivity included North South Project's projects augmented with those from other designers in the field, some of whom presented in a symposium attached to the exhibition, including Rachael MacHenry, a Toronto textile designer and instructor, working with weaving cooperatives in Nepal; London's Maham Anjum Cheshti, currently collaborating with the Midaya Ceramics factory in Sri Lanka, in the production of a line of terracotta ware for British design brand Habitat; and William Gordon whose Mission to Manila project saw the American industrial designer creating product for 16 companies in the Philippines. Johnson and NSP clients from Guyana and Mexico , presented as well
MacHenry, Johnson and Anjum Cheshti all hold a MA Design degree from Central St. Martins College of Art & Design (CSM) in London, and Simon Fraser, a course director in the graduate program at CSM, who is also collaborating with Johnson on a project with jewelry and furniture artisan communities in India, was also billed to present at the symposium, but was a no show, who Johnson, deserved of a PhD in networking, replaced with her Mexican client. The lone critical voice in the Massclusivity symposium wilderness, Toronto material culture historian Michael Propokow, was invited by Johnson because of Dr. Propokow's notoriety for presenting abstract critique. His pronouncement that the work in the exhibition and similar projects elsewhere are simply colonialism cloaked in a different time, fell on essentially deaf ears, as his true to form academic rhetoric was too big a leap for the audience comprised mostly of college students enrolled in crafts programs, to bridge this with the toiling artisan stories from the rest of the symposium. The seven presentations consumed the afternoon, so with the audience's permission, the post presentation protocol requisite Q & A was nixed. Shorter and/or fewer presentations, followed by a moderated panel, may have rendered the prescient issues to at least be identified, but in the format used, the opportunity was lost.
Issues surrounding Massclusivity include the criteria with which designers abstract and interpret local indigenous culture to fashion products for an international marketplace that consumes the products as ethnographic fetish and/or quaint massclusive responses to sweatshop subsistence; and in the design and production of these products, what actually happens in the so called collaborative process; and, how exactly are the products brought to market, and what are the results.
The challenge in brokering a local culture to the international market is for the products to not end up expressions of ethnic kitsch, which is close to the tourist souvenir scenario these designers are working hard at replacing. Yet the aesthetic directive driven by the demands of a fickle design market comes with its own price as well. So where to start? ‘When you engage on the ground, it's often messy,' Johnson explains at the outset. In Botswana , she deployed local white oak in her Simple furniture collection for the Mabeo Furniture company. And since the oak is not indigenous, that could be reason enough that the design has little local content as well, save her Windsor chair also for Mabeo. Referencing and recalling the local condition, perhaps it's sweet that in purchasing a chair, the international consumer is provided a brief lesson in African history; but time will tell if the market is really interested in a Windsor silhouette, and if the prototype on display is any indication, one that may be produced at Ikea-like quality. On the other hand, the table in the Simple collection is exquisite, but it's also a product Johnson has been developing for years. Yet to experience the minimal hardware on the underside of the table, an expression of its flat pack assembly, is to celebrate design's power to transcend boundaries in honoring simple utility.
Consulting to a group of Etsha weavers near the Mabeo factory, Johnson refined and redefined their signature rugged utilitarian bowls by increasing the bowls' size and simplifying their graphic motifs, so they could be marketed, in groups of six, as a home décor wall accessory. With the Wai Wai tribe in Guyana, famous for their highly ordered and complex patterned baskets, she interrupted the weaving process and fashioned decorative lamp shades from the unfinished forms, their Mukra grass tendrils actively flopping about, one assumes, in celebration of process and imperfection…yet the waning western wabi sabi trend of worn and ragged edges is all but over. ‘You make mistakes', Johnson offers as matter of fact
Her Mexican client, the Guanajuato World Trade Commission COFOCE (Coordinadora de Fomento al Comercio Exterior), in partnership with the International American Development Bank, has been successful in developing export related employment in the state of Guanajuato, and Johnson was approached to review the Gifts, Decorations and Furniture sector. Its ceramics industry has a handicraft tradition that dates back to the Mesoamerican civilization of the Chupicuaro circa 500 B.C. It has been driven since the 1950s by the market for tourism souvenirs of cheaply produced talavera, a tin glazed type of majolica earthenware. The industry was ripe for study as the bottom has fallen out of the souvenir market, and a neighbouring state had patented the colors and styles of the original talavera. Johnson studied the utility vernacular and came up with the shape of the ubiquitous tortilla soup bowl, and also through research, developed a palette of colors and as a basis for the patterns themselves. She empowered ceramics factory workers to sketch freely, and she tried her hand at this decorative style as well, but in an interview during a break at the symposium, COFOCE project coordinator Daniel Hernandez Ruiz, confessed that Johnson's design was very difficult to produce; and the language of her floral motifs seems unlikely to captivate an international design discerning consumer as well. Yet, Ruiz is confident North South Project is the right fit for his organization, and during his presentation directed a ‘Thank God I found you,' comment Johnson's way.
