The TH Interview: Oficina Nomade's Christian Ullman

Argentinean and Brazilian designers Christian Ullmann and Tania De Paula run since 2000 Oficina Nomade: an office dedicated to the sustainable development of products involving crafts communities from small Brazilian towns; and promoting the recycling of industrial waste and the use of renewable and biodegradable resources.
Oficina Nomade is one to the most active organisms in São Paulo's eco-design scene. Ullman and De Paula have coordinated several exhibitions on the subject, including Fashion & Design, part of the Sesc Pompéia Amazônia Project 2002; Amazônia: A path for the luxury industry and Villa Lobos shopping Natural Village.
The two also coordinated the Design section at the 1st São Paulo Certified Products Fair and at the moment they are directing the Innovation and Design Crafts Nucleus of the Brazilian Micro and Little Enterprises Support Service (SEBRAE).
At the beginning of his career, Ullman was the Secretary of the Argentinean IndustrialDesigners Association and received recognitions in Italy, Brazil and Argentina for his designs. Because of his investigations with artisan communities, he received an Honorific Mention in the Chico Mendes Award in 2003...He lives in Brazil since 1996, where -among all of the above- he has directed a project to spread Amazônia's wood for the furniture manufacturing; organized the Design & Nature exhibition (with seven editions already); and was held responsible for the Sustainable Development special category in the Brazil Designs award.
It's a prolific career for a young man, which makes this young professional a great subject for a TH Interview.

-As a kid, you were no doubt asked: "What do you want to be, when you grow up?" Have you grown up yet? What was your answer back then?
-I grew up: I went from being a kid to being a father. Looking back in my memories I can remember disassembling my wind-up or remote control cars and trying to understand how they worked, but I don't remember what my answer to that question was. The word "design" didn't exist in my world back then.

-Can you recall the event, or chain of circumstances that originally fired your passion for this line of work?
-My work with artisan communities is the evolution of my interest in primitive technologies. When I was a student at university, particularly in third year of the Design subject, this curiosity cost me the year: some professors did not understand how I couldn't think about a more refined aesthetic.

-How would you describe what you get up to, in an average week?
-I have two types of average weeks. The ones in the office, when we do all the bureaucratic work: telephone, meetings, E-mails, memos, going after new clients, pleasing the ones we have, negotiating with the accountant and paying the bills. I also take care of social activities such as the inauguration of an exhibition or a speech in a seminary. The interesting thing about these weeks is when we get enthusiastic with a forgotten project and we start populating the shelves with models. Then I have the average weeks with the communities. These are amusing because in five days we have to know the available technology, materials, and the community's necessities, and develop products with them. We also take some time to get to know the region, and we always catch a boat ride, a river day, or a long walk in the forest. On the other hand, these weeks also have at least ten plane hours, a lot of hotel and poor food.

-Obstacles undoubtedly stand between you and your environmental goals. What are your goals? And the obstacles?
-The goals are to develop useful products which strengthen the cultural characteristics of each group of artisans without forgetting social relations and environmental issues. The obstacles are that it is very difficult to put production, social needs and environment together when we talk about "design". These days that word is very near to fashion: that is, products with short lifetime. To be able to have this triad (economically viable/socially fair/environmentally correct) is our greater challenge.

-And how are you negotiating past those obstacles?
-Well, the challenge in trying helps us fight the obstacles. We are aware that large scale economy and production models benefit only 20% of the population and we are part of the 80% left, so it's almost an obligation to find alternative ways.

-With gloomy environmental forecasts all around us, what fuels your continued motivation?
-To have the possibility of visiting towns where rivers are clean, forest is colourful, and people are simple; and where slow time makes us think we are living the wrong way in São Paulo, which is a chaotic metropolis. That motivates us to bring that poetic vibe to town on one hand, and to create barriers so that the urban doesn't spoil those spots on the other.

-Care to name any persons that have provided you with inspiration?
-I was lucky to have very good professors when I was student at Buenos Aires University, people who tryed to do the best to make things work. This is very present in my everyday life and I try to pass it on to young professionals and students whenever I have a chance. Among famous designers, I like those who made history out of simple: Marcel Duchamps, Aquiles Castiglione, Andrea Branzi, Alessandro Mendini.

-What changes do you see that we need to make if we are to get this ship back on an even keel?
-We must generate awareness. That might sound a bit too corny, but that's how I see we can have a more humanized future. By "being aware" I mean doing what's best for the social group we live in, and not just for a few. To work for the 80% and not just for the attractive 20%.

-How do you unwind from the responsibility of your position?
-Well, my partner accurately says that I can't stop working even at holidays. I see it from another angle: I am lucky to do what I like, so why not help if there's something I can do? I guess those that are not pleased with what they do need a spare time to load energies to return to do something that's not what they imagined for their lives. In my case it's almost a game, a puzzle: if you have the pieces, you want to put them together, and if you do so, you're pleased. My responsibility is shared, so it doesn't all fall on me. I am only responsible for suggesting alternative ways, those who make and consume choose what and how. We try to show there are other possibilities.

-None of us are angels. We all "sin". Would you share with us your personal environmental vice(s)?
-When I am at the shower thinking about anything and the water is falling by the grid, my conscience kills me, but it's such a pleasure to feel the water on your body. In the production business we have to negotiate and accept some contradictions, because if we tried to be extreme, we'd better return to live in a hut out of hunting and fishing.

-Is there a book our readers should run down to their local library to borrow?
-If they should run? Of course they should, but not at the gym or next to a smoggy avenue. They should run at least once a week in a park or forest, listen to its sound, and try to take it to their everyday life. If it is books we are talking about, I can't think of any, but there's always one waiting for us.

-Can you describe the last environmental success you had (large or small) that triggered the thought: "You know, if we could do more of that, we might just pull this off"?
-I think human species is going to disappear from the planet, but it is not something to be afraid of, or to make us hopeless, because all species have the divine cycle of birth, development and death. Our responsibility is to do our best to extend to the maximum and with high quality our passage through the history of the universe.
::Contact Oficina Nomade via e-mail.

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