AHRC Funded: A Handmade Future: exploring the impact of design on the production and consumption of contemporary African crafts as a tool for sustainable development
Katherine Ladd’s research has taken her to Burkina Faso in West Africa, where she has been observing a craft charity over a period of two years. A professional designer, with many years’ experience in product development, Katherine has contributed her ideas to the charity’s collection of interior textiles, which have been based on the traditional cotton weaving industry in Burkina Faso. However, instead of concentrating on the reproduction of traditional artefacts Katherine has cast around for inspiration to create a contemporary feel. Children’s animal toys are taken from Dahomey applique imagery found in Benin, to the south of Burkina Faso. Cushions and throws are stitched together from Dutch Wax prints found in the local markets.
Key questions about the provenance of ‘ethnic’ products inform the research, as do issues of authenticity, post-colonialism, Euro-centric connaisseurship and the role of western aid agencies in encouraging stable, economically viable entrepreneurship in the pastoral small communities of sub-Saharan Africa.
The research uses a material culture approach to assess local consumption of textiles and clothing, and attempts to cross-analyse the ethnography of weaving cultures in the region with an understanding of the processes whereby these fabrics reach the Euro-American markets. This in turn leads to the creation of a non-linear model of design management that considers local aesthetics and culture rather than standard business thinking as the core of its rationale.
Katherine Ladd is currently a member of the steering committee of the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora, an Arts Council-funded project over three years which aims to encourage more black students to explore their creativity and to engage with design education.
Co-founded in 1997, Katherine Ladd’s design company Gecko won acclaim for its innovative spun glassfibre range of lighting, and roto-moulded modular wall lights. The company also established an architectural lighting consultancy, working for clients such as Wilkinson Eyre, Preta Manger, Sheraton Hotels, Diageo and numerous interior architects inthe US. Gecko lit the 2000 Vanity Fair Oscars party at Mortons in Los Angeles, and was chosen by the DTI to represent British Design atvarious curated exhibitions around the world.
Since 2005 Katherine has concentrated on producing one-off designs in lighting and decorative wall-hangings, largely from vintage materials and recycled products that invite new interpretations and meanings. Increasingly, her work is informed by her academic research into the hand-made and how ‘chronomanuality’ (the evidence of time invested in the production of an object) attracts consumers who are sated with the bland perfection of many mass-manufactured goods.
SOS – SaveOurSkills is a new charity that has been set up to try and preserve ancient craft skills around the world. The pilot project is in Burkina Faso in West Africa, and concentrates on the country’s weaving heritage.
Katherine Ladd has traveled three times to Burkina in collaboration with SOS, to design a range of interior accessories from both traditional strip weaving and the broadloom weaving or ‘dan fani’ as it is known locally. The charity’s aim is to eventually develop a contemporary range (using energy-free production methods in sun-dried pottery, weaving, basketry and woodwork) that are accessible to a wider western market, and which will generate more a regular, sustainable income.
Katherine’s research centres around the designer’s experience in creating products in an alien culture for the purposes of development:
On a visit in November 2008, Katherine was part of a team that mounted a major fashion show in Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou. Consisting of hand-sewn fashion made with the strip weaving from remote villages, the collection included children’s clothes and a variety of accessories made from shell and crocheted cotton. This was the first time that the people of Burkina had seen a Western-style catwalk that not only featured fashion entirely made by hand, but also from cotton grown in Burkina itself. Burkina Faso is one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa, but it is also one of the continent’s biggest cotton producers. Most of its raw cotton is exported, with local people seeing little real benefit from its sale. The SOS project is trying to add value to this raw material by encouraging the weavers and spinners to make products that can be sold in Europe and North America to a high-end, luxury market.
Katherine also helped set up an exhibition in the Musée National de Burkina which portrayed the history of strip weaving in Burkina Faso. Alongside exhibits of looms and typical woven clothing, there was an area devoted to wall panels, designed and made by Katherine, which combined traditional striped cloth and ‘Dutch Wax’ prints that are seen everywhere in West Africa.
In March 2009, Katherine took a third year Design student from Goldsmith’s, Ester Kneen, to be part of the team and to assess what benefits a student would gain from such a field trip, especially one who was committed to sustainable design. Together they visited indigo dye pits and weaving centres in the countryside outside Ouagadougou. The experience was overwhelmingly positive for all concerned, not least due to the enthusiasm shown by the student in what were sometimes quite challenging circumstances. Ester reported that the trip had made “an important and exciting contribution” to her final year project.
Katherine’s initial collection of children’s animal cushions for SOS based on traditional West African imagery was launched at the ICFF in New York in May 2009.