Patty Johnson is a Canadian designer who is interested in the interchange between research and design; commerce and culture. She operates worldwide with partners, enterprises, manufacturers, communities, governments, and designers who create new kinds of design programs and product collections. Her mobile studio network looks to combine the strengths of complimentary groups to build new linkages, new cultures, and new ideas. Patty Johnson talked about Love, Freedom, Flow: New Caribbean Design with HAND/EYE correspondent Marcella Echavarria.
Marcella Echavarria: What is New Caribbean Design?
Patty Johnson: Love, Freedom, Flow: New Caribbean Design represents an unprecedented collaboration, weaving together elements of craft production, community development, and modern design. A focus on producing unique regional hybrids that combine craft tradition and contemporary design process is the aim of New Caribbean Design. Through the push and pull of cross-cultural collaboration, the group has balanced traditional cultural practice in the Caribbean and forward-looking design solutions; developing new methods and new vernacular that respects and elevates local traditions. In contrast with the familiar presentations of Caribbean culture – souvenirs and resort experience – this collection presents something much more dynamic: a living breathing culture with a critical role in the global design marketplace.
ME: What countries participate in this initiative?
PJ: This new project was produced in collaboration with six designers from the Caribbean region – Hansie Duvivier (Haiti), Stella Hackett (Barbados), Andy Manley (Dominica), Philip Marshall (Barbados), Cassandre Mehu (Haiti), and Lesley-Ann Noel (Trinidad and Tobago). Working closely with artisan producers, communities, and craft production factories the group created twenty new furniture, textile, home accessory and lighting products that debuted at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair 2010 in New York City. This product collection represented the work of twenty-one companies from eight Caribbean nations including Haiti, Barbados, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and others. The project is supported by the Caribbean Export Development Agency, the Barbados Investment Development Corporation, the Interamerican Development Bank, and, the Trade Facilitation Office of Canada.
ME: How did you manage to bring such diversity within a cohesive brand?
PJ: Collaboratively. Over a two-year period I worked with a regional design team and over twenty producers to develop the brand and the products. Caribbean culture is a confluence of African, European and Amerindian heritage and cultural retention and fusion has produced a unique hybrid. These complex and mixed cultural histories have tremendous value. Material culture is central to the Caribbean region with a long tradition of the use of indigenous materials, and, the production of art and craft is tied to the politics of oppression and resilience. By keeping these values central to the process we were able to create a cohesive brand.
ME: How do you tell the stories of the different islands?
PJ: Current design approaches and systems are, to a very great extent, dissociated or disengaged from the needs of ‘people-on-the-ground’ and from the capacities of local production processes and this is as true in the Caribbean as in other parts of the world. Contemporary product aesthetics that fail to capture consumers’ attention are a result and reflection of this sense of detachment and ill-advised development. In order to create products that are at once sustainable, locally meaningful and globally marketable, it is imperative to begin developing, or perhaps retrieving, these integral connections. Design innovation applied in informed practiced and with a "bottom up" or collaborative methodology can be a perennial asset to artisan communities. Working with artisan communities in such collaborative projects emerges as an opportunity that can be equally beneficial for both designer and artisan to share creativity about the production of integral goods. This was our central premise in developing the narratives of New Caribbean Design in addition to telling the story of the region rather than identifying different islands.
ME: Please describe one or more iconic products that represent the concept
PJ: I like to think that all the products are iconic, but if pressed there are a few that really represent the hybrid and collaborative concepts. All the ceramic work produced in Barbados from indigenous red clay are good example of how traditional work can find new vitality in contemporary markets. The Liana Chair from Liana Cane - all renewable vine from the rain forest and using bright, phosphorescent colors. And then finally, the indigenous work which never ceases to amaze me - the Wai Wai in Guyana, the Kalinago in Dominica and Nanny of the Maroons Traditional Baskets from Jamaica.
ME: How did you go from souvenir and resort to high design?
PJ: By focusing on contemporary design inputs and ideas in combination with indigenous materials and techniques.
ME: What is the future for New Caribbean Design?
