For the past year I have been developing furniture with a factory named Liana Cane in Georgetown, Guyana. As I write this, a chair I designed there a year ago is sitting in a container on a dock in New Jersey waiting to get through customs. I have been waiting a long time to see this chair and for this project to be completed. My excitement is combined with the anticipation of returning to Guyana in January to work on a new project in the rainforest, and is checked by the long road ahead to get the products I have already designed to market.
Once the chair is released from customs, I'll then have to negotiate with an irate man named Lennox who kept itand several other itemsas stowaways in his container; he will have to bear the burden of the overages and duties that are building everyday as it sits on the dock. It has been delayed by U.S. customs looking for drugs in products from Guyanajust one of the many barriers to trade when you live in small, developing economies. This is why he is so mad. Jocelyn, the owner of Liana Cane, wrote me today that if I "chat him up," give him some cash "towards his worries" and don't mention her name because she "really cussed him off when he asked for more money," he might give us the chair we have been trying to launch for a year. This is not a typical vendor relationship. Jocelyn is also not your typical factory owner. But it all makes sense after having spent time in Guyana.
Through it all I can't wait to return and start it again.
Workers at the Liana factory
How the project began
This journey started last September in Toronto. I spoke at a conference called "MassclusivityNew Models of Viable Design and Craft Collaborations in the Developing World" held at Toronto's Harbourfront Center. Jocelyn Dow, the owner and operator of Liana Cane, also spoke. The conference brought together several different players in the globalized craft design world to discuss issues such as new models of design and craft practice, ecological and economic sustainability, and for-profit and not-for-profit hybrids. Factory owners and leaders of regional product initiatives spoke about their local challenges and their dependence on the global marketplace in producing sustainable economies for local communities. Other designers and I spoke about projects we had conducted in the developing world with local manufacturers, working with them to capitalize on globalization through an international design perspectiveas opposed to being stampeded by it. The speakers in the symposium collectively laid out a new paradigm for the future of the globalization of handmade objects. Patty Johnson, one of the organizers of the meeting and operator of North South Project said, "The developing world is the new frontier of design."
As Lennox tears my head off over the phone I am reminded that this frontier is a bit like the Wild West and Jocelyn is trying to sheriff.
Lumber yard, Georgetown, Guyana
In many ways Jocelyn Dow is the personification of her country. Jocelyn is an indomitable figure who mixes feisty independence with entrepreneurial ambition. She has spent time as a rainforest dweller, as a timber merchant and as a political radical. In recent decades she has become an activist within her country, the Caribbean community, and at the United Nations for ecologically sensitive and ethical development. She also started Liana Cane Interiors, which capitalizes on this commitment with a product line of sustainable and ethically manufactured non-timber forest products. She has, in her career, been able to broker a complex and precarious balance between development and preservation, and between globalization and locality. This is the same balance that Guyana faces as it weighs development and economic prosperity against the legacies of its environment and its people.
Left: Liana Cane Kufu processing. Right: Container getting ready for shipment
Guyanaa place where Islamic minarets mingle with Hindu temples and Christian iconography next to sugar cane plantations and untouched rainforestshas two legacies. Like much of the Caribbean, with which it belongs, Guyana's people have a long and tortured past of colonialism and slavery. Georgetown, the capital, sits several feet under sea level and is a product of Dutch ingenuity and slave labor. One of the legacies of colonialism is an intensely racially and ethnically heterogeneous society made up from the descendants of immigrants who came to the country either as slaves or as indentured workers. The population mixes peoples from Africa, China, India, the Middle East and European ancestry with the Aboriginal Indians as the indigenous population. All these groups share English or Creole as a common language.
The other legacy is the Guiana Shield, which comprises one of the most untouched and diverse rainforest systems in the world. 80% of Guyana is forested. 70% of that is nearly pristine, and Guyana is host to one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. Guyana has fewer than a million people but has an intact rainforest larger than England. This lack of development is burdensome as well as bountiful for this country. Multinational companies have long been tapping into Guyana's resources, and presently the country is at a crossroads trying to figure out how to grow its economy, preserve its ecological heritage and not fall prey to corporate colonialism. Timber has been a major commodity in Guyana, with many Asian countries shipping hardwood back to Asia to produce furniture (they've already depleted their own local hard wood supplies) and then exporting the finished product to the States and Europe. The economic pressures present a great challenge to environmental advocates, who in turn need to find sustainable development models as alternatives.
Georgetown market + Downtown Georgetown + Satellite view of Guyana from geology.com
I was contracted by Jocelyn to come to Georgetown for two weeks last October to work at the Liana Cane, and to design lines of furniture and home accessories. Upon arriving at the factory, she left me to my own devices to create what I wanted from the materials available. The only assignment she gave me was to create several bedroom suites for hotel projects that she was bidding on. Liana Cane's largest clients are Caribbean hospitality. After taking a tour of the materials and facilities I set to working, moving back and forth from the factory floor to a steamy office. I designed three bedroom suites, several chairs, lighting and tables. A great deal was produced in the short time I had.
Liana Cane factory floor
A material Primer
Liana Cane derived its name from liana, the generic term for the woody vines that depend on the old growth tree canopies in the rainforest. Liana Cane primarily uses these non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for its furniture production. Kufu (Clusia spp), a material similar to the rattan and bamboo, is a vine that grows from the canopy down to the forest floor and is used to make furniture frames and cladding. Nibbi (Heteropis flexousa), a small vine that winds its way from the forest floor up trunks is perfectly suited for binding joints, as well as wicker-like weaving. The fiber of the Ite palm, Tibisiri (Mauritia flexuosa), makes a cord-like material that is woven into fabric for seats and chair backs. The use of NTFPs presents an option for indigenous people to create sustainable economic alternatives to plundering the timber of their lands. And as liana can only grow in the forest, finding a use for these vines gives purpose to maintaining the health of that forest.
