High Stylist


Shane Powers returns with bounty from Nepal

Veteran photo stylist Shane Powers, who has had his hand in some of the most beautiful commercial photographs in recent memory, spent two months in Nepal last year. He returned with the expected trove photographs of the Himalayas and the people who live there. But he went a step further too: he brought with him a gorgeous collection of home accessories.  Eminent trend forecasting guru Li Edelkoort and her US chief Emmanuelle Linard gave Shane a push among their followers…and a wonderful home business was born.  Shane shares the story with HAND/EYE.

My work as a prop stylist has given me great insight into the tactile and emotional qualities of everyday objects.  I am drawn to combinations of rough and smooth, ancient and futuristic, matte and gloss, machine and hand made, high and low.  In the Himalayas for two months last year, I found all possible combinations of the things that fascinate me.

In April 2009, I was invited by my friends Diki Ongmo and Tim Linkins to spend a two-month residency working closely with local Nepalese artisans.  This creative immersion would result in a new retail shop called Pipalbot (name derived from the “Pipal” trees where people in Hindu/Buddhist cultures meet in public).  In mid June, the shop opened in Babar Mahal Revisited, a Katmandu shopping courtyard. I brought it to New York in November.

Pipalbot is the first contemporary retail boutique of its kind in Katmandu.  The Katmandu Valley is notoriously rich with traditional artisan crafts but many of these artisans are making tourist souvenirs rather than beautiful and respected objects.

For years, Tim and Diki have run a rug-weaving studio in Katmandu employing master weavers to create high quality Tibetan wool and silk rugs for Tibet Sydney (www.tibetsydney.com), their company based in Sydney, Australia.  Two years ago they decided to move closer to the production in Katmandu where Diki’s family lives and where she spent her childhood.  Once settled, they began to meet other artisans in the valley working in materials such as brass, cane, ceramic and, of course, wool and cashmere.

Similar to the West’s increasingly powerful “farm to table” idea, our idea for Pipalbot was that it would be “artisan to shop.”  All of the products sold at Pipalbot are made within a 30-mile radius of the city.  Every day of my two months was filled with visits to the artisans, slowly getting to know them and the materials they work with.  Often I was inspired by the materials they considered “poor”, that which they see as just plain and everyday.  Most artisans were anxious to impress us with the glossiest finish or the most elaborate details…But often I was drawn to the honest and straightforward materials they pushed to the back of their workshops.

Such was the case with the ceramic studio we visited outside of Katmandu near the ancient city of Bhaktapur.  They had been producing “museum shop” quality ceramics in iconic but cliche oriental shapes with tasteful celadon glazes and other tricky finishes, tempting to Western tastes. Outside of the studio, where heaps of clay were covered in giant mounds waiting to be pressed and drained of moisture, I spotted rows and rows of tiles made of a light earthy pink clay glazed over in traditional Nepali motifs.  I became obsessed with the color of the clay usually used for products where the clay is hidden, and immediately saw the shapes of the ceramics i wanted to produce.  Soft and round like the human body but structured and iconic like temples from antiquity or the distant future.  A light terra cotta colored tea set composed of nine pieces unglazed on the outside, but finished  with a glossy, opaque white glaze on the inside.  The contrast of the dry porous exterior and the glazed interior is both sensual to the sight and touch.  Drinking from the cups you smell the faintest hint of clay.  It chips beautifully and darkens with use.

Another discovery was made in the tangled heaps of brass vessels and objects found in the bazaars, where you can usually find a literal haystack of brass.  I was fascinated by one random dusty tea spoon with the most outrageously decorated handle, but made really crudely and with no matching pieces.  It was Rococo as imagined by the Flintstones.

But what struck me more than the shape was the weight.  Solid, thick and heavy, the spoon’s rough yet soft edges with their high polish appear to hover between molten and solid.  The form seemed mysterious yet familiar, and classical like cutlery from an ancient colony.

I bought the spoon and returned the next day with drawings of a full set in simple, essential everyday shapes.  I asked the brass worker if he could make a complete place setting with the same integrity as the more decorated version.  He hesitated at first, wondering why I did not want the decoration.  A week later he completed a set.  In their new essential forms the cutlery had even more presence than the decorated versions.  There was a deep sense of integrity in the tension between the classic form and the brass, which had been polished but still showed signs of the making process.  So from one tea spoon came an entire set.

These opportunities are only the tip of the iceberg in a place where artisans are still making things everyday by hand, often right in the back of the shops on the streets.  These artisans are immensely inspiring and hungry for fresh ideas.

The creative process is open-ended in these parts of the world where regulations of mass production and the harshness of the bottom line has not put up barriers every step of the way, paralyzing the random chances and accidental nature of the creative process. Ideas emerge uncontrollably when people still share a passion for working with their hands.  Food, craft and cultural traditions keep these skills vibrant.  Pipalbot embraces the improvised and personal touch when crafters work different materials whether it be silk, cotton, clay, or metal.

Other products in the Pipalbot line include silk pile on heavy duty cotton backed rugs, lush hand knotted viscose rugs and pillows, hand spun cashmere woven scarves, metal frame furniture, and a collection of hammered brass decorative and functional objects. Future projects include retail outposts in the New York City area.

For more information on Pipalbot Outpost Market, the U.S. incarnation of the shop in Katmandu, please email Shane Powers at shane@shanepowersonline.com.  To read more about his time in Nepal (and to see his photos), check out his blog.