"You can try to redress the great imbalance between the North and the South, the rich and the poor, by building capacity through manufacturing and design, and you can use regional vocabularies and local materials to do that."
This declaration from Toronto-based furniture designer Patty Johnson captures the goals of her North South Project, launched at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York, May 20-23.
Her ICFF display featured products she designed for two companies - Liana Cane in Guyana, South America, and Mabeo Furniture in Botswana, Africa. The booth's strong colours, rich indigenous materials and sympathetic forms reflected the cultures, skills and people she has cooperated with for several years.
Patty Johnson at ICFF with her designs for Liana Cane, Guyana (left), for Mabeo Furniture, Botswana (right), with Peter Mabeo and visitor to his right.
In 2001, while working in Guyana as a furniture design consultant for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Johnson became involved with manufacturing in developing countries. She got to know Joycelyn Dow, owner of the Liana Cane furniture factory located in Georgetown, Guyana, which employs about 80 workers. Johnson soon became aware of the difficulties faced by Dow. "She was making high-quality furniture, but, as so often happens in developing countries, they didn't have a lot of access to markets. She really wanted me to design a product line for her. For a long time I didn't understand how that could work."
Eventually, Johnson designed a cane furniture line that included a lounge chair, ottoman and rocker. In partnership with Timehri Studios, a New York company that has Guyanese roots, Johnson also designed a range of patio furniture from jatoba wood.
(left) Berbice patio dining chair and (right) patio rocking chair, designed by Patty Johnson for Liana Cane.
Johnson continued, "We kept thinking and developed this proposal [North South Project], not only for product development but also for a [product] launch into the US market. We got the funding from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in Guyana . . . and we started implementing it." The North South Project was born.
Around the same time, Peter Mabeo of Mabeo Furniture in Gabarone, Botswana, contacted Johnson. Employing about 30 workers in his custom furniture and millwork company, he wanted to expand his output with an export furniture line. Their collaboration resulted in Johnson's designs for two ranges: cabinets, table and Windsor chairs in natural white oak or black; chairs and benches in matte black- or red-finished beech. When she went to Botswana for the first prototyping session, she learned that Mabeo wanted to launch the new designs at ICFF, so he became another partner in the North South Project.
(left) White oak cabinet and (right) Windsor chair, designed by Patty Johnson for Mabeo Furniture.
Unlike much "off-shore" furniture flooding into the North American market, Liana Cane's products use indigenous materials. These include various types of cane/bamboo for lounge chairs, tables and seating, and local timber such as jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril). (Because of sustainabilty issues with local species, Mabeo is currently sourcing his materials from North America and Europe and is actively seeking local alternative species.)
Johnson won the ICFF craftmanship award for this year's booth, which she can display alongside the same award from 2004 for her work with Ontario-based Speke Klein Inc. She teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design and is completing a Central St. Martins College of Art and Design (London) master's degree, based on her work in Guyana.
Johnson summarized, "Part of what is being presented in the North South Project is that we do live in a global economy and we do live in a global design world, but this [project] is maybe another way to look at [world trade]. [World trade] doesn't have to be about multi-nationals or [large] manufacturers doing all their manufacturing in Asia." With its emphasis on small-scale manufacturers and "regional vocabularies," the North South Project provides buyers with a socially conscious alternative.