Designers who strive to incorporate Fairtrade principles in furniture production run the risk of accusations of naivety and exploitation. John Stones takes a look at three different approaches to this Green challenge
Sustainability can be much more than simply Green. After all, if the ethics of manufacture can become central to the marketing of bananas or coffee, then surely it can be done with furniture, too. And while the Fairtrade chair is some way off (though accreditation for furniture is something the Fairtrade Foundation is looking into), well-known designers are increasingly working in developing countries, drawing on local craft and design skills and hopefully giving something back.
These projects need to tread a careful path not to be accused of being naive and patronising, or cynical and exploitative. Here are three very different projects, navigating their own way through these issues, which involve designers working with artisans in Senegal, Lebanon and South Africa.
MOROSO IN SENEGAL
At this year’s Milan furniture fair, Moroso, known for its top-end fashionable furniture, put on an elaborate show called M’Afrique. Showcasing contemporary African art and design, as well as various items Moroso is now manufacturing there, some critical sneers ensued about ‘ethnic’ trends and market-stall kitsch.
Speak to Patrizia Moroso, and any hint of her stepping on a bandwagon is quickly dispelled. She is passionate about Africa, and in particular Senegal, the country of her husband, and is horrified by the treatment of Africans in Italy and the continent’s negative associations.
Coming back from one of her trips to the Senegalese capital Dakar, she showed photographs of some of the local artisanal products to Tord Boontje, from which a collection of outdoor furniture based on the woven fishing line technique used by local craftsmen was developed.
Starting from a couple of guys working on the street, Moroso and her husband have encouraged the establishment of a cooperative of 25 people working from a building they found for them, manufacturing a series of products. ‘You have to be respectful and knowledgeable about what they are usually doing,’ she says. ‘You can’t just go there and say, “Hey, make this”. The design is a link between your idea and what they are able to do.’
Separately, Moroso is supporting Aissa Dionne, a Senegalese weaver, in her reintroduction of traditional cotton produced on wooden looms, and has plans to work with a charity to bring work to the villages.
‘My little thing is a drop in the ocean, of course,’ Moroso says. ‘But if people can start making things there, you can help the people become aware of their own great capabilities.’
BOKJA IN LEBANON
Based in Beirut, Bokja is a design partnership between Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, who, almost ten years ago, combined their backgrounds as antique collectors to start creating furniture pieces upholstered with vintage fabrics.
There are two parts to Bokja’s work – the putting together of pieces in the workshop, and the hunt for textiles for which the team scour the Middle East. Furniture itself is also reclaimed and reused – while they might take a classic, such as an Eames lounger, Bokja are just as likely to rescue an old sofa from a rubbish heap in Beirut. ‘Sometimes we take an ugly piece from the 1960s and then make it “pretty” ugly,’ Hibri says.
The montage of meanings is as important as the aesthetics. ‘It is painful for us when someone wants to buy our furniture and doesn’t want to know the story behind it,’ says Hibri. So now the pieces come with a ‘passport’ that describes the provenance of the various fabrics, vintage and modern, as well as the names of the various craftspeople in the studio and outside who worked on the piece.
‘Each piece tells a story. This is very important for us, not just about the two mad women who put it together, but also the people who worked on it,’ Hibri says, adding that the faces of the artisans who produce the work are shown on Bokja’s website.
The patina of the old textiles is sometimes mixed with reembroidery done by widows, arranged through a local charity.
‘Bokja [in Turkish] means the embroidery made lovingly by mothers as the dowry for their daughters. Our pieces are a women’s story,’ Hibri adds.
CAPPELLINI LOVE IN SOUTH AFRICA
‘I’ve never been interested in pure ecology or “saving the planet”. I’ve always been more interested in saving people,’ says African- American designer Stephen Burks. ‘My work in trying to build a bridge between developing world communities and my “firstworld” clients with international distribution, has always been about economic development through design.’
As well as working with Moroso on its M’Afrique project, Burks has been busy with a more difficult project with another Italian manufacturer – Cappellini. Last year, prototypes of the Cappellini Love collection – a stool and vases hand-made by South African artisans using recycled materials – were shown in Milan.
Through the NGO Aid To Artisans, Burks had been put in touch with the Cape Craft Design Institute in South Africa, which selected the artisan groups. ‘The reality of this kind of in-the-field consultant is not dissimilar to a “design boot camp”. They, of course, have lots of questions that, as a designer, you aren’t prepared for, like rights and remuneration,’ says Burks, with disarming honesty. ‘For the most part, their rights are protected in-country by organisations like the CCDI.’
Projects such as this are also fraught with other difficulties, as Burks is only too aware. Giulio Cappellini was initially taken with the products and offered to put them into production, but the project has stalled. ‘Given the fact that Cappellini is thinking of cancelling my Love projects because they’re not inexpensive enough, the thought of fashion or tokenism has crossed my mind,’ he says. ‘But as long as my efforts are sincere, I will continue to find outlets for this work, regardless of the trends in design.’