Tag Archives: design

Children can be the link between craft and design



The Tradition for Modern Times was an intense workshop to complete the Selling Yarns conference. Participants brought a range of skills and experiences, particularly from Indigenous and artisan craft centres. In first considering the kinds of objects that have value in life, there was a great emphasis on some knowledge or connection to those who make them.

The scenario proved very lively. An Australian Indigenous Design Company was attempting to develop a ‘world craft’ product with traditional Aymara weavers based in the Andes. This was to be sold through a local gift shop to an Australian family. It all began well when a poncho design was developed that featured a hood which appeared very fashionable. But when this failed to sell in the shop, the artisans realised that they had forgotten to ensure payment. Trust broke down between artisans and designers and a stand-off ensued. In the end, it was the consumers who managed to regain trust by developing a ‘sister school’ relationship with the Andean village. This then paved the way for a cultural exchange between the designers and artisans. On the basis of this restored confidence, they were able to develop a more fitted product that was eventually successful.

The workshop revealed many dimensions to the business of cross-cultural product development. In particular, it showed that consumer participation can often be very productive in strengthening these cultural ties.

This exploration has many more possibilities to explore, but these exercises seem wonderful opportunities to share expertise and forge new methodologies. We are certainly entering a phase of ‘world craft’ when new possibilities are critical for its future.

The ethical turn, turn, turn

‘The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.’
Sholom Aleichem



As we saw a ‘linguistic turn’ transform humanities in the late 20th century, on our side of the millennium it seems that we are witnessing a wave of cultural accountability – an ‘ethical turn’.

Culture is no longer ‘innocent’ of politics. An artist cannot draw inspiration from the third world without accounting for his or her economic privileges. Similarly in disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology it is an expectation that the researcher works in partnership with the community – the knowledge which they glean must be paid for, usually in services.

This ethical turn may seem rather negative. Guilt can lead towards greater distance between cultures, as those from rich countries are hesitant to be seen as cultural predators. But there are positive developments too.

The existence of a just partnership between rich and poor is a valuable ideal, and increasingly we seem willing to pay for it. Fair Trade sales in commodities such as chocolate and coffee have risen greatly, up to 50% a year. Given the modest nature of these purchases, it is unlikely that they will be affected by the economic downturn.

Previously, it was the ‘customer is always right’. But now the interests of the producer have become relevant. There is a multitude of products that advertise their benefits to the community of origin, including bottled water, textiles, furniture, cosmetics and medicines.

As this trend continues the build, it naturally becomes commodified. We cringe to learn that McDonalds is now a member of the Rainbow Alliance. What guarantee do we have that such associations are more than marketing gimmicks, there to enhance the primary brand? As Nestlé, Coca-Cola and other global brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, we are tempted to become cynical about the whole ethical turn. How can we tell the difference between substance and advertising?

At this point, it seems important that those designing these products find a way of sustaining the trust of the consumer. The challenge is to provide the consumer with convincing information about the arrangement with the producing community. It’s hard to convey this information just as dry facts, there needs to be a compelling narrative about the challenges faced by the community and their current aspirations.

This is partly a design challenge. How do you develop products that ‘feel good’? How might the consumer feel that his or her purchase not only promises themselves goodness, but in a small way makes the world a better place? This product might be the exception. This product may not be not drawing on an unsustainable resource, subjecting displaced peoples to sweatshop conditions, exporting industrial pollution from first to third worlds, etc.

So we need to find a way of designing ethical value that will last. It’s not good enough to make ethics fashionable. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s dumpster. And it’s not enough to be dewy-eyed. Today’s romantic myth is tomorrows hardened realism.

The project of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations is designed to strengthen this ethical turn in product development. The initial phase is to open this question up for discussion in a way where no view is excluded, from the most idealistic to the most cynical. It is this openness that will serve to help develop an enduring understanding of the nature of an object’s ethical value.

This year, there are already two workshops planned to start this discussion. The first will be at Selling Yarns next month. The second will be in Santiago, Chile, in September.

Buddy, can you spare design?



There’s a raging debate in the US media about the call to bring design into account for its recent elitism. Echoing the recriminations over reckless financial dealers on Wall Street, Michael Cannell argued in the New York Times that the indulgent excesses of celebrity design will be a natural victim to the economic downturn. He says this is something to celebrate:

The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.

Naturally, there were many designers who took umbrage at these remarks. Murray Moss lead the defence in Design Observer to argue that one-off works like Campana Brothers $9,000 Corallo Chair represent great creative achievements that all should aspire to.

