BY RHEA ALEXANDER
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.