A continuum of creativity, from world to world.
Patti Carpenter once rubbed elbows on Seventh Avenue with fashion world moguls. She now sits knee to knee with indigenous artistans working in cinder block buildings off dirt roads in Tozeur and El Kef in rural Tunisia, or in thatched huts in Bolivia and Guatemala.
Patti Carpenter’s design-influenced and artisan-made collaborations are finding their way to stores right alongside the fashionistas she used to work for, and you won’t want to miss them.
Carpenter’s unique path to artisan-based work began with a traditional design education and over twenty years of work with top fashion designers. Money and power were fine and dandy, but she felt corporate life chipping away at her creativity. Carpenter’s days were more focused on “numbers and best-sellers” than on inspiration and design. After a New Year’s Eve in Brazil, where she threw flowers into the ocean as a gift to the mermaid goddess Orisha Yemanja, counted her blessings, and asked for guidance…she quit. And dedicated her time and talents to organizations helping indigenous artisans.
Eventually, her perambulations led her to create Carpenter + Company, born in 2006 with a mission to produce inspired, hand made, decorative items that support cultural and artisanal sustainability. Carpenter fervently believes in the positive exchange between high design and the brilliant artisans with whom she collaborates.
During her first trip to Mali in 2001 she had the opportunity to work with women who weave and dye traditional batik mud cloth for fine, custom made apparel. Carpenter’s genius came through in adapting the talent of the dyers so that their time-honed skills could garner a broader audience. She took fine white damask and over-laid the already textured fabric with modern designs she had drawn up in her hotel room. Then she asked the dyers to work in a vibrant color palette of orange and pink. The result was a stunning tabletop collection that morphs modern but echoes ethnic -- a phrase that describes her outlook on design and her recent home collection, Continuum.
Carpenter chose the name Continuum to pay homage to the free ebb and flow of ideas, which move from artisan to her modern design palate and back again. It is Carpenter’s confluence of naïve and new geometric graphics which make traditional, culturally-rooted products much more saleable in Western markets. Dyers, embroiders and weavers from Mali to Tunisia, Guatemala to Bolivia, all seem to thrive working in their collaborations with Carpenter. “ I am always reverent and referential to all the original work. I am looking to maintain their art form by giving it a more modern look – just by tweaking the colors or scale to make it more appealing to a contemporary customer. When one walks down the street of Bamako, the capital of Mali, you see men and women strutting in Djbella or BuBu of crisp cotton. In Mali they beat the starch into the fabric so the stiffness dissipates very slowly, just like glazed chintzes. The effect is stunning. The textiles are opulent as they explode in colors and patterns on city or rural streets, but how can we honor this in a Western home? Well I thought pillows, napkins and all things table top. And it worked.”
Her approach to design in developing countries does not stop with the visual. During one of her trips to Bolivia she noticed that the men in the families sewed all the Carnival costumes and were wizards with needles and embroidering, but these talents had to be shelved as the men left their villages to follow work as migrant farmers. Carpenter’s idea was to unite the men and women of villages into a team that could sustain the family and the artwork. The result is alpaca pillows and scarves, expertly embroidered by the men and then hand finished by the women. The work is adorned with designs Carpenter has gleaned from tribal, traditional, and modern images. Her current patterns include one called ‘Mod Medallion’ and it graces baby soft pillows in crimson, gray, and chocolate.
The results of Carpenter’s uniting of sustainable families, farming, and cutting edge design can be found in ABC Home Furnishings, Bloomingdales, Mxyplyzyk, Wave Hill Gift Shop, Pan American Phoenix, and numerous other lifestyle stores across the country, and on line at www.carpentercompany.fv2b.com.
Ancient craft and modern collaboration in Vietnam.
Rhea Alexander founded DIGS, a home accessories company, nearly twenty years ago. Alexander, originally an architect, mixes her formally trained eye with a passion for artisanry. Her first products – elegant, polished, well-proportioned votives and vases -- were made in Egypt out of scrap alabaster cast aside by the building trades. These popular items, still featured on DIGS.com, have been joined by a beautiful variety of crafts from South America and Asia. Rhea gives a personal account of her 2009 trip to Vietnam, where she worked with Vn Design.
My recent work in Vietnam is a story that’s been recounted over millennia, where old forms of communication works as well as or better than newer technologies. Through sketches, drawings, images, hand gestures, carving, sculpting, forming, turning, painting, and demonstrating various techniques to each other, Vn Design and I created a product collection. This sort of pantomime can frustrate or delight, but when it works, it fundamentally resonates and warms the heart. Today we’ve added, CAD, Photoshop, email, FedEx and, Skype, among others, to our communications menu, but ultimately the basic methods still apply, and collaboration still comes to fruition in the same way. Understanding what your partners have to say, what they have to contribute, is the first and most important step.
For 19 years, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with various artisan groups from the banks of the Nile in the City of the Dead to the island of Zanzibar; from the hurricane-demolished villages of Nicaragua to the camps of West Bank/Gaza. Yes, I love to travel, but collaborating with artisans is part of the ethos of DIGs -- why I started it all in the first place. I wanted (and still want) good design made with fair trade principals, transparency and sustainable/ecological production methods. I want to create more opportunities for low-income artisans through access to design and new markets.
Pursuing these goals has been a profoundly moving experience. A fulfilling and a personally meaningful mission, filled with fits and starts, driven by tenacity and passion, a bit of insanity and a whole lot of joy.
My woman-run business has ebbed and flowed with my life, forever intertwined with family responsibilities. I have come to respect and find deep compassion for the poverty stricken women in many of the cooperatives I have worked with, for they are the first to slip down the economic ladder due to the hardship of maintaining family responsibilities and affections as well as the burden of earning a livelihood. As a working mother myself, I have been fortunate to have been able to take my young son with me on several product development trips, hopefully instilling some solid and generous values, as well as a sense of fearless adventure.
