[Article] By People / In Cities : Phnom Penh

Beyond the scars, Phnom Penh is a city of courage where weaknesses can be turned into opportunities.
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[CRAFTED] City Craft | Kyoto, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Vientiane

[Article] CUT OUT May 2012

While the term innovation has become rather ubiquitous in the design world over recent years, the notion of crafts is quietly experiencing its own rise in various countries around the world. Although some perceptions persist (i.e. crafts as outdated and perhaps conservative), the discipline is now brought to the limelight by a number of individuals and companies that believe in its values and potential to actually innovate.

In Japan, everyday life goods company Muji, recently launched Found MUJI, a part gallery part retail space based on a revolutionary concept. The store sells its own products alongside crafted objects sourced from different parts of the world, such as hand needlework from India, handmade paper from Thailand, and coconut leaf brooms from the Philippines. The underlying philosophy focuses on the importance of preserving traditional practices that are struggling to survive while giving them a new purpose in the context of modern life. It is also for many of us a reminder that crafted objects are first and foremost synonymous with quality and uniqueness, two assets that have unfortunately become scarce in the context of mass manufacturing.

This is one inspiring example of design innovation through crafts, one that is situated at the intersection of culturally creative practices and new advances in product development, and which serves a new model for global competitiveness. Muji’s creative director Kenya Hara believes that culture will soon become the most competitive asset in the world economy. As the world becomes more globalised, consumers will seek distinctive products imbued with local meaning. “The competitive performance of cultures supported by locality makes the world richer. It is a competition to create products or ideas that are based in one’s own culture or market but can inspire other markets.” (Kenya Hara, Designing Design, Muji – Nothing Yet Everything, p289, Lars Muller Publishers, Switzerland, 2007) This way of thinking has built Japan’s credibility over centuries and its many layers will surely help sustain it in the future.

Having just returned from a cultural journey across Northern Thailand and Laos, I cannot help but wonder if a similar mindset can be embedded in Southeast Asian countries.

In Thailand, there is no shortage of craftsmanship but a need for research and development, as well as a better integration of design methodologies in the value chain to move away from the simple “making and selling” structure that often hinders the flourishing of creativity. In Laos, the level of craftsmanship is astonishing and thus the products of incredible quality and relevance. And yet, the wave of imported goods from China and Thailand are threatening the irreplaceable wealth of culture that exists there, and some irreparable damage has already been done. For instance, many complex weaving techniques that characterize Laotian textiles have been simplified in order to produce and sell faster. With a large rural population working on farms and depending on crafts as an extra source of income, the monetization of their skills is hugely important and yet it has also worked to the detriment of intrinsic cultural values. Through financial struggles, artisans had to change their ways of working, and meanwhile their children chose new career paths.

Reversing the existing tendency is not an easy task. However, smart design interventions can add value while ensuring the preservation of local skills, and boost the creation of a new market potential. Therefore, more bridges have to be built between designers and craft communities to increase dialogue, learning, and opportunities in the future.

Sustaining local traditional skills is about survival. On the one hand, they shape local cultural identity and on the other they enable principles of sustainability and community-based structures, embodying ethical practices that need support in our fast-paced globalised world. The innovation here is not only economic, but also social, cultural, and environmental. I see this as the tip of something very crucial not only at a local level, but for the future of our world as a whole.

The main challenges for crafts in Southeast Asia:

  • Encouraging young designers to learn about traditional crafts in relationship to contemporary design education;
  • Transitioning from old to new in a successful way;
  • New ideas and new designs that appeal on a global market;
  • Focusing on quality rather than quantity;
  • Changing perceptions and adapting ways of working;
  • Creating a value chain that leads to the development of culturally meaningful products.

The conversation and debate will continue in October 2012, at the ICOGRADA International Design Week in Sarawak where many experts on traditional crafts and design will gather and speak on related topics such as creative industries, cultural conservation, indigenous design, and more.

sarawak.icograda.org

Photo: Weaver in Ban Xang Khong, Luang Prabang, Laos – Sali Sasaki © 2012

Launching CRAFTED (making + living)

CRAFTED a modest publication inspired by my love for objects, cultures, places, journeys, and encounters. It is not a website, only a Facebook page through which will be issued occasional volumes. Take a look and see what VOLUME ONE will have in store for you. Click the “Like” button on the page to subscribe, and share with friends! Thanking you all in advance for your much needed support ~ LINK: http://www.facebook.com/crafted2.0

[VisualDiary] Topkapi in Istanbul

[INDIGO] Drawing a new path to development

Adelia Borges’ new book Craft + Design – The Brazilian Path is a timely publication to read ahead of the ICOGRADA Design Week 2012 Sarawak where issues about the preservation of local culture and knowledge systems will be discussed.

