Between the poles
by Nina Reetzke | Jul 18, 2012
View of the Pika wood working school in Indonesia, where products by Inch Furniture are produced, photo © Daniel Riera

It is a phenomenon that has emerged over the past one or two decades. Manufacturers engage designers to develop new products together with craftsmen; production sites are then located in economically underdeveloped regions of Africa, Asia and South America. There is of course the occasional cooperation with an NGO, too. Most products are manufactured in craftsmen’s workshops or training centers. The projects lay claim to being sustainable in an ecological, cultural and aesthetic sense. There is often disagreement as to whether such projects really do serve to promote the local economy or whether they are merely a way to sooth the consumer’s conscience. In prosperous countries handmade one-offs are considered high-end, while in poorer regions the wealthy elite like industrially-produced luxury products by internationally-known labels. And what about local design and its protagonists? Here is a selection of ten examples that have been actively pursued throughout the years – and are still available today.

Artecnica: “Design w/Conscience” (since 2002)
Until now “Transglass” by Emma Woffenden and Tord Boontje has proven to be the most successful series by “Design w/Conscience”. Tableware such as cups, jugs and vases are produced in Guatemala where recycling glass is cut, pieced together and then polished.

Dedon (since 1992)
The “Dala” collection by Stephen Burks is one of the most recent editions by Dedon. The round lounge chairs, stools and tables are weaved from synthetic fibers on the Philippine island of Cebu.

Edra: “Favela” (since 1991)
Surprisingly the “Favela” armchair by Fernando and Humberto Campana is not produced at the edge of a Brazilian city but in a German community on the Argentinean border. It is said that the duo initially had to work on subduing the craftsmen’s inherent sense of order; after all, the individual pieces of wood that make up the armchair are not supposed to be arranged at right angles but stuck and nailed together at random.

Hermes: Shang Xia (since 2008)
Shang Xia is a Chinese subsidiary of Hermes. Under the direction of design Jiang Qiong, the company aims to continue China’s craft tradition to the highest standard.

Inch Furniture (since 2004)
While Inch Furniture is based in Basel, its products are manufactured at the Pika vocation school for woodwork in the Indonesian city of Semarang. The collection, containing pieces like the “Hiji Shelf”, is available from selected retailers such as “Dopo Domani” in Berlin or “Teo Jakob” in Geneva.

Mabeo (since 2006)
Mabeo is headquartered in Botswana. At first Peter Mabeo exported most of his products to South Africa, before he moved on to the international market. The “Tswana Chair” by Patty Johnson for example was inspired by a local traditional chair that was once reserved for the village elders.

MoMA Store: “Destination: Series” (10th edition)
The MoMA Store headed by Kathy Thornton-Bias is known for being particularly well curated. The “Destination: Design” series is intended to raise awareness of modern design themes from around the world. The current edition focuses on Mexico and contains 150 products by 70 designers, including the “Candela Cube” by Sonia Lartigue.

Moroso: “M’Afrique” (since 2009)
Moroso boasts a whole series of projects that all have some connection to Africa. The initial highlight was the “M’Afrique” installation by Stephen Burks, which was created in Milan in 2009 and showcased products such as “Touti” by Patricia Urquiola and “Bayekou” by Bibi Seck and Ayse Birsel.

Nanimarquina: “Kala” (since 2009)
On a mission to combat child labor in India, Nepal and Pakistan, the organization “Care & Fair” set up a series of rug manufacturing firms. A percentage of the proceeds from the “Kala” project are channeled into the Amrita Vidyalayam School in the Indian city of Bhadohi.

Vitra: “Chairless” (since 2010)
“Chairless” is a textile strap for sitting. Such sitting straps are commonly used by Ayoreo Indians in Gran Chaco. For Alejandro Aravena they constitute the most reduced form of a sitting device. This design is what inspired the industrially-produced variation that he made for Vitra.

View of the Pika wood working school in Indonesia, where products by Inch Furniture are produced, photo © Daniel Riera
“Transglass” by Emma Woffenden and Tord Boontje for Artecnica, photo © Artecnica
“Dala” by Stephen Burks for Dedon, photo © Dedon
“Favela” by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Edra, photo © Edra
Pot “Fuqi”, tea table and chair “Da Tian Di” and garment “Sculpture” by Shang Xia, photo © Shang Xia
“Shanghai Chair” by Inch Furniture, as well as side table “Loro” and lounge table ”Shanghai” during the production process, product photo © Tonatiuh Ambrosetti and Daniela Droz, production photo © Daniel Riera
Stool “ThuThu” and chair “Maun Windsor” by Patty Johnson and stool “Kika” by Patricia Urquiola for Mabeo, photo © Mabeo
“Candela Cube” by Sonia Lartigue for MoMA Store, photo © Sonia Lartigue
Different products of the collection “M’Afrique” by Tord Boontje, Dominique Petot, Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck for Moroso, photo © Moroso
Project “Kala” by Nanimarquina, photo © Nanimarquina
“Chairless” by Alejandro Aravena for Vitra, photos © Nicole Bachmann and Verena Regehr