Walk the Walk

Docey Lewis is where high design and artisan business meet

Any conversation that starts off with Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin) and Robert Owen (Welsh textile industrialist, and founder of the utopian settlement of New Harmony, Indiana) is bound to be fascinating.  Ask Docey Lewis, a force within ATA and behind some of the best to-the-design-trade wall coverings, where she started her path to weaver, product designer, and artisan business advisor, and you land in the late-18th century. Whitney and Owen are both ancestors and, if you believe in DNA, their fiber know-how and compassionate philosophy have preordained Lewis’ career.
Lewis first thrived as a designer and maker of art and fashion textiles. She lived in a Bay Area-commune in the late 1960s, trained with legendary Peter Collingwood, and became expert at the textile process—from sheep’s wool to finished garment. Created in her geodesic dome studio, her clothing appeared at I. Magnin, Henri Bendel, and Bloomingdale’s in the 1970s and 80s. Her tapestry-woven outerwear sold so well that she needed to expand. Lewis found amazing skills in the hands of “new Californians” from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The business continued to grow, and she became a partner in a weaving business based in Baguio, Philippines. In 1978, she sought the advice of industry legend Jack Larsen, whose consulting fee Lewis paid in cash with a gold krugerand. The bravura gesture got his attention, and Larsen became not just a wise advisor, but also a major customer. 
Fashion led to home furnishings. The Philippines led to Aid to Artisans and projects in Jordan, Hungary, Russia, Colombia, Bangladesh, and several other countries. 20 years later, she is still involved with ATA as a design consultant and advisor to the board. Some of ATA’s most successful projects have benefited from her design  and business input. The latter is not always met with enthusiasm. In one village in Jordan, when the results of a time and wage study were revealed to a textile making group, Lewis and a fellow consultant were accompanied as they trucked out of town by stone-throwing weavers unhappy with the results. 
Alongside her work with ATA, SERRV, and other NGOs, Lewis collaborates with several major to-the-design-trade companies on wall coverings and fabrics, many of them in commercial play for over two decades. Lewis comments on the link between artisan work and work in the luxury market: “Higher end clients have always been willing to pay for innovation, beauty and uniqueness. Whether elegant or earthy, handmade products resonate at a visceral, aesthetic and intellectual level. They are alive.” While luxury consumers search for new experiences, developing world artisans are in search of a way to use their skills and cultural assets to support their families and communities. Lewis describes the challenge:  “The cultural objects artisans have specialized in for generations may not be relevant commercially, but the skills and decorative techniques that distinguish their work still have appeal. In a world of mass production, the touch of the hand has value. Many NGO projects provide a bridge between artisans and the global marketplace. To cross this bridge artisans need new business and communication skills, product development capacity, market leads and mentors.” 
Lewis excels at creating marketable product, but she’s conscious of the long term issues that face any artisan business. “In the global market, fashions and key buyers change, and raw materials and tools evolve, while artisans are often geographically or culturally remote. The pace of change can be dizzying. Artisans have to adapt quickly. They need nimble partners (often in the form of enlightened customers) who can foster mutually beneficial artistic and commercial relationships. The “long haul” is a scary concept: you can’t anticipate or prepare for everything. We have just had a hiccup in the raw material supply for our Philippine wall coverings. 
An abaca blight, combined with devastating typhoons in 2006 has created a serious shortage of the fiber we need to produce many of our best sellers. We are scrambling to deal with this situation. Our company has been through volcanos, earthquakes, typhoons, political coups--you name it--but we find a way to move forward.” 
Moving forward includes being open to change – including technologies which could at first seem anti-thetical to artisan success. “Technology has brought new materials and techniques into the mix. Micro thin wood veneers, laser cut materials,  and fiber optic yarns are manipulated by hand to create new cutting edge crafts. This touches on artisans who may supply components to innovators such as 3Form, who use artisan-made elements in their recycled resin panels – purchased by designers and architects. Crocheted metal wire, bamboo craft, handmade paper, and mud dyed yarns are among the elements 3Form has sourced from artisans.”  Eli Whitney and Robert Owen would have been pleased with this combination of radical thinking and traditional artisanry. 
 
 
 

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