We are the fortunate benefactors, not the dupes, of design’s evolution since our recovery from the last Great Depression. We should defend that progression with resolve. We should push forward, in whatever ways are still possible, even more strongly. We should lock arms and support one another. And we should not hesitate to challenge those, like Mr. Cannell, who would somehow, mistakenly and punitively, equate the current global economic meltdown with design’s recent surge. We should, and will, refuse to go back into the box.

What seems missing from this debate is a sense of the creative possibilities of egalitarian design. This involves changing the social dynamic of design from individual distinction to collective identity. That’s kind of transformation has certainly been successful with online networking. We can only imagine what kind of promiscuous design it might foster.

Garth Clark in top form

I heartily recommend that you listen to Garth Clark’s lecture at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. It’s typically witty, droll, informed and sharply polemical. He takes Glenn Adamson’s line that 20th century craft went astray by trying to dress itself up as visual arts.

Like all good conservative critics, Clark polices the social boundaries for empty aspirationalism, in this case craftspersons who envy the attention given to those in the visual arts. He argues that craft should accept its position outside the art world, even suggesting that the American Craft Council should move out of New York to a more modest location such as… Portland (received with great applause by his audience, naturally).

Clark blames the academic world for falsely propping up the pretensions of craft. He contrasts this with the world of design which has managed to survive on its on in the marketplace. However, he doesn’t mention the deluge of marketing associated with design, which creates an even less critical environment.

More seriously, as he is castigating the upstarts, Clark ignores the politics of craft as a critique of modernity. This has gained considerable momentum in recent years with movements such as ‘renegade craft’ in the USA. As a champion of the market, I’d be very interested to know what Clark’s view of the most recent financial crisis is.

While he and Adamson have made good points about the inherent differences between craft and visual art, I think dialogue between the two is important for craft to sustain its message. Let’s hope Portland keeps the argument open.

South African design goes South



The Design Indaba is the leading design event in Cape Town, South Africa. This year, they are using the theme of ‘South’ to celebrate the ‘gloriously positive, ridiculously naïve and relentlessly spontaneous’ elements of creativity in their country.



Wouldn’t it be something for the designers and craftspersons in other Southern countries to join in on this celebration? The Design Indaba Conference is on 25-27 February 2009. Don’t trust all you read in the news. Find out what South Africa is really like by visiting it yourself.

‘When the rats ate the flour resist’ – working with craft in Mozambique

From the Western Cape Craft Newsletter comes this fascinating tale by Amanda Youngleson about working as a design consultant in Mozambique. It’s a sober account of the challenges involved, but testament to great dedication.




When product designing to assist development in the underdeveloped world, one works in a realm of limitations, of what is impossible, of what will not happen. It is a world of Making Do. To succeed, expect the unexpected and adapt accordingly. Amanda Youngleson was recently commissioned to train and product-develop at Mbeu, a project on Ilha de Mozambique. She shares her perspectives.

The design consultant’s brief is to bring about change for the better. Although not specified in the brief, it is to make changes, under trying conditions, for people with little education, often limited skills, whose vision is limited by what has been impossible in their daily lives. If the design consultancy has been successful the participants are left, not only with a new product range that they can make, but also with hope. They are inspired and empowered. They have seen for themselves that things CAN change for the better, and where the results of the consultancy are sustainable, they will have seen how they can change their lives.

Many interventions are inappropriate or unsustainable as they failed to understand the context of underdevelopment of the people whom they intended to help. However, understanding the context is not straightforward.

Designers have probably been trained in, and live in the First World; development happens in the context of the Third World. One expects most components of one’s known world to be present there, and one expects the people you will be working with, to think, to some extent, as you do. What a mistake!

Working outside South Africa (where First and Third Worlds, developed and underdeveloped, rub shoulders) I found the Island of Mozambique to be particularly isolated – worlds and chasms apart from the marketplace they would be targeting.

Before leaving on a design consultancy one tries to gather as much information as possible about the context that one will be working in. However, as the people on the other end find nothing unfamiliar or strange about their context, they assume that you need a lot less information than you do. They are not clear about the skills levels of the crafters you will train, the existing products, the availability of materials or equipment, or their expectations. They do not inform you about the context of their world. You are thrown in the deep end.

Adapt or Die, could be the title for Designing for Development – involving thinking on your feet and learning about their world, minute by minute, on your arrival. If you can’t adapt, you are going to be very frustrated and fail! Time is limited and besides designing, the groups need to be trained. Your design concepts and ideas may not be achievable and you may need to re-conceptualise on-the-hop.



