Marks of Success
For designer Ilse Crawford, working with Bosnian furniture company Zanat on a unique project to celebrate native Konjic woodcarving offered the chance to explore how hands-on craft is remaking itself in the wake of digital. ‘I think the physical world needs to be better,’ she says. ‘It needs to step up…’
In Oostduinkerke on the coast of Belgium, a small number of fishermen set off at low tide to fish for grey shrimp by horse. It’s a centuries-old skill that was once practised in France, Holland and the south coast of England, but there are now just 15 fishermen who keep shrimp fishing on horseback alive. Since 2013, it has been listed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and there is now a two-year training course for anyone who wants to learn to do it. The extraordinary list of ancient arts and crafts includes Jamdani weaving in Bangladesh, the wind and percussion music of Xi’an in China and the epic poetry tradition of Mongolia.
These activities, each one unique to a particular region or community, have been listed to protect them from being lost in a whirl of social change and development. One of the most recent additions is Konjic woodcarving, an ancient craft particular to the heavily forested Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was added in 2017, with a programme of training for future generations to keep it alive and relevant for a new generation.
We can admire and revere a craft without necessarily seeing a place for it in our own lives and homes. But for the visionary Bosnian furniture company Zanat, the idea was to move the Konjic woodcarvers into a new market – to create product that has appeal as part of contemporary culture. As the company’s CEO Orhan Niksic says, it’s important for the next generation of Bosnians to see a relevance in this ancient craft and to keep it alive in the 21st century. And in order to do that, it is necessary to create a commercially viable product with markets around the world.
If anyone knows how to create something new with cultural resonance, it is Ilse Crawford, whose interiors vibrate with warmth, utility, a strong sense of provenance and an intangible quality of their own. Her collection, Touch, is a series of benches and trays that you cannot resist running your fingers over, getting lost in the hollows of the scoops of wood that decorate the surface of each piece.
‘In some ways it was one of the most tangible projects we’ve done,’ says Crawford when we meet at her studio in Bermondsey. We are sitting at her glass table waiting for Oscar Pena (her husband and head of product at Studioilse, who worked closely on this project) to join us from the couple’s apartment upstairs.
Zanat is built around core values of sustainability – from its use of locally sourced materials to the way it treats its workforce, who are paid above the living wage. They aim to use good design to create meaningful and ongoing employment in a region that has suffered intense social upheaval and high unemployment since the Bosnian War. ‘Orhan was very clear from the start that his ambition was for young Bosnians saw a future in their country and a future in art and craft in their communities,’ says Crawford. ‘It was very clear: that we had to make things that would actually work.’
It was about balancing the time-intensive element of woodcarving to ensure that the final result was priced accessibly enough to exist in the real world, not just some immaculately arranged ivory tower. ‘So it was more about figuring out how to put it together in a way that was contemporary, but makes sense for the makers and the end users,’ says Crawford. The project was also a response to the way our lives have become increasingly digital.
‘We want more from our physical experiences,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in how the physical world is remaking itself in the wake of the digital, because I’m not nostalgic, it’s simply that we have got used to a very crappy physical world.’ What excites her about digital technologies is the transparency it creates.
‘You’ve got the opportunity to make worlds where all the ingredients are good. I think the physical world needs to be better, it needs to step up. The demands on it are different. We’re not going to stop doing physical things, we’re not going to stop sitting, we’re not going to stop drinking – but we need to give it more value.’ And that’s where Zanat comes in, with its approach of making things that have greater meaning and impact, of creating objects that you only need to touch to feel a resonance with another human being.
Pena arrives wearing a crumpled shirt and points to a small tray featuring the dimpled Konjic carving. ‘The first thing people do is touch it,’ he says. I run my fingers across the wooden tray carved with shallow dimples, repetitive but slightly random in their pattern. It’s a very satisfying object to touch, slightly therapeutic.
While the narrative behind Touch is one of sustainability and social enterprise, for Pena – and Crawford – for a product to be truly sustainable, it must first and foremost be desirable. ‘I’ve always been very critical of the aesthetics of sustainability,’ he says. ‘I always call it the “grey socks”, this aesthetic – and that’s why people don’t buy them! Because we are attracted by beauty.’ And, Crawford says, ‘We are too easily satisfied because it ticks the box of not being bad – but that’s not good enough.’
In the past three years, Niksic has doubled the number of employees working on the project and set up a training school to teach wood-carving skills to a new generation who will keep the traditions alive and be excited to be part of the next chapter. ‘This is not a hobby,’ says Pena. ‘It’s a business that lives are depending on.’
To develop the range, Pena spent time at the factory in Konjic. There is a variety of benches, one with brass legs that is more expensive but has proved popular because it is perceived as being super luxurious. The legs, Pena explains, are made by a local factory that primarily makes casts for German car engines. Everything is locally sourced. The development of the tray happened while he was at the factory, so the process was very hands-on.
‘We’ve lost the understanding
of the value of time and skill’
Each piece is carved freehand, so no two are the same. ‘There is a perception everything just comes out of a machine,’ says Crawford. ‘Or drops from the sky,’ adds Pena. The idea of Touch was to re-establish a relationship with the physical and the way things are made. She explains how it can take four months to make a carpet by hand. Yet increasingly, people don’t understand why it might cost a lot of money, especially when they might compare it with one they have seen on the high street. ‘We’ve lost our point of comparison and also lost the understanding of the value of time and skill,’ she says. Pena compares his tray to a bottle of wine you might buy at a restaurant. ‘You order a bottle of wine – maybe £35 – and you drink it. For that you can have this tray and it can last you for your whole life. The bottle of wine you drink – it disappears. Some of these things you can keep forever.’
Longevity is a key principle at Studioilse. They are not in the business of making stuff for the sake of it. There has to be a reason for an object to exist. So, too, the interiors they create are designed to be there for the long haul – not just the expensive, luxury spaces like Cecconi in Mayfair, where the sofas were built to last by George Smith in Nottingham and are repaired and re-stuffed when they are in need of some TLC, or the Cathay Pacific lounges, which have to withstand endless traffic but still look sheeny and serene 24 hours a day. When Studioilse worked on Refettorio Felix in a church in South Kensington, it was with a very limited budget, but some creative and resourceful thinking resulted in a reinvention of the soup kitchen into a beautifully designed space that is now a thriving community hub and a blueprint for other community projects like it.
Since setting up Studioilse in 2001, Crawford has set the bar for creating spaces that truly second guess the way we want to live. Her own method of working – beginning with the idea of creating something from nothing – has an element of the intangible. ‘I’m a bit of a believer in the 10,000 hours,’ she says. ‘Instinct comes from having seen a lot. Quite a lot comes from instinct and we also do a lot of research, but I wouldn’t say that our conclusions are academic. It’s very much the cool head/warm heart, one feeding the other. It’s a conversation between the two.’
With Zanat’s Touch, you only need to run your fingers across the intriguing texture of the wood to make the connection.