Talking to Tahmineh Javanbakht of Artecnica about Design With Conscience


Artecnica are a product design studio with a difference, not only do they make beautiful and innovative products, but they make products with a conscience. When I was in LA recently I went to meet the co-founder and art director of Artecnica, Tahmineh Javanbakht, to talk to her about their work. Artecnica's Design With Conscience program started with the production of Tord Boontje and Emma Woffenden's tranSglass series in Guatemala. This series of vases, carafes, drinking glasses, and candleholders made from recycled wine and champagne bottles, epitomizes Artecnica's efforts in ethical production. The bottles are collected from recycling plants around Guatemala City, then they are cut and polished by specially trained artisans. These men used to work in the packaging factory that produces the tranSglass series, now they have a highly skilled job making top quality design products that are sold all over the world. Tahmineh told me that at the beginning they weren't sure if the workers could be trained to a high enough standard. When Aid To Artisans helped Artecnica find a suitable factory Tord and Enrico Bressan, the co-founder of Artecnica, went to Guatemala to teach them how to cut the bottles. The first tests went badly and they feared they would have to find another factory, but after a week or more of hard work and persistence the quality improved. Eventually the workers perfected the art of glass cutting with the diamond wheel and they are now excited and proud to be working on this project. As Enrico says "We couldn't help noticing the sparkle in the Mayan eyes of the Guatemalan artisan Giovanni as he succeeded, after innumerable failures, in transforming a champagne bottle recycled from the local dump into a finely polished, museum quality vase." The value of being trained in a skilled craft in Guatemala cannot be underestimated. This is just one example of how a product can have positive social impact even before it is sold to the consumer.

It was Tord and Emma's wish that the tranSglass series should be produced in an interesting way that would be true to the spirit of the original eco-friendly design idea. It was good fortune that Tord was already working with Artenica on other projects and that their idea for tranSglass coincided with Enrico and Tahmineh's wish to introduce a social design aspect into the company. Enrico was inspired by his involvement with the John and Geraldine Cusenza Foundation which gives grants to community design projects. He had the opportunity to work on one of these projects in conjunction with the Dutch designer Li Edelkoort and students from the Eindhoven Design Academy. This project, developed with rural artisans in Brazil, led him to believe that it was possible for Artecnica to work in collaboration with artisan communities.

Whilst Artecnica's other product lines are separate from the Design With Conscience series Tahmineh is keen to point that Artecnica is scrupulous in their evaluation of all the factories that produce their designs, whether this is on a smaller scale with artisan communities or on a mass production scale in China. When I visited Artecnica Enrico was in fact in China meeting with the factory owners and workers, seeing where the products are made. Tahmineh says that they always check the conditions that the artisans work in, they check that there is no child labour involved and they check that all the workers are paid a fair wage for the craft skill they are providing.

The latest in the Design With Conscience series is a collaboration with another Dutch designer, Hella Jongerius. Beads and Pieces is a ceramics project that has been under development now since 2004. The series of four black beaded ceramic bowls are being produced in Peru by the Shipibo tribe. This is an interesting project because the products have been directly inspired by the culture that is producing them. The black ceramic is a traditional Peruvian pottery technique and the Shipibo artisans have incorporated some indigenous motifs into the beading patterns. Aid to Artisans once again helped Artecnica find a suitable factory location and make connections in the local artisan community. Hella and Artecnica then worked together with the artisans to develop the series. There have been several technical difficulties and one sticking point was finding a food safe glaze for the bowls. But these problems have been gradually overcome with the hard work of coordinator Zoe Melo who has managed the project.

Both Tahmineh and Alice are extremely pleased with the results of this collaboration with Hella Jongerius. Tahmineh believes that the black ceramics will become a design classic. She emphasises that the purpose of Design With Conscience is not just to experiment with design ideas, but to really develop these ideas into a finished product that will be in production for years. When the artisans are fully trained to produce designs of this quality Tahmineh wants them to be able to use these skills to earn a sustainable livelihood. She hopes that they will be employed in the production of that product for at least ten years or more. These products are designed to be beneficial to artisan communities in the long term as well be immediately attractive to the consumer in the short term.

The rewards for the hard work put into this project have already started. In May of this year the Beads and Pieces series won the "Best Accessory Collection" award at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). Enrico said as he collected the award "From our standpoint it rewards our long path to create socially and environmentally responsible products We just decided to lead into this direction because it makes social, ethical and business sense." Tahmineh told me that the artisans in Peru were particularly excited that their work had won an award. It made them realise that the products they are making are not only important and valuable to them, but also to an international audience. Receiving this recognition made them very proud.

Other Design With Conscience products include Tord Boontje's Come Rain Come Shine Chandelier which is produced by Coopa-Roca, a women's cooperative in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest shanty town. Coopa-Roca recruits unemployed local women to produce the chandelier. They can use their homes as workshops therefore enabling them to look after their children and domestic responsibilities whilst earning a living. A fourth project is now underway with the American designer Stephen Burks whose Tatu stool and tables are being made by artisans in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Design With Conscience project not only works to create beautiful designs, promote traditional craftwork, provide sustainable incomes and use ethical production methods, but it also increases the longevity of the products. With such interesting and meaningful stories behind each design the consumer can make an emotional connection which will encourage them to cherish these designs for years to come. The new tranSglass series is now available to buy from Moss and the Beads and Pieces series will be available to buy online from Unica Home. ::Artecnica ::Tord Boontje ::Hella Jongerius

Tags: Brazil | Guatemala | Los Angeles | Peru

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