PJ: New Caribbean Design is a registered not-for-profit association that is driven by its directors, member companies, and design team. It is partnered throughout the region by national agencies as well as Caribbean Export. Product development is a collaborative activity with clearly defined strategic goals and vision. NCD is already working on an expanded product collection.
ME: What were some of the challenges and good surprises?
PJ: The challenge was working with a collaborative methodology, and the surprise was the great result of working with a collaborative methodology!
ME: Is the collection sustainable? How so?
PJ: Designing all products and packaging with consideration for their environmental impact is a central strategy for New Caribbean Design not only in terms of current marketability but also for longevity of product reach. An emphasis on product durability, innovation, and quality to build effective production reinforces the long-term sustainability of the products. Incorporating environmentally sustainable materials, features, and manufacturing processes into new product and packaging designs is essential for capacity building. The objective is to develop programs that focus on sustainable design as an international and local process that can contribute to southern livelihoods in the contemporary global context, and, to expand insights adding to longitudinal knowledge of sustainability and ecology in regional manufacturing communities. The product development focus of New Caribbean Design has included sustainable and ecological criterion such as the use of local materials and renewable inputs, lightweight manufacturing and reducing material inputs, the development of environmentally sensitive packaging from local sources and waste material, and, the building of awareness of progressive business strategies that give preference to the creation of high end sustainable products over cost reduction measures.
ME: Were you surprised by any of the materials and techniques found?
PJ: Well, I'm always amazed I have to say. The dedication of artisans, the techniques especially of indigenous groups and the beauty of handwork is inspirational.
ME: How has the market responded?
PJ: Very well. We have had good success in a very short period of time and have developed linkages with high-end retailers in the UK and Europe. Directly, this means sales and orders as well as representation in the US. It is this momentum that NCD will build on over the next three to five years.
ME: You believe in elevating tradition and targeting the high-end market. Why? Can you please elaborate on your reasons for choosing this approach?
PJ: In part, my intention is to act as advocate for the creative communities that I am engaged with and to ensure that the nature of product development is a sustainable process that can extend beyond the length of the project timescale. At core, my projects suggest that designers look beyond the individualism of Western consumer philosophies that currently drive design practice to include investigations of craft production and indigenous artifact in developing countries and to be explicit about those partners and makers.
The cultural position of craft and design remains an intense and contradictory matter but one that is successfully played out through a very wide variety of methodologies. There are many positions for design in contemporary culture. Quality and innovation have a whole bundle of sources: designers need to be alert and knowledgeable, and there has to be an awareness of design and making as a positive engine for change in the larger context of contemporary social concerns.
My approach allows southern producers and communities to translate designs with their own unique skills and regional materials into new products. Certainly it takes the empowerment of producer communities as a given. The work is grounded in the physical world, as contrasted with the technological world, and is tied to a place and its manufacturing traditions making it more specifically representative of the people who make it.
If the artisan furniture and craft products of the developing world are to be valued properly and create sustainable livelihoods in those places, their design must realistically reflect and communicate the labor and skills of the producers who make them. The aim is to avoid the branch plant mentality of multinationals that plagues Southeast Asia, and other places where craft skills have been degraded, and offer instead high end design products that are suited to the skills, technologies and histories of these places.
ME: What is the North-South project?
PJ: North South Project: A new model of design and craft collaborations in the developing world took place over a two year period in Guyana, South America and Botswana, Africa and was launched at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May 2006. The project was awarded an Editors' Award for Craftsmanship and was included in Newsweek's Design Dozen 2006.
The tenets and principles were the same: a collaborative effort involving small scale craft factories and indigenous producers in the creation and branding of new design products that used regional vocabularies in unexpected ways to reach high end markets.
The project aspires to create a human centered and partnership based model of design collaboration that produces sophisticated hybrid products that are launched in high-end markets. Implicit in this investigation is the idea that design practitioners must expand their focus to include strategic development and through this begin to redefine the designer’s role in a contemporary context. The research and the implementation specific to the product lines and market launch of this project show that a new model of viable design and craft collaborations in the developing world is possible and that these findings can have a broader relevance for sustainable design practice.
This article first appeared on Trends for a Handmade World, www.handmade2010-1011.blogspot.com.