My latest venture took me to Vietnam, outside of Hanoi, working for Aid to Artisans, with artisans in Son Dong Village through a project created by Vn Design and funded by the Danish Government. It was a privilege to work with the professionals at Vn. Although they have humble means, they are blessed with talent, grace, humility and openness. The days I spent collaborating with these artists/craftspeople were some of the most memorable of my career.
For over 700 years, Son Dong has been known for making the temple art for places of worship all over Vietnam. Imagine all the Buddhas you see, large and small, all the offering tables, altars, furnishings…all still made painstakingly by hand the same exact way for centuries. Skilled handcarving is coated with over 15 layers of traditional cashew lacquer. The last layer of traditional lacquer is rubbed with their own gorgeous silky black hair, which they cut and use in the final mirror-like polish. Add touches of gold and silver leaf, and you have a craft object with sublime beauty.
Some pieces can take up to a year to complete, with intricate detail and hundreds of pieces fitting together like a puzzle, often covered in gold…which sell nowadays for extremely low prices. They pride themselves in Son Dong on preserving this process. They are, however, open to more commercial processes of handicraft and international home furnishings as a way to subsidize their lifestyle and art. If doing a little business makes it possible to preserve the traditional household/village structure of Vietnam, keep their tradition strong and their youth returning to the village after school – then that’s what will be done.
We started with making simple decorative objects such as candlesticks, boxes, and frames which made good use of their carvings and processes. We made slight departures into natural wood, but most of our work came from Vn’s vocabulary of lacquered butterflies, dragonflies, blossoms, lotuses and bamboo, which we applied to the functional objects that sell well in the West.
Back at home now, I am currently working on the next collection, and looking forward to taking the next steps together. Visit Aid to Artisans’s booth at the New York Gift Show (Jan 30 – Feb 3, 2010) to see the fruits of our labor.
For a deeper acquaintance with Rhea Alexander’s work, see www.digs.com.
Kate Jenkins serves up crocheted entrees at Kate’s Café
There comes a time that most people finally throw in the towel and say, "Diet be damned. I need some comfort food." Now thanks to Kate Jenkins, they can savor calorie-free versions of their favorite meals.
Jenkins, the creative force behind Cardigan, a knitwear shop based in Brighton, England, believes "that anything can be created from yarn as long as it is made with love." She’s not talking just socks and scarves. Jenkins offers a menu of delectable and delicious goodies all made out of wool, beads, and sequins. Got a hankering for a sardine salad, fish and chips, or maybe something sweet? Kate's Café is your kind of place.
The notion of creating foods made out of wool came about when Jenkins started to promote Cardigan. She chose food for its universal appeal, and crocheted a hearty woolen breakfast of bacon, egg and tomato, and then a lunch of classic English fish and chips. From there the possibilities seemed endless. The "kitchen" was open – and eventually took over the shop with a 2007 installation called Comfort Food. In 2009, Jenkins transformed The Rebecca Hossack Gallery into Kate's Café.
At Kate’s, "diners" can succumb to Gut Buster: a colorful, all-lamb’s-wool, zero-cholesterol English breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast, sausage, bacons, beans and black pudding served on a blue plate with a delicate white ring around the border. For fish lovers, Jenkins, who seems to have a fondness for silvery sardines, whipped up Sardines on Toast with bright yellow lemon wedges on the side. Each sardine has a dark beaded eye, and silver sequined body, and a special yarn found in Japan that resembles chain mail. Have a yen for a sweet morsel? Jenkins beautifully rendered Wool Patisserie’s assortment of berry, kiwi and cream tartlets is the perfect eye candy.
Jenkins learned how to crotchet at 15, having been taught by both her grandmother and mother, who were always making clothes and toys. Taking her love for all things woolen Jenkins graduated with a fashion and textiles degree from the University of Brighton. She began her professional career working as a freelance designer in East London until she was approached by Knit 1 to become the company's design director and overseas sales executive. Two years later, Jenkins was designing collections of machine knit, crochet, and embroidery designs which were sold as ‘swatch’ ideas to designer and High Street companies including Donna Karan, Etro, Missoni, Gap and French Connections Arcadia group. In 2003, the Cardigan label was launched, specializing in knitted, embroidered and crocheted accessories, and can be bought in Whistles and exclusive boutiques in London, Cardiff, Bath and Brighton.
Jenkins is typically inspired by everyday life, and inspiration comes from enjoying a meal with friends, visits at flea markets, and trips to the supermarket feed. Unlike some artists who make draft drawings of their pieces, Jenkins finds an item and then starts crocheting. The time scale for each piece depends on the complexity of the project—some may take a few days, others can stretch out to several weeks.
As for the tools of her "kitchen," Jenkins uses most yarns that are sourced from many countries, but primarily uses lamb's wool in all her work. She adds, "I find it easier to manipulate and there is a vast range of colors to choose from."
When asked which piece she created is her favorite, Jenkins says, "I always try to challenge my abilities each time I start on a new piece, so when I embark on something that is extremely difficult and I succeed in creating it in yarn, then that becomes my favorite. If I was forced to decide on one in particular it would have to be the large tin of Lyles Golden Syrup as it was possibly the hardest one to do and took the longest to make."
Jenkins's work is represented by The Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London. Some of her pieces have been exhibited at the Affordable Art Fair in New York, and very recently at the Los Angeles Art Fair. To feed a craving for traditional English tea, canapés or even pizza, drop by Kate's Café at www.r-h-g.co.uk or pop in for a cuppa at www.cardigan.ltd.uk where you'll also find a sweater or two.
Karen Gibbs is an expert in international craft development and marketing.