The challenge is for designers who are consistently called upon to solve problems they may not have the necessary skills to analyze, and outside their area of expertise. In collaboration with the Himalayan Knitworks, MacHenry produces two collections of knitted cotton blankets and cushions a year, ‘and we brought the weavers from Nepal to the Japanese department store Takashimaya,' she explains. ‘And seeing their work on display for sale, it makes it more real for them.' But in reviewing the patterns and pastels of these products in the exhibition, it's important for designers to take note of the difference between trend watching and trend forecasting, and the textile designer's signature language of over stitching and patching may be waning a wee bit out of fashion as well, for the same reason that Johnson's imperfect Foto lamps may not last.
The main value designers bring to this local condition in the developing world is their materials and production knowledge and experience. ‘Pots thrown in a Biyagama village in Sri Lanka are beautiful in their own right,' explains Manjum Cheshti. ‘But they require some adjustments in clay preparation, firing and glazing to improve the quality of the objects made,' she continues. ‘And hand throwing is capable of producing shapes that cannot economically be copied by the larger terracotta manufactures using molds.' The Pakistani born British designer celebrates the potential success of this and other projects, and finishes by recounting how important it was for the Biyagama potters to meet the Habitat buyers who traveled to Sri Lanka. Yet her design intervention involved the addition of a pinched spout, which regardless of its reference to the vernacular and how good it looks in display, is difficult to produce consistently, and its utility factor is too low to be of consequence. One wonders whether her green and blue glazes are truly geared to the Habitat consumer, regardless if it's for the British brand's new Fair Trade label.
In his section of the exhibition, Gordon showed a photo of weavers in assembly line formation in a factory in Manila . Regardless of altruistic intentions, labor is a loaded issue, yet ‘the $5 a day wage these Philippine weavers make, keeps them from pawning their kids in the sex trade or sending them to beg in the streets,' Gordon argues. ‘Human resources need to be respected just as much as the rain forest,' Guyanese lobbyist Jocelyn Dow offered in her presentation. Her company Liana Cane, Johnson's first client, harvests renewable vines from the Amazon jungle so the trees are left standing. ‘And our relations with the Wai Wai are multi layered,' she continues. The tribe owns a section of the country through settlement of the largest lands claim negotiated by indigenous peoples, and regardless if they're dirt poor by most country's standards, they won't sell it. ‘They don't have furniture in their homes, Dow continues her observation.
‘Can you imagine bringing the Wai Wai to Toronto,' proposes Egan. One is immediately reminded of the Australian aboriginals displayed at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago . Issues surrounding the brokering of ethnography and anthropology now replace those founded on models of fair trade attempted in contexts where capitalism has created the imbalance at the outset. The spiritual practice of the Wai Wai, and perhaps all indigenous people, is the very foundation of their craft, yet the capitalism informing the economic models proposed by Johnson and others is spiritually bankrupt. And the wabi sabi , a waning Western trend implying imperfection and expressed as rough edges (the overstitching and patches of MacHenry and the unfinished baskets in Johnson's Foto Lights) has much deeper historical roots. In the introduction to his seminal book Minimum British architect John Pawson cites that ‘Wabi, the quality of voluntary poverty, is an aesthetic and moral principle, advocating a life of quietness and a withdrawal from worldliness.' So it's closer to an awareness of the transient nature of earthly things, than imperfection as an aesthetic. In his Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence Andrew Juniper claims, ‘if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.'
The history of craft is tied to utility, not decoration as we understand the term. And, regardless, if turning craft into decoration through design will bring a better existence for those toiling artisans. The rigorous simplicity of the Shakers informs the best of Johnson's furniture design, so how are these various disparate conditions in North South Project and indeed all of the work in this and other exhibitions related to this topic, reconciled. ‘The future of projects like this could end up being more research based and curatorial, then defined by a collection of products,' Johnson offers in a post symposium interview. In his presentation, Propokow concluded that, ‘there is no such thing as cultural exchange; it's only a mix-matching of autonomy.'
So far more questions than answers…..and if only there had been a panel as a forum for some of these issues to be raised, one reviewer would not have the daunting task of trying to make sense of it all.