High-Tech Tradition: Artisanal Products from Socially Conscious Companies

High-Tech Tradition: Artisanal Products from Socially Conscious Companies

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Carolyn Purnell
Apr 15, 2015

In August of last year, Larry Downes and Paul Nunes noted in the Harvard Business Review that the internet, typically classified as a "disruptive innovation" (one that disrupts and displaces an existing market), has paradoxically helped revitalize traditional, artisanal crafts: "Today’s rich trade in heritage goods is happening because of disruptive technologies, not in spite of them." E-commerce has allowed socially conscious companies to sell wares to a global market, consequently encouraging and protecting indigenous crafts, and here are a few companies doing just that.

Maya Mueble: This Chicago-based company was started in 2011 by brother-sister team Brian and Emily Prendergast. They work directly with artisans in El Salvador and Guatemala, who produce products that combine traditional techniques with modern design. They offer handcrafted furniture, textiles, and hammocks. In a recent interview with Chicago Magazine, Emily was asked how purchases from Maya Mueble contribute to the families who create their products. Here was her response:

There is no middle man between our artisans and Maya Mueble. Therefore, they receive all the earnings made for their small businesses while gaining an insight on different product design. Simply put, each purchase is adding work and income to our artisan families and lessening their burden of selling items by the roadside. For example, our Comoda chair, produced by the Gonzalez family, started as a small order of six chairs back in 2011 when we first met the family. Each year we have been able to increase our order with the Gonzalez family, even selling out of last year’s inventory. On our most recent trip to El Salvador, the Gonzalez’s showed us the beginnings of a new home - a dramatic improvement from their current home. It’s moments like this that reaffirm we are doing a good thing.

Ten Thousand Villages: In 1946, the founder of Ten Thousand Villages, Edna Ruth Byler, began selling fair trade products from the trunk of her car. Today, it's one of the world's largest fair trade companies and a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization. They support traditional craftwork from 38 countries, and product sales help pay for food, education, healthcare, and housing for artisans. It's a nonprofit, charitable organization, whose mission is "to create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term fair trading relationships." They do not sell furniture, but they sell a wide range of smaller goods, like home accessories, kitchen and dining supplies, wall decor, and clothing accessories.

Territory Design: Territory is a craft collective founded by Rebecca Crall. Rebecca has a particular fondness for textiles, and this love shows through in the many beautiful pillows, wall hangings, rugs, and other textiles that are always in her shop inventory. Rebecca works closely with artisans in Turkey, Indian, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia, and the U.S., and her emphasis is on one-of-a-kind, handmade products. She has described Territory's aims as:

In the developing world, we are committed to working with communities over the long term, placing emphasis on vulnerable populations and regions affected by conflict. Through these partnerships, we seek to ensure more stability through commerce, access to new markets as well as helping to maintain the cultures identity and dignity through preserving craft traditions in transitional areas. In North America we work with independent makers with a passion for their craft. These small scale producers and makers are part of the handmade revolution that helps counter a culture of mass consumption and production.

Check out Rebecca and Eric's AT house tour if you want to see some of these beautiful home goods in action.

Novica: Founded in 1999, Novica wants to be known as "the Global Happiness Company." To that end, they've sought to give artisans in rural areas a free online platform for promoting their goods to a global audience, as well as regional support for the listing process. They also provide 0% interest loans to artisans and allow artisans to dictate the pricing of their goods. Happy artisans lead to preserved artistic traditions and happy customers, and in the words of the co-founders Roberto Milk and Armenia Nercessian, "If we can contribute to making others happier, we've done something worth doing."

DARA Artisans: The folks at DARA Artisans got their start in the media world, and they learned their trades at places like American Express, Time Inc., Martha Stewart Living, Travel + Leisure, West Elm and Ralph Lauren. Now they are devoted to connecting designers and artisans with a global marketplace. Their goods are made according to traditional methods, but they favor an "elevated modern aesthetic."

Obviously, a list of five companies is only scratching the surface, so you have any other favorites you'd like to add to the list?

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