Just a year ago, Dutch designer, photographer and creative artist Birgitta de Vos was invited to spend five days in Jacmel, Haiti, to collaborate with ABN (Artisan Business Network) on a new line of hand-crafted home décor. Birgitta was humbled and inspired by the spirits of the Haitian people and their innate ability to make something from nothing. She began with cement paper waste bags and transformed them into beautiful bowls and vases. Roots of plants and bushes were shaped into small animals, hearts, and stars. Birgitta spoke with HAND/EYE Online about her experience collaborating with entrepreneurial master artists, Pascale Faublas and Pierre Edgar Satyr.
HAND/EYE: What inspires you as a designer?
Birgitta de Vos: I can be inspired by anything. Inspiration is not something I plan. It comes. The only thing I need to do is be there and catch it. It is something that happens and it can happen anywhere. Once something attracts me, I see similar or related things everywhere. It becomes a new series of objects. A story by itself. And I notice connections to it everywhere. It can be a dot, a piece of fabric, a paperclip, a movie, or a flower.
With age I come to realize that I don't 'own' creativity. It is not my creativity. It is in the air and if I open myself to it, it flows. Two hands and one life is not enough to catch all of the ideas and transform them into form. Inspiration is not something I search for. It is all around. Although when I am traveling, all my senses are wide open and I love to experience life again through the eyes of a child. That state of being is not easy to maintain when I am back home, where amazement makes place for routine again.
My favorite materials to work with are natural materials and colors. Textiles, wood, stones, ceramics, paper. The handmade. Products that tell a story. That grow old with you. And products that are universal and can be personalized with every new owner. Archetypical and symbolic objects are great.
I have been working for many years in the field of design. Fashion Design. Making commercial collections, working with strict timetables and deadlines. Producing each season more styles and making more collections per year. Just to make everybody in the product chain happy. From salesperson, shopkeeper, production, shipping, and distribution to yarn and fabric supplier. I also work as an artist. There is a huge difference in approach to work. The designer works within boundaries and deadlines focusing on a clearly defined target market and customer. As a designer I work strategically. Most of the work is rational. I keep lists of what to do and not to forget. I calculate. As an artist I am free, without boundaries, deadlines, and restrictions. Design creates objects that help you function better in the material world. Art creates experiences that expand your view of reality. Nowadays, I find myself more working with the attitude of an artist than the attitude of a designer.
H/E: What surprised and inspired you during your time working with Haitian artisans?
BdV: Designers sketch and plan. They can see their product finished and in the shop from a piece of paper. They work with deadlines and targets. Artisans make and think about creating something beautiful. Make a living today. They like to show their skills and are eager to learn something new. They live by the day. What inspired me in Haiti is the same as what inspires me all over the world, it is the encounter with the artisans. Their way of working and living. A new unknown culture always inspires me to go out and learn more about. This was my first visit to Haiti. I like to meet the culture. Visit the artisans in their homes. Meet them, get to know them. In their daily working and living environment I find the greatest inspiration. To notice how voodoo is part of their life in all what is done. It is there very visible and yet at the same time has this aura of mystical about it.
I do not go there to just apply my western world view on the artisans I work with. I go there with an open mind. I don't like the artisans to be solely executors and producers of making things that I already know from shopping at home. Working together should be a true co-creation of something new. That by combining our different skills and cultures we are able to come up with something new. A birth is always a coming together of two different parts. Although the co-creation is what I am searching for, it is also my biggest challenge; a letting go of what I know and think should/could be done and being open to do something that is new and unknown. This can come in the form of stepping into another time frame, from the usual fast lane of computerized working to slow creations by hand. Asking me to be patient. Or finding out that 'normal' materials like paper and pens are not necessary everywhere available. Asking me to be flexible and creative. The creative in me wakes up facing the unforeseen challenges where the rational me might be totally desperate for not getting anywhere. The biggest challenge is in keeping the trust in the process of co-creation, be patient, and take time. It was great to see how they turned thrown away paper building bags into baskets. Transforming waste into valuable material to create new things.
H/E: You can tell us a bit about the design process as well as the collection?
