Craft & Community

Craft & Community


Artecnica's Design with Conscience® product line reintroduces traditional craft into the high design landscape. Each piece is a collaborative effort art directed by Artecnica, conceptualized by renowned designers and handcrafted by artisan communities across the globe. The casseroles from their Witches' Kitchen line are designed by Studio Tord Boontje and handmade by Colombian artisans.
Photo/Jerry Garns.

Michael Schmelling

From the Roycrofters to today's online DIY makers, craft has always gone hand in hand (to use a wonderfully appropriate phrase) with community. It follows, then, that craft has a unique power to build and strengthen communities that are weak or broken. Artists imagine and create beauty in unexpected, even hopelessly blighted places. In American cities, their vision has revived whole neighborhoods. And in underdeveloped countries, the economic and humanitarian benefits of handcraft can be all the more dramatic.

Artecnica and Denyse Schmidt Quilts are two arts businesses that are helping to build community, directly and indirectly, through craft. Their approaches differ: one thinks globally, the other acts locally. But driven by a dynamic blend of idealism and practicality, altruism and entrepreneursip, both offer a compelling vision of the potential of handwork as a catalyst for positive change.


"I like that notion of starting over somewhere, from the ground up," Denyse Schmidt says. It was in this spirit that she set up shop six years ago in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a once-vital industrial center eroded by decades of urban decay.

Headquarters for Schmidt and her two employees is, fittingly, the old American Fabrics factory building. One of about 40 tenants in the complex, she's built a thriving business there, producing a diverse range of goods: affordable bedcovers manufactured in India; a mid-priced line of quilts and pillows machine-made in her studio; one-off Couture quilts hand-stitched by Amish women. Her how-to titles and stationery are published by Chronicle Books, and she's designed a collection of vintage-inspired cotton patterns for Westminster Fabrics. Recently the Philip Johnson Glass House commissioned her to create a limited-edition quilt, Simple Stripe, for its shop.

Schmidt's adopted city reminds her of the historic textile mill towns near where she grew up in Massachusetts. A tender affinity for old industrial buildings is "in my blood," she says, fortifying her belief in adaptive reuse as an alternative to the wrecking ball. "Bridgeport spoke to me of possibilities," she says. "I think eventually good things are going to happen here."

You have this wonderfully retro logo-a drawing of a classic factory, complete with smokestack, underneath proclaiming, "Factory Built in Bridgeport CT USA."
I'm really proud to be in Bridgeport. That particular line-Works Quilts-is all machine-quilted here, so it is important that we emphasize that. The piecing is simple and modern, and the machine quilting has this industrial-chic aesthetic that I wanted to highlight.

What's the challenge of Bridgeport, and the beauty, as you see it?
Well, the beauty is we're 57 miles from New York City and it's a transportation hub. It's right on the water; from the studio we can see Long Island Sound. I live in a section called St. Mary's-by-the-Sea, and it's a beautiful peninsula with a park all along the water's edge. I ride my bike there every day. I love that.

But it's seen as a gritty city.
It's definitely a gritty city. It was a manufacturing town that had its heyday back in the 1800s through the 1930s or 40s. Then, of course, most of the manufacturing went elsewhere. Buildings became vacant. People moved out as the typical issues and challenges that face cities like this crept in. But it's really poised for a rejuvenation.

Tell us about your studio and the neighborhood.
The studio is a beautiful space. We have 16-foot ceilings and windows. It's on the fourth floor, so we have great views. And it's inexpensive, one of the best things about it. There are a lot of other artists in the building as well as small manufacturers-cabinetmakers, a drum maker. An interesting mix of industry and art.

The neighborhood is-you know, probably not the greatest. A lot of hardworking people live around here, and there's some old factory housing that's really cool. But it's a challenging neighborhood. I've had interns drive by and decide they couldn't work here.

Do you see yourself as somewhat of an urban pioneer?
I think so. One thing I feel strongly about is that artists often are that first wave of rejuvenation in a city. It's so important, because it's from the inside out as a movement, rather than the outside in. The organic development is essential to making a place a livable city, not just a mall. For that to happen, there needs to be a support system in place, and an attitude that artists and designers and craftspeople and small businesspeople are an integral and important part of the process.

So many of the urban renewal success stories that we always hear about have been arts-driven. Do you think the arts uniquely suited to this?
Absolutely. Because artists will always need space that's affordable, they naturally tend to populate areas where rents are cheap, which just happen to be so many of these old manufacturing towns where the large spaces are available.

Artists have that can-do attitude. They're willing to be a part of a community where other folks might not feel safe or want to be. They're either living in the community as well, or really a part of it. They're checking out the shops, talking to neighbors, riding their bikes to work. They integrate, not just commute back and forth.I love being part of my own neighborhood and community. By extension, those people become your family. As a single person, I wouldn't want to live in a suburban house without any contact with my neighbors. It's important to me to be a part of something bigger.

Does it help to have a streak of idealism?
You could say that. [Laughs] Naivete...idealism... yeah.

