What a place! There’s material for the taking wherever you look. Does it already feel a bit like home?
Luc: Absolutely. We have always done projects abroad. We kind of enjoy the adventure, the roughness of it all. Even though the products we design are taut and clean, we still prefer the process to be a bit less tidy. What we like so much about De Kwakel is all the inspiration lying around everywhere. You don’t need to go to the hardware store, you just use whatever is at hand, and sometimes you adjust the project a little, so it fits with the materials you happen to find.
Pim: We are actually working the same way here as we did in countries like Malawi, Nepal or Rwanda. We always start from the local situation. Whom do we collaborate with? What materials are there and which techniques are being used locally? In Europe, nearly anything is possible. Any imaginable material is available and all means of production are within reach. Compare this to Malawi, for instance, where we wanted to make hospital furniture for the Care Collection and all we had was a welding torch, a disc cutter and a bending machine. That pretty much limited the options while enhancing creativity. How can we use these crude, thick metal pipes and still come up with a product that not only looks good but also meets local needs.
So you’re looking to create the same kind of social impact in the Netherlands as you did abroad. What motivates you as designers to dedicate yourself to this cause?
Pim: We don’t want to design for the richest ten percent of the world. We want to solve real problems.
Luc: Through the years we’ve met with so much unused talent in the world and that is something we recognise in young people who are about to drop out. We are two troubled youths ourselves. Maybe that’s a bit exaggerated. We both come from a nice home, but we did have our struggles. That’s why it is so fantastic to tap into talent that so often goes unnoticed. That is our intrinsic motivation.
Pim: Interesting that you would say that. We both actually knew people in our youth who did see our talent, and that’s why we are who we are today. We had first-hand experience of the effect it can have when your talent is being recognised.
Could you give an example of a Super Local project where you addressed a real problem with local talent?
Luc: Personally I’m very proud of the Care Collection we made in Malawi because it is one of our first projects and it’s still running. The hospitals there didn’t have decent furniture. Things like the beds and everything else was run-down equipment from distant lands. We were asked to develop a collection of hospital furniture with a local factory.
Pim: Right, Malawi was the first time we thought ‘wow!’ It’s so cool to use your creativity to solve real problems in dialogue with the people you meet there. To collaborate with them as equals, using the techniques and the materials that are available. To design durable and good looking products that generate employment and can be produced in a fair and sustainable way.
Luc: The good thing about the project was that it started with a very clear question. As designers, we came together with the factory director and their marketeer to figure out how to market those products in a way that would benefit them. We each contributed our own expertise. Now we can retire from the project and they can continue to produce the furniture and expand the company. Hospitals in Malawi are now working with the furniture we co-produced and people are receiving better care as a result of that.
Pim: I’m also very proud though about the things we accomplished with the Bugesera Collection in Rwanda. The results we achieved there were truly amazing. I’m not talking about us as in Super Local, but what we did together with the architects, furniture makers, craftspeople, etc. There’s a university now, possibly the largest in the country, that has been completely equipped with locally produced furniture. We were able to get it done because we collaborated with so many people. Take the lounge chair in the collection for instance: it was made by four different craftsmen working in four different places across the country.
Luc: We set up a network of 85 local craft centres and craftsmen who produced all the products for the university. For example, the entire university had to be tiled, and the architect presented us with three tiles to choose from. One was from India, and another came from Turkey. That’s when we went to see a local potter who made traditional vases and pottery and asked him: ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to start producing tiles?’ We knew nothing about ceramics, but he did, and we were able to create the market instantly. He had very little development costs and is now the first tile producer in Rwanda. In fact, there is no need anymore to important any tiles and you just hope that his example will inspire other potters again. This way, you can handle large local productions and make sure the money no longer ends up in some Italian’s breast pocket.
Does that make you a bit like the art directors who need to discard their first choice if the people have a different taste?
Luc: Yes, but without the art director’s status. We get our hands dirty as well. We’ll be taking apart a car because we need a specific part. Our role is to link the different opportunities we see there to come up with solutions together. There’s something called ‘the white saviour complex’, westerners who think they can solve all the problems in developing nations. We struggled with it ourselves. You do kind of feel like an A-team on a mission to one of these countries, so we adjusted that the past few years. We were caught with our pants down once as well.
It happened with my graduation project in Uganda. A rebel army led by Joseph Kony was active in the north of Uganda, and the rebels had been maiming people viciously. The idea was to open up an aid post there with a field of aloe vera, which could be made into a crème. The people could use the crème themselves and produce it for local sale as well. It was a rather western idea and it didn’t come from the local population. We jumped in, to do it as a graduation project. We designed a starters kit, so people could get the production going themselves. We did our research, talking to the women there to ask them what they thought of the plan. Of course, they were terribly polite, telling us they would use the kit. Eventually, the project was finished. It was published and ended up in design magazines with pictures of us – and no one ever used the product. There was no local demand for the idea. Our stomachs were tied in a knot; so many things had gone wrong. We’ve been approaching our projects very differently ever since.
Pim: Why would we be the ones to tell people the solution? These kinds of projects only has a right to exist if they are conceived in dialogue. We try to place the people we collaborate with directly on the designer’s seat so they honestly feel that their contribution is important and that they own the project.
How do you give the community you work with that sense of ownership?
Pim: The first thing we do when we start up a project is try to remove the social hierarchy. In Malawi for instance, we started with cleaning the workshop together with the boys. Not because we thought the place was a mess, but we noticed they had scheduled it already and we said: ‘We will help on Friday!’ They thought it was really strange, but once we got busy, they thought it was fantastic. They put on music. I think it strengthened the ties between us tremendously. They kept calling us bwana, which is boss in chiChewa. Now that was something strange to us, so we started calling them bwana as well. That evened things out again.
Luc: It is also very important to provide the opportunity for them to come up with their ideas and to actually listen to them. In many cultures it is not common to talk to your boss, so we created moments where they could give their feedback and we could consider their ideas.
Does it also play to your advantage in this kind of projects that you’re not going home at 17:00 and stay with them instead? The trouble you’re taking to go see them, to stay there and listen to them.
Luc: Correct. Another thing they highly appreciate is that we as white westerners are standing side by side in the workshop with these guys. We’re building equal relationships. Sometimes it’s hard because there is a huge difference after all, if only in our income.
Pim: I think we find each other in our passion for the work we do. We may differ in income and education, but if you are discussing the best way to weld things together, you find each other there. Working together gets you in a common flow, it goes beyond physical traits. I think that is the power of our projects.