Pragmatic Idealism

In the last few years, the design world has seen an explosion of an intriguing brand of cross-cultural collaboration: first-world designers and manufacturers teaming up with artisans in developing countries to mass-produce unique wares for the global marketplace. Such big names as Jonathan Adler, Tord Boontje, and Stephen Burks have forged fruitful partnerships to create everything from ceramics in Peru to wire tables in South Africa. They did so through Aid to Artisans, a United States–based nonprofit that matches traditional crafts-people with international consultants, buyers, and importers.

Having worked with Aid to Artisans for more than two decades, the textile consultant Docey Lewis knows a thing or two about setting up long-distance collaborations—a process that can involve much more than just overcoming logistical hurdles. Recently, she has brought her experience to bear on 3form’s line of interior resin panels. The Utah-based company’s Full Circle program employs artisans around the world to make its products by hand, effectively blending indigenous craftsmanship and sustainable materials with modern industry. Managing editor Belinda Lanks spoke to Lewis about her unusual family background, the need to weigh human concerns against environmental ones, and the importance of understanding cultural differences.

You have an interesting pedigree: you’re a descendant of both Eli Whitney and the social reformer Robert Owen. Have you felt like your career as a textile designer was in some way predestined?
I know it sounds crazy, but yeah. Robert Owen was one of the founders of the cooperative, that whole way of thinking about community—not just individual achievement, but how to bring individuals together and motivate them to educate themselves and their children. So I grew up with that. I didn’t get into Eli Whitney until I started a project in Senegal, where we’re now trying to reintroduce eighteenth- and nineteenth-century technology. There’s a little museum in New Haven, the Eli Whitney Museum, that has the original saw gin, and I’m working with engineers in Thailand, India, and the U.S. to try and make that saw gin bicycle-powered, so we can do a village gin for this organic-cotton effort in West Africa.

When searching out communities, what are you looking for? Are there necessary ingredients for successful collaborations?
There’s a whole checklist, particularly with interior-design products. This is not an industry that is patient; they pay top dollar, and they want top service. So I think it’s best to work with groups that have already supplied some market somewhere, so they understand what it means to take responsibility to fulfill an order on time and to go through the development process. And you need to be able to communicate to somebody who understands English enough, has e-mail, and knows how to attach JPEGs.

So designers who want to work with the remotest artisan communities should probably rethink their plan?
Well, it depends on how game they are. There are designers who are willing to be Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and go out and rough it. “Take the stuff on the camel to market and sell it” is still an active market model. You can go meet an artisan at the Ouagadougou fair in West Africa and start communicating and place orders with him without a middleman. But if you’re doing something like a fabric or wall-covering line, something that needs to be consistent, it’s harder.

Many of these collaborations have interesting backstories. Is there one in particular that stands out?
The best story is Unravel, which we made with the Djiguiyaso Cooperative, in Mali. I found them in Montreal in 2007. Djiguiyaso displayed an assortment of old-fashioned crocheted cotton bedspreads and table linens. The work was immaculate, but I imagined developing more organic and abstract designs. Together we hatched a diamond design that could be relaxed and then starched to hold its shape. But the workshop space in Mali was so small that they couldn’t easily starch large numbers of panels. I then recalled a wonderful collaborative called Southwest Creations, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that provides work to disadvantaged and poor women. I trained several artisans there to do the starching and shaping of the crocheted panels. Those interlayers are then sent to 3form, where they’re encapsulated into wall panels.

That’s a lot of steps. Another 3form product, Lattice, also involves various locations: the raffia-palm leaves are shipped from Madagascar to knitters in Nepal. What would you say to someone who might question whether that’s sustainable practice?
What you have to do is weigh the social impact against the carbon footprint. That’s where I think people justifying carbon trading are on to something. By educating women, by giving them work—the best form of birth control is education and work—you relieve the environmental pressure at one end, even though you’re flying the goods in or shipping them by boat on the other end.

How do the traditional craftspeople respond to your direction? Is there ever any friction?
I would say the attitude of most artisans is they want the work. If you show them where the product is going and how it’s used and give them as much information as possible, they get excited about being a part of the global economy. I haven’t felt a lot of resistance.

I read that you were driven out of a village in Jordan.
That was a long time ago, right before the war. That was a rug-weaving project through Queen Noor’s organization, the King Hussein Foundation. There were great fans of Queen Noor—you know, the American queen of Jordan—and some who really wished the first queen hadn’t died. So we were part of an effort that was complicated. The Bedouin women are tough as nails, my goodness, and it was difficult to teach them that you can’t wrap the yarn around a rock if you’re being paid by the pound. And that’s what they would do: turn in their ball of yarn for the week with a big fat rock hidden in the center. Maybe it was a practical joke, but when you live that close to the edge, I guess you do what you do to survive. In the end, once orders started to come in for their carpets, the weavers, spinners, and dyers learned to trust the NGOs that were trying to assist them.

The article I read mentioned something about the discontent resulting from a time study.
That was an exercise to find out how long a woman is really working if she’s not in a factory, but outside her tent with her goats and her children and everything else going on. Try­ing to determine what the real work hours are in a very fluid day where women work at home was necessary for fair pricing and costing. You know how they say the outcome is sometimes influenced by the experimenters themselves? In Senegal, we had a wonderful, bighearted French volunteer who wanted to see the women make as much money as possible, so she sort of slanted the study to include as many hours that could be thrown at making yarn without really understanding the market or the competition part.

I imagine that there’s often that tension between the humanitarian effort and the business side of things.
And the design side. Even if you’d like to do something very simple, sometimes you can’t; you need to do something much more complicated just to get a toehold in the market, and that might require great patience and conditions that don’t exist. You might be able to make the prototype, but you might not get one hundred women trained to execute it, particularly if they’re illiterate or just learning a skill. In some cases, the artisan projects are more about economic development rather than preserving a traditional craft. You get a whole group of people willing to work, but they don’t have any skills, so you have to train them to do something.

What would you say is the biggest challenge?
I would say language is a consideration. Then you have the cultural issues. Right now, for example, it’s rainy season in Nepal, and all of the footpaths are washed out. We thought we had stockpiled enough bamboo to fill orders through the season, but there was a spike in orders, and they ran out of bamboo. So it’s been challenging explaining to 3form that there’s going to be a month delay getting any bamboo whatsoever because the footpaths are all washed out to the village.

Is there a project of which you’re particularly proud?
I’d say the Nepal group, because we’ve got a social mission. All of the young women who work at the factory go to school in the morning till eleven and go back to take a night class when they leave work at five or six. We pay them for a full day and cover their tuition. The goal is to employ these women for the full term of their college education, and then bring the next round of young women in. Most of them live in the mountainous areas, where the trafficking of girls is an enormous problem. We envision setting up some kind of workshop there and having it be a school and organic farm, a place where women and girls can feel safe from trafficking.

There’s no question you’re doing valuable work. But what would you say to critics who believe efforts should be focused on generating jobs in the United States? Doesn’t it make sense to rebuild industry in this country?
Sure, it does. And we are looking seriously at that—that’s why we got involved with Southwest Creations, and I hope we can do more with them. But we also have the challenge of working with labor-intensive handmade processes: It doesn’t make sense to pay ten, twelve, fifteen dollars an hour on a panel that might take ten days to make. It’s unaffordable. I’d love nothing more than to have a high-end workshop here in southern Indiana, where we have an enormous meth problem and a lot of unemployed people, but another question is: With the explosion of good design, how much can the market absorb?

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