BdV: The best way, if there is time, is for me is to go out to meet the artists in their working space and see them working. It is from there that I understand their needs and see their possibilities. I did meet this family living in a small hut in the fields with not much more than some fabric or wood to give them shelter. No electricity. No running water. They had a mini solar panel to recharge their mobile phone. This was new to me.
We showed them some sketches on paper and they made on the spot vetiver and sisal objects from it. Which we could approve and change while sitting there. They showed me where the vetiver and sisal grows on the surrounding land. It is very encouraging for mankind, but also brings you back to the basics, when you see how creative we can be as a species. How we can make something from 'nothing'... Vetiver, sisal and recycled cement papers. Making small toys from plants and twigs that grow around you. The fact of making a living with whatever is in your hands that is very powerful and the Haitian artists have that power. It also makes you realize how dependent we have become to our western wealth..running water, toilets, electricity..Our basic 'needs'.
I always try to find the essence of the place and people where I go. What do the people, especially in these circumstances, that have lost everything, really 'own'. What are their qualities? And to work from there to co-create something new. I like to make products that have a timeless value. Pieces that tell a story. Products that are a true reflection of our co-creation. Where the best of both of us is reflected. Make the most out of what there is available and add something extra. Something that might be 'normal' to them might be just the best thing for us, or the other way around. I like to keep things simple. And I like to make a collection..a family of products. All pieces are unique, yet they become a group by making them in the same pattern or color ways or shapes... Save great ideas, if they don't fit in the family, for a next collection. Keep it practical, workable, and let beauty be found in simplicity.
H/E: I realize that you have traveled extensively as a research consultant specializing in the economic and aesthetic viability of crafts in developing countries. Can you tell us more about your research experience and your general findings? What was your most recent research assignment? What's next?
BdV: Although you can come with a suitcase of expectation, plans, and projects to a certain place and meet people there, the real work starts just where you are. Most of the time you can leave the suitcase closed and just start from whatever is there. Trust on your creativity to come up with whatever is needed right there and then. Everybody has a gift in life and what I search for is this unique talent in people, place, and product. I want to connect people again to their talents… they might have lost that along the way. If you do the things you love, and put love in your work, the work will be loved.
Yes, I have traveled a lot and I love to travel, but I also think we have great possibilities wherever we live. Today, it is not so much anymore outside ourselves that the real change has to happen. It is in us and nearby where we live. Although I keep on working abroad, one of the most interesting projects I am working on today, is a project close to where I live. I found a community that still lives according to traditions which they kept alive since more than 200 years. I hope to give this intangible living cultural heritage a new future by connecting it with other artisans making new links and products.
H/E: Any recommendations and tips for designers who may be interested in collaborating on design projects with international artisan producers?
BdV: You might go out on a trip with a suitcase full of ideas and sketches. Hopes and dreams. Be ready to give up all your expectations and start from wherever you are. Start from scratch, slow down, keep things basic ,and simplify.. simplify.
Get to know the maker and the market. Give it time. Be patient. Be flexible. Improvise. Go slow. Invest in the relationship. Research the possibilities at home and abroad. It is better to have one good connection where you go deep, than many one night stands. When you finally receive the products home it may be a pleasant surprise or a funny disappointment. It is the start. Not the end. Both might be the reasons for you to want to go back and work out new things from there because it is mostly in the mistakes and misunderstandings that the most interesting products finally come to life. It is not just about making a great product that makes a success. If the product is good you also have to look at packaging and presentation, pricing, sales, logistics, shipping and, production, sourcing materials, etc. This all have to be looked into to make a product successful and reach a happy customer at the other side of the world.
The world is changing rapidly. There is a huge gap between the slow artisans that make things by hand and the fast digital world. It is however, also a great opportunity to make new connections that were never there before. We are facing a great future together with an abundance of possibilities. Respect the differences. There are as many worlds as there are people. Go out there, connect, and co-create. Use your talents.
To view ABN's new collection of ceramics, paper mache vases, bowls, and other hand crafted accessories, please make sure to stop by their booth at Artisan Resource at the New York International Gift Fair, Jan 27-29th, 2013.
For more information, visit www.birgittadevos.nl