In Africa, Asia and Latin America, gifted craftspeople who can express age-old traditions in beautiful ways often lack access to raw materials and distribution venues. And they may have no expertise in getting their goods to a wider marketplace.
In the spirit of an artistic global village, many established designers are using their talent, contacts and financial clout to give Third World artisans an international platform.
Some have found these artisans through their travels, and became inspired to help the artisans' communities while also introducing U.S. buyers to new and intriguing products.
These aren't the mass-produced knockdown tables, inexpensive knickknacks or dinnerware we find in our big box stores, although most of us appreciate being able to add an exotic, global vibe to our homes without spending too much.
We're talking about pieces that are thoughtfully designed and handmade by craftspeople whose art is their livelihood.
"Our challenge is to develop a competitive product that will encourage the survival of indigenous craft," the design firm Artecnica notes. "Fulfilling this mission requires a smart designer, a visionary project producer, and an ambitious artisan."
The company believes that today's sophisticated collectors appreciate more than simply the charm of a craft; they're interested in the maker's life and community.
Designer Tucker Robbins, a soft-spoken former monk, is in the vanguard of the movement for sustainable furniture design. In many cultures, he notes, furniture plays an important role at gatherings, formal and informal. Chairs and stools may be valued personal objects and status symbols, for instance.
"We've forgotten about this, and instead we talk about furniture as conversation pieces," Robbins says.
By studying a village's history, available materials and the techniques of its craftspeople, he creates furniture designs that can be simple and beautiful.
An ebonized hardwood stool from Cameroon, for instance, is carved in a latticework motif, relating the story of a spider who wove a web to catch creation. The acacia wood Z-stool utilizes the Ifugao carvers' skills to depict three coins falling.
On YouTube, short films show Robbins sitting on the ground observing a carver with traditional tools begin work on a rough log, which may well find its way into Nobu or a W Hotel or the tony environments of style setters like Calvin Klein.
Robbins says that developing a relationship of trust and respect with an artisan group takes time. Only after that can money matters be broached. "The pricing comes with discussion, comparing the prices of other producers, the quality and what the market can bear," he says.
He cites the group Aid to Artisans as having done good work in Honduras, Guatemala and Peru. The nonprofit organization, which also has had projects in Iraq and elsewhere, tries to create economic opportunity for artisans in regions where craft traditions are at risk, often where civil strife has taken a toll, particularly on women.
Many of its products are sold online, including beautifully worked iron bowls and screens forged by artists in Haiti's ironcraft center, Croix de Bouquet. ATA has worked with them on their techniques, and helped them devise better ways to purchase raw materials and market their wares.
ATA's Colleen Pendleton says red tape can make it difficult in some places to get ATA projects off the ground, but so far no country has rebuffed them.
She points to Artecnica as one of her group's most successful partnerships: "In 2002, Artecnica founded Design With Conscience, a program that promotes self-sustaining communities of skilled artisans in underdeveloped countries. They've invited talented, internationally known designers to team with them and with artisans in need around the world … ."
Tord Boontje, Stephen Burks and Hella Jongerius have all taken part, and the products are sold on the Artecnica Web site. Look for Burks' clever Tatu coffee table, which breaks down into a tray, a bowl and a basket. Jongerius designed a series of stunning ceramic bowls embellished with glass beads, and Boontje helped conceive a dramatic beveled glass mirror that features a dog's head motif at the crown. The pieces look contemporary, yet are imbued with some element of a craft tradition.
Former Colombian journalist Marcella Echevarria has started the design firm SURevolution, which brings Indian and Latin American handcrafts such as textiles, baskets, ceramics and an array of fashion pieces to the luxury marketplace. Earthy black La Chamba pottery is made from the mica-rich clay of the Colombian hills. Velvety smooth bowls are turned out of rosewood stumps from carefully managed forests in Bolivia, by workshops whose earnings help raise their community twice above the country's poverty line.
"When you think about it, embedded in textiles, metals and ceramics you find the DNA of us as world citizens. We deserve to know about the techniques, materials and craftsmanship, because they're the carriers of our identity," Echevarria says.
SURevolution's products are featured in Ralph Lauren, Pottery Barn, Barney's, Donna Karan and Takashimaya. The company just received an award from the State Department for helping master artisans in Colombia train ex-combatants.
www.Aidtoartisans.org — Haitian Wavy seaweed bowl, various colors and sizes, $90-$150; Haitian Tree vine steel fireplace screen, $300
www.tuckerrobbins.com — Spiders Nest porcelain/hardwood stools, $900-$2,700; Z-stool, $2,100
www.surevolution.com — Sikuani stool, $800; La Chamba pottery and Bolivian rosewood products, available at select retailers, contact SURevolution for details.