Is there a statement that you're trying to make in the work you pursue?
I guess my agenda has always been to make people aware of the beauty of the quilt. Not that it has to be defined as art-the object itself as a functional thing is such a beautiful expression. I love that from the same pattern in the hands of 10 different craftspeople, you'll get a completely different look. There's this amazing sharing of ideas and techniques and patterns that doesn't exist in other art forms. Like songs that get passed along orally, quilt patterns get spread around, and the names change from "Snake-in-the-Grass" to "Drunkard's Path." That little piece of our history is to me so beautiful, it's really something
I wanted to celebrate.

Somebody from Brooklyn joined our mailing list and in the comments box, she said, "Thanks for helping to save the old buildings in Bridgeport!" I was like, huh? I don't know exactly how she connected my being here with that idea, but it really made me feel great that somebody perceived it that way. That just my being here goes some distance toward making people aware. And if that's all it is, if she's driving on I-95 and goes, "Oh yeah, that woman has a studio there, and look, there are some of those old buildings," and is just thinking about it-that's huge.”


"When we show these to the top connoisseurs of design and art, they are in awe. As simple as they look, we reach heights with these objects," says Enrico Bressan, talking about Design with Conscience, the project he and Tahmineh Javanbahkt, his wife and partner in the Los Angeles design firm Artecnica, launched five years ago.

The idea is, world-famous designers- Hella Jongerius, Stephen Burks, the Campana brothers, to name a few-partner with artisan groups in impoverished communities around the globe (in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, South Africa and Vietnam, to date). Together they create innovative, functional items for a high-end market, using simple, recycled materials and eco-friendly practices.

The new collection, Tord Boontje's Witches' Kitchen, features cauldron-like ebony cookware formed by potters in Colombia, black mitts and aprons sewn by a women's cooperative in Brazil, and sculptural utensils in recycled sustainable mahogany by carvers in Guatemala.

The project has been, Bressan acknowledges, "a joyous but very rough journey," necessitating expense, travel and patience. But the rewards are ample: a rise in the quality and value of the artisans' work, leading to better living standards and more economic stability; the development of marketable skills for the future; opportunity for a younger generation of makers; and a model of ethical environmental and humanitarian business practice. "It's a process," says Bressan, "that involves everybody, from the artisans to the consumers, in thinking differently."

What first motivated you to begin Design with Conscience?
Enrico Bressan: It's becoming quite obvious everything we do as a society is affecting us on a large scale. There's an urgency now. Humans look for visible symbols of their culture, so creating these objects for everyday use is bringing this culture into the environment. Making people ask questions, wonder, doubt and take action.

Tahmineh Javanbahkt: We had done a project with Nader Khalili, the architect who worked with earth architecture in disaster areas. Enrico did a workshop with him, then we went to the Dominican Republic and they built a building there. That, in a personal way, affected us, because we'd actually done something for a community that needed shelter. We came back and said, how do we translate this to our products? How do we somehow try to, in our own small way, give back?

There's an irony, isn't there, that Design with Conscience objects are hailed in Milan, shown in museums and sold in fashionable design stores, yet come from a humble place.
EB: Yes, it's bringing these two worlds together. Obviously when you take an object of humble origins, [you ask] is it going to be sophisticated? Is the craft going to meet expectations? Legitimate questions, which made us more responsible in understanding what level of expectation we had to meet and what we had to demand from these makers. Some had been doing lower craft than they were capable of, because they had to meet a low price point. Now, to meet a higher price, they've had to prove their quality, their craftsmanship, and really push themselves to go beyond what they're used to.

We have asked them really to invest in themselves, to give themselves the chance to be the best they can be. And we saw them transforming, achieving results they didn't think were possible, starting to gain trust in their own skills.

TJ: Going back to your question, about the humble beginnings and the elite hands where it ends up-a lot of times that's how it is, but nobody ever talks about it. I don't think that's unique to this project. One thing that is unique is, we broadcast it-we do talk about it. It's actually the foreground of our subject, along with the design and the designer. It's as important.

The work you're doing touches so many different issues-not only artistic but obviously social. Is this intentional?
EB: It's an everyday life issue for us to deal with. We don't think of it always as political, but it has a political message, which is that we have to become a lot more aware of how we do things. How we impact each other, populations, the environment, our resource depletion problem. The awareness is becoming more predominant. The United States and Canada have awakened to an environmental policy. On the other hand, we expect that at the political level, we would see more intervention in this issue. What we need are certain economic incentives and some deterrents, just to speed up the conversion process of society to a more sustainable, environmental, humanitarian practice.

Here in California we have great mentors. Nader Khalili recently passed away, but he left an institute [CalEarth in Hesperia] that started the use of earth architecture, pointing toward a more sustainable practice in building. We have eastern influences from Buddhism and Hinduism that have an inherent respect for the worth of the whole in the culture. We have Father Gregory Boyle [founder of Homeboy Industries in L.A.], who has turned around gang members and helped them to become craftsmen. He says, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."

We see these improvements that have had a big impact. Buildings that are environmental, green. Positive things happening and impacting society as a whole. So it's a community at work.