Only nine months after the catastrophe of January 12th, I was asked to go to Haiti to explore the possibility of working with artisans there. Without having known Haiti before the earthquake, I had no frame of reference besides what I had seen in the news on CNN. Nearly everyone I spoke made a point of telling me that I would either love Haiti or hate it – there was no possible in between. Of course, I wasn’t completely naïve to the realities of an impoverished developing third-world country, but I also knew that Haiti was different for a number of reasons, one of which was the earthquake. The other was the level of poverty Haiti has always had to cope with.
As many of us know, Haiti is desperately poor. Eighty percent of the population lives in poverty and more than half that number in extreme abject poverty. And according to numerous sources on third world development almost all indicators of well-being-- health, education, literacy, and income--Haiti ranks very low in each one.
These two factors made me immediately question my usefulness; not only as a designer, but also my usefulness as a man looking for ways to engage the imagination of a place that was just trying to survive. Would these people have time to experiment or ‘play’ with me? Would they even be interested in collaborating on new techniques that were obviously unproven and not necessarily attached to any real project per se? Or would they simply expect more from me than I had to give?
As a member of the Clinton Foundation’s committee on Haitian redevelopment by design, I was not only looking at what could be made at certain factories, but also what could be made in general. What were the conditions like for traditional Haitian artisans? Would I find them favorable enough for launching a new project? Were these people ready to take on a speculative body of work? Could they afford to make samples on spec? On the business side, these were all considerations of mine, while on the personal side I just wanted to connect, share my enthusiasm and if possible, find a friend and a future collaborator.
After the news media’s incessant depiction of the ongoing struggle and sadness in Haiti, I also wanted to be pleasantly surprised by hope. To see everyday life in Haiti going on with pride and purpose in the face of adversity was something I had to experience. When I thought I’d only come upon tradition, there was inspiration. Where I expected to find isolation, I found community. Where I was confronted with despair, there was also the ingenuity of a people whose faith in their hands makes all the difference.
For a nation whose long history of rule by dictators, political coups and savage violence, Haiti’s potential lies in its spirited people and the hands with which they rebuild their country. The innate Haitian ability to create something valuable, vibrant, and beautiful from nothing is their gift to the world. If Haiti is to be ultimately “re-branded,” we must remember to honor the value of the brand that already exists.
Stephen Burks and his New York studio, Readymade Projects, have been responsible for creative direction and industrial design on projects ranging from retail interiors and events to packaging, consumer products, lighting, furniture and home accessories. He has developed innovative concepts for renowned international brands as well as continuing his commitment to sustainable design in the developing world. For more information, please visit www.readymadeprojects.com