The book showcases a large range of handmade products that resulted from collaborations between artisans and designers and which encapsulate the notion of Brazilian identity in all its diversity and complexity. It also questions the methodologies that need to put in place in order to ensure sustainable practices and a better understanding of the indigenous way of life.

Borges argues that while a number of interventions are carried out by designers to collaborate with craft communities, many of them do not have a lasting impact over the long term. This lack of continuity can be damaging for the development of small communities that base their lives around farming and have close ties with nature. Designers need to develop stronger knowledge and respect toward the livelihoods of those communities, and also learn to work at a different pace.

Development is most often perceived as the successful implementation of modern solutions and technologies, yet we also need to consider a new type of connection between the so-called North and so-called South. Progress can stem from older principles related to well-being, sustainability, and traditional knowledge systems that have been innovative for centuries. “One way to enrich the connection is to focus on ways designers and makers in the north can learn from sustainable techniques that Brazilian artisans have used even before the word ecology was spread.”

It may be time to draw a new path.

[Preview] By People / In Cities

Coming soon is the first volume of my new project By People / In Cities for the Asia Europe Foundation’s platform culture360.org. Kicking off with Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – watch this space for a line-up of interviews and articles.

By People / In Cities is a series of articles and interviews that aims to enhance the understanding of art and culture in Southeast Asia through individual stories and perspectives including artists, cultural practitioners, and policy makers from the following 5 cities: Bangkok, Jogjakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, and Singapore.

Image credits: Sali Sasaki, Idzwan Junaidi & pixo2

[Feature] CUT OUT Magazine | Malaysia

A little feature in the Malaysian graphic design magazine CUT OUT (Volume 3 Issue 1) as part of an article on Kuching Creative City. The 2012 ICOGRADA International Design Week entitled “Rediscovery” which I am co-programming is going to take place there in October 2012. More details on the line-up of speakers and themes soon… and another article dedicated to sustaining crafts in Southeast Asia, to be published in a later issue of CUT OUT, is also underway. Stay tuned.

[MyInspiration]

Went to the art supply store Sennelier today to find these amazing traditional Japanese watercolours. I wish I could have bought them all… The plan is to leave my Bamboo tablet aside and paint on my recent stock of Lao handmade paper…

[CRAFTED] Syrian Soaps

Sketch the Louvre

This experimental project seeks to re-interpret the world’s largest museum in an experimental manner. Every Wednesday evening I grab my SLR camera as well as my sketchbook and wander around the galleries and hallways of the Louvre. I take pictures, sometimes draw, take notes. I walk to experience the place, to find new meaning for myself and create images to share with others. See the album in progress on Flickr

Mother Tongue in Forli, Italy

INDIGO partnered with Romagna Creative District and L’ARTE di INNOVARE for the first exhibit of Mother Tongue.

A selection of submissions from INDIGO’s very own Mother Tongue were displayed for the very first time since the close of the Call for Submissions.

The exhibition was held at the Palazzo Albertini, in Forlì, Italy on 9-10 September 2011 and was open to the general public.

Thread Counts: textile products from Laos

Eastern Weft is a textile workshop based in Vientiane, Laos, founded by Samorn Sanixay and Kaisy Sophabmixay. The textiles are entirely handmade and fuse traditional Lao techniques with contemporary designs. Natural and locally sourced dyes such as indigo, ebony, and marigolds, are used.

The workshop employs weavers from ethnic minorities and helps them achieve sustainable livelihoods through fair wages, education, and creativity. Each of them have distinctive skills and techniques that are reflected in the uniqueness of the products.

Laos has an abundance of traditional textile techniques that are practiced through more than 60 different ethnic groups. Among the more typical ones are ikat, embroidery, applique, batik, and backstrap loom. As handmade textiles, these products combine their slight imperfections with charm and authenticity.

Aside from scarves and fabrics, Eastern Weft boasts a line of children’s clothing called Minorities Kids. The garments are produced from fabric remnants and vintage textiles that include silk, hemp, wool, jute, and cotton.

Kaisy Sophabmixay was born in Hua Phan Province in Northeastern Laos, a region well-known for its weaving, fabrics, and tapestries.

Samorn Sanixay was born in Laos and grew up in Australia. She returned to Laos in 2002 to work as a volunteer English teacher and as a writer for UNICEF. She met Kaisy who had a stall selling antique clothes and fabrics. She later learned traditional weaving under her mentorship.  As their friendship developed, they decided to start a weaving cooperative, purchased old looms from a rundown weaving factory, and with little money, together built a boarding house for young weavers.

Images: Eastern Weft

Soap Opera de Gordes

[Report] Art Culture Creativity