April 11, 2012

It's Not Just The Bags


Adelia Borges' new book Design + Craft: The Brazilian Path contains a glorious array of artefacts collected in every Brazilian region: pottery with rock painting motifs in Piauí; recycled cardboard pulp and banana tree fiber bowls from Minas Gerais; annatto seeds used as fabric dyes in Amazonas; knotted rugs from Rio de Janeiro; fish leather flowers from Mato Grosso do Sul; golden grass bags and baskets from Tocantins....

But this important book is not just about desirable souvenirs. On the contrary, Borges' commentary breathes new life into discussions about the relationship between designers, and artisans in the south. in particular, she is worried about "how many persons want to help us in the Southern hemisphere, but with lack of respect for local knowledge".

Exchanges between designers from the north and craft communities in Brazil have been intensifying since the 1990s, but there are far too many occasions when designers or design students "arrive with or maintain a superior attitude to to the artisans".

There are many ways in which interactions with designers can benefit artisans. Designers can improve the quality of objects being made, and sometimes reduce the use of raw materials. They can be effective communicators to consumers back home, and explain intangible qualities of an object such as its historical context.


But a bigger and more important story hardly ever figures in these exchanges: this is the extent to which modernisation sand 'development' threaten many of the unique agricultural and artisanal heritage systems, including the biodiversity on which they are based, as well as their societies.

Agricultural systems and landscapes have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders. Building on local knowledge and experience, many indigenous agricultural systems, and their related artisan traditions, are the result of a profound relationship with nature that is missing from modern industrial agriculture. A proper respect for and understanding of these knowledge systems and cultures is too often missing when designers come calling.

A particular challenge, Borges writes, is "to ensure the work is meaningful to the community so that it can be continued after the exotic design visitors have left". One-­off visits, or short consulting trips of a few days, can bring great media coverage for the designers who travel to the communities but leave no positive results in these communities "besides enormous expectations which are almost always frustrated".

Borges further counsels that "the potential dangers of a badly carried out intervention are many, and their effects can be damaging. The older a tradition is, and the more “away from civilization” the community it belongs to, the greater the dangers and the greater the necessary care".

The basis for these north-south interactions, for Borges, must be respect - "respect for the work rhythm of the artisan, respect for the signs that have resisted over the years, respect for the whole system of symbols that culminates in an object".


"One way to enrich the connection is to focus on ways designers and makers in the north can learn from sustainable techniques that Brazilian artisans have used even before the word ecology was spread.

Borges does do not believe in magical formulae or recipes, nor does she believe in "external saviours". The process must involve whenever possible professionals from that specific region. External consultants can start up a dialogue, and set things in motion, but there must be continuity based on local links.

"We must urgently reflect upon the ethical parameters to be observed in this encounter, as well as share methodologies which will allow a true dialogue to take place".


Posted by John Thackara at 05:41 PM

March 12, 2012

Why things don't change: three writers in conversation

Why is it that, even when we are exposed to shocking stories or images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What would make an abstract subject like energy come to life for people in this media cluttered world? As part of Arcola Theatre’s Green Sunday in London on 25 March, John Thackara will discuss this conundrum with two fellow writers. Rick Poynor is a critic, lecturer and curator who specialises in design, media and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design. As for my other guest, his book Time’s Up! made him a few friends and more enemies. Keith Farnish says his next book “Underminers” takes things a lot further. Keith is a father, a writer, a thinker, a grower, a baker, a maker, a talker and a listener who is learning to once again connect with the real world and perhaps take a shot at undermining the industrial system. He lives in a village in the Scottish Borders with a wife, two children and six chickens. Green Sunday runs 12:30 to 19:00 on 25 March; it's free, and no reservation is required. Our conversation is at 16:30h, Studio 2, Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL (Dalston Junction Tube). If you want to be well-prepared for this conversation, check out Regarding The Pain Of The Planet: A Reader

Posted by Kristi at 06:52 AM

March 04, 2012

The Transition Companion

We can do this the hard way or the easy way. The easy way is that you skip this post and buy the book now.


The hard way is that your reviewer attempts to describe a 320 page book whose contents have been shaped by the infinitely varied experiences of self-organising initiatives around the world. In these, thousands of people have explored one question over a five year period: “How do we make our community more resilient in uncertain times?”.


One of the many virtues of this awesome and joysome book is that the word “strategic” does not appear until page 272; a section on “policies” has to wait until page 281. It’s not that the book is hostile to high altitude thinking; on the contrary, its pages are scattered with philosophical asides on everything from Buddhist thinking and backcasting, to time banking and thermodynamics. But the rational and the abstract are given their proper, modest, place.

The book is filled with incredibly handy short texts about issues that confuse many of us. What, for example, are we to think of Community Supported Agriculture? Is it enough to sign up to a vegetable

Continue reading "The Transition Companion"

Posted by John Thackara at 11:50 AM

February 29, 2012

Regarding The Pain Of The Planet: A Reader


Do you simply love iPhones, wind turbines, cloud computing, and electric cars? Good, because the following may be of interest.

Last week at ZDHK in Zurich I saw some well-made and sometimes shocking visualizations of resource flows in the globalized economy. These flows, we were told, have grown 1,500 times in just fifty years - but their often horrific environmental and social costs tend to remain out of sight and out of mind.

A discussion ensued: Why is it that, even when we are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What are we as designers to do if we create a powerful piece of communication - and it has no impact?

These are not new questions. Susan Sontag's classic text Regarding the Pain Of Others raised similar issues, for photography, two decades ago.

All writers learn, however, that questions only get answered when they are ready to be answered. They have to ripen, like fruit. In that horticultural spirit, there follows below a selection of readings that we have found insightful whilst waiting for the world to be interested in the question.

Continue reading "Regarding The Pain Of The Planet: A Reader "

Posted by John Thackara at 11:52 AM

February 27, 2012

Zurich Eco Lab

As the guest last week of Zurich University of the Arts I set the following task to a group of sixteen masters students: “Create the plan for a social harvest festival that will reconnect Zurich with its natural ecosystems and grassroots social innovators.”

The idea was to demonstrate, in practice, and at a city-wide scale, how to combine the low-energy design principles of permaculture, with the metabolic energy of social innovation.


buffalos Riedenholzhof.png

A first delightful discovery: there are no fewer than twelve working farms within Zurich city limits - and one of them has a thriving herd of buffaloes (from which comes Swiss mozzarella). Several of the farms also provide educational experiences for school groups; indeed, demand for such courses is more than than the farms can cope with.

The city, which owns the land, requires all these farms to produce organically; (ten percent of all Swiss farms, 5,700 of them, are certified organic). The challenge faced by urban farmers, we were told, is a lack of certainly about the future. Switzerland has escaped the worst ravages of the global property crash; one negative consequence is that and pressure for land from developers remains intense. The community garden below, for example, is due to be built over by the end of this year.

zurich garden + develp.png

Zurich's farms distribute their produce through their own shops and a variety of Community Supported Agriculture schemes. Twenty new projects have been launched in western Switzerland alone in recent times. One of these newcomers, Ortoloco, Ortoloco (below) is a self-managed cooperative farm with 200 active members.

Continue reading "Zurich Eco Lab "

Posted by John Thackara at 07:48 AM