Nothing could prepare me for the poor skills levels of the people from the project Mbeu, 25 km outside Maputo. They were independent farmers, had had no schooling and had not developed fine motor skills. I had designed a range for them prior to my departure, but their skills levels were too poor to manage it. Fabric-painting, as they did it, involved drawing on a flour-resist paste and then painting the cloth when dry. But they were unable to draw a diagonal line without it winding along chaotically. I had to redesign the range so that it only involved drawing horizontal or vertical lines. They were unable to make measurements so we folded the cloth to make lines. Rats ate the flour-resist and sand blew through the windows. They would start painting the fabric happily with the flour-resist design half eaten away, and sand covering the table. Their scissors were so blunt that a woman with the strongest hands was reserved for the job of cutting. The concept of tablemats meant nothing to them, as they had no use for them in their own lives, and could not imagine the market they were making them for. A previous agency had started the tablemat project but it highlights an inappropriate intervention where the agency did not understand their context.



A lack of materials can restrict the type of products one can create. In Mozambique there is no pattern making cardboard and nothing I found could be used as a substitute. I had to bring some along on my second visit (and pay overweight) and the shortage of cardboard limited my being able to create new patterns, or alter others. Another problem with materials is that there is no guarantee of continuity of supply for most fabrics; when sampling one cannot count on the fabric being available for future production. Weights or composition of fabric are seldom given, so it is difficult to identify fabrics or choose fabrics that are pure cotton. In designing the fashion range for Ilha de Mozambique I used the local traditional cloth as it was readily available and would appeal to locals and tourists.

And then there is the problem of calculating production costs. Trying to determine an hourly rate for labour, in order to cost the products, was quite impossible. On Ilha de Mozambique (the island of Mozambique), the producers would agree on a time that it would take to make a product but would be adamant that one could not extrapolate from that the number of units one could make in the day, as they had no concept of working a seven-hour day. A work-day for them meant doing some work, in between looking after the children and doing chores. A pair of pants might take an hour to make but that did not mean seven pairs could be made in a day. They believed that they could only manage to make three a day, all considering. No one had ever paid them to work so they could not give a value to an hour’s labour.

Furthermore, the co-operative in Mozambique treated everybody equally and all profits were divided amongst the group regardless of their skill and contribution. No person would have been given less, and so all the labour input had to be costed the same.

Working in Mozambique would not have been possible without a translator, but as there are no trained translators, someone who seems to speak reasonable English is employed. One quickly realises that there is an art to translating. The translator should be the mouthpiece of the designer, and resist adding his/her opinions or embellishing the translation. My translator increasingly saw himself as an extension of the designer and on occasion took liberties in translating, giving extra instruction and even admonishing the producers. My Portuguese was fortunately growing daily and I was able to check him when I sensed he was not just translating. He had a lovely sense of humour and an irrepressible energy and being confined to translating without communicating his ideas was, for him, well nigh impossible.

Working without electricity was frustrating. The iron was heated by putting burning charcoal in the inner chamber but tended to be hot when we didn’t need it, and cold when we did. The pedal sewing machines gave problems in keeping the tension constant. Rusty pins made holes in the fabric, and rusty scissors carved a jagged and frayed line. I had to bring scissors and stainless steel pins from Cape Town, which were treated like treasures. The pedal sewing machines had no zigzag stitch to finish the seams so I had to introduce French seams.

A lack of skills meant that I could not use zips or buttons on the clothing. I had to use ties. They had no pattern-making skills, or ability to grade patterns into sizes so most patterns had to be `fit one, fit all’. They had no idea of quality and would sew when the tension was obviously slack or loopy. When I encouraged them redo it, they thought I was making a mountain out of a molehill. They found the concept of laying up patterns on the straight grain hard to grasp, and recognising what pattern pieces were, was difficult for them.

Despite all the frustrations of a lack of materials, poor skills, poor equipment, no electricity, and sometimes work venues with no walls, the work in Mozambique was amazingly enjoyable. The people on Ilha de Mozambique with their warmth and community-spirit are totally lovable. Their excitement at being in the workshop and creating the range was infectious. Their horizons had opened and they were optimistic for the future. They had seen what was possible.

Amanda Youngleson

Campana Brothers on the power of nature

From a recent exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt museum, the Brazilian designers reflect on their romantic ideals. In particular, they celebrate the artisanship, individual expression, the presence of nature in urban life, recycling and dreams. The time seems ripe for the Campana Brothers. Its in this broader context that we might view the turn to the European forest in Australian craft. What will we find when we emerge from the forest?