Advancing traditional artisan communities through collaboration and co-design–Sabrina Kraus López leads the way
By Purva Chawla
As travelers and visitors to a foreign land, we grab art and craft that we like and carry it away to our homes. As designers, we are inspired by craftsmen and their trades, picking up cues from around the globe. Finally, as suppliers, we are constantly sourcing unique products from local creators in different parts of the world.
We are always seeking; Taking away and drawing from this pool of traditional craft.
But what happens when a designer decides to give back?
When a designer commits to equipping traditional artisans and craftsmen with contemporary design techniques, wanting to help them find their voice?
Indeed, what happens when, defying the norm, a designer feels compelled to help artisans survive in current, competitive markets and enable their work to remain relevant and appreciated?
This is the kind of work that London-based designer Sabrina Kraus López does, and I can say with certainty, that I have yet to encounter a designer quite like her.
For Sabrina, a new kind of relationship with craftspeople began during her time at Central Saint Martins, in London. As a graduate student of the MA in Material Futures program, her graduation project took her to the Andes Mountains of Peru. Here, she worked closely with local backstrap loom weavers and craftsmen to create accessories using traditional techniques, local wool, vegetable tanned leather and naturally dyed fabric. For the dyes, Sabrina says, they even extracted pigments from flowers and plants.
The result of this interaction was a collection of bags, crafted traditionally, but paired with modern, sleek design. These vibrant pieces also boasted simple, bold patterns, like stripes, that hark back to an era in Peruvian history before the arrival of the Spanish.
In a mass-production oriented economy, where traditional crafts are struggling to stay afloat, such a collection was instrumental and uplifting the work of the weavers.
This collaboration with Peruvian artisans drew the attention of the British Council. They approached Sabrina to be a part of the 'Common Thread' residency–a month long collaboration with Moroccan artisans, aided by the Moroccan crafts platform Anou*.
*Anou is a community of artisans working together to establish equal access to the free market. Through Anou, artisans are finally gaining the freedom to set their own prices and engage directly with customers.
The 'Common Thread' residency opened the doors for Sabrina, to an entirely new, unique role as a designer. Since her first trip to Morocco, for the residency, she has helped weavers and artisans experience a studio-like environment. Through workshops, rapid design exercises based on briefs, and techniques like collage-making and outline making, she has exposed them to two massive learnings: The first is an ability to tap into their environment and history to create original and contemporary designs, rather than continuing to replicate older patterns. The second is the idea of 'Co-Design'. Co-design, a concept which is being encouraged by Anou, means that buyers across the world can send their inspiration images to the weavers, and the two can communicate back and forth with each other– resulting in pieces that are bespoke and truly co-designed.
During the residency, her first time working in Morocco, Sabrina helped six weavers to develop original design alternatives and zero in on one each, which was then transformed to a contemporary rug, made using traditional techniques and familiar materials.
While the weavers learned modern design techniques from her, Sabrina discovered how talented, open-minded and receptive the craftsmen were to these new processes. It was also evident that the existing materials they used, were of an extremely high quality. Locally spun yarn, cotton, and Sabra(cactus fiber) were superior raw materials, and readily available, which meant that it is was essential to keep the integrity of these materials and not introduce any new elements only for the sake of innovation.
The six contemporary rugs created by these weavers were exhibited and curated at Design Junction at the London Design Festival in 2014. They spoke strongly, both, of an illustrious history and a promising future for the traditional weavers from Morocco.
This year, at the London Design Festival 2016, Sabrina will exhibit results of the Co-design process with Moroccan weavers, which was facilitated by her. Among the works of four weavers, created in response to images from creative-minded customers, will be one 'Boucherouite' rug, a traditional Moroccan rug commonly made from rags, and in this case, discarded denim shreds. This collection of work will be showcased as part of the work of the Form&Seek Collective, a unique gathering of talented international designers.
In the future, Sabrina sees herself as a facilitator between design brands and such communities of craftsmen. Both, the brands and communities would stand to gain tremendously from such a role, as the outcomes of her partnerships in Peru and Morocco have shown us. We need more designers like Sabrina to help traditional artisans find a voice of their own and ensure the growth and longevity of their craft.
* Sabrina is one-half a designer duo that makes up ODE TO ARTISANS–an Amsterdam-based design enterprise that partners with cooperatives in traditional societies around the world. Their intention is to promote time-honoured craft through a contemporary process. ODE TO ARTISANS was founded in London by Sabrina Kraus López and Noëlle Maxine Tierie.
Product Photographer Sarah Blais. Process Photography in Morocco Simon Mills. Common Thread was British Council & Anou partnership with designer in residence Sabrina Kraus López