Nibbi vines + Raw materials + Kufu processing + Kufu shaping steaming and bending
Kufu furniture making + Liana's "Heritage" series
The kufu material is brought into the factory as long rough vines. These vines are first treated for insects in a bath, and then put upright and left to dry. Once dry, the vines are milled to the right diameter and sanded smooth. The vines are then put into a steam chamber to make them pliable for use in furniture construction. Kufu is very light, flexible and easy to form. The steamed vines are typically bent around templates and nail-gunned and glued into place. They can be cut in two and used as cladding over a substrate, or used structurallythough they do have some structural limitations. While in the Philippines I learned the technique of putting a metal frame under rattan to allow for greater rigidity and design flexibility. At Liana I shared this practice with the craftsmen and designed a chair with minimal structure to take advantage of the new method. The small nibbi vine can simulate wicker, and used with a kufu frame typically produces a look similar to traditional rattan and wicker furniture. Three or four workers can spend more than a week weaving and sanding a sofa made out of the material. The lightness of the kufu and nibi, however, is negated by the unsightly binding and gussets required to cover up each joint.
One of my goals during the project was to use the kufu material without employing these massive reinforcements. I set about making a chair and ottoman that would allow for strength without cluttering the piece and making it visually and physically heavy. Jocelyn dubbed the chair the 'Faxon' to link my name to the product. I designed the Faxon to take advantage of kufu's inherent strength when bent to a curve and to simplify production. The working process at the factory was direct and efficient. I would make renderings with dimensions of products that I wanted produced, and speak with several craftspeople to start prototyping. I quickly trusted their hands to craft what was in my mind, and the results produced from the Kufu were almost immediate. This allowed for several design iterations in the time that I was there.
"Faxon" chair rendering + Chair development
Kufu over metal frame trial
All I want is to sit the final version that was completed after I left. The container has now been released from the dock and Lennox seems set on delaying this satisfaction even further as he has apparently sold the contents of the container to pay for customs overage. He is now not picking up his phone and I am working with Jocelyn for a plan 'B' to get our stuff back. The reason this project has taken so long to get to this point has nothing to do with lead times, or production capacity, or scope change like most other delayed product development cycles. Delays in the developing world can come from much more unpredictable circumstances. Sometimes you can't get paid from your customers and you have little leverage to make them pay. Sometimes your factory gets flooded (as it did with Liana a couple of years ago), ruining your whole inventory and destroying most of your tooling. Sometimes your best workers leave the country for better wages and brighter prospects. Moving forward with projects can be frustrating, but the impact that a designer can have in small communities makes these pitfalls seem like a part of the processjust as corporate bureaucracy is a part of the process most other places. There is always a crisis of one form or another, and each container shipped is a step forward towards victory. Lennox is just another step in the process, but one of which I am quickly beginning to tire.
Liana Cane also produces a smaller amount of furniture made from local wood. Highly skilled wood workers are hard to come by in Guyana, as they typically move to higher wage jobs offered in other Caribbean countries. The skilled labor pool in Guyana in general is challenged due to the poor state of the economy. For our furniture development, Jocelyn recruited skilled craftsmen she knew to work with me in developing the hotel furniture that was to be made from a combination of wood and other materialsas well as the beginnings of a line intended to use discarded lumber. Here, I went to a several local wood mills to see how wood that is harvested down river in the forest is processed.
Lumber yard on Demerara River + Lumber shipping + Wooden furniture manufacturing
Scrap wood coffee table + development
Guyana is host to one of the greatest collections of exotic hardwood species in the world. Exotic woods such as Purpleheart, Andiroba (Crabwood), Red Cedar, and Greenheart are commonly used as building materials and in lower-end furniture. More rare species, including snakewood, wamara, marblewood, and itikiboroballi that boast incredible physical properties can sit idle in lumber yards. Indeed, at these wood mills, large quantities of this exotic 'scrap' wood lie around for years. Most of these slabs are not prime cuts of timber but are still beautiful and can be used at little cost. Jocelyn and I decided to start developing a line of furniture based on this scrap or waste wood. The first product I designed was a coffee table made from a discarded slab of wild mango wood found at a yard along the Demerara River. It was an end-cut, and the figuring and character of the wood made it unsuitable for mass produced furniture, yet perfect for a more high-end custom piece.
Iwokrama forest + Canopy walk
Into the forest
To give me a proper perspective about the source of these materials, Jocelyn set me to the Iwokrama rainforest preserve (http://www.iwokrama.org/home.htm) in central Guyana. The Iwokrama, larger than Long Island or Rhode Island, is a million-acre plus preserve created in 1989 in the heart of Guyana's forest. A diverse range or ecosystems, animals and native peoples coexist within its loosely drawn boarders. I was given a ride on an SUV caravan from Georgetown with a group of researches and eco-tourists to a research station on the edge of the park. The trip over the rough red rocky soil took 6 hours. The last 5 hours went through dense forest, zigzagging to miss car-sized potholes. We reached a remote river and took small boats to a research station sitting along a bend teaming with of all things, piranhas. The Iwokrama boasts a unique assortment endangered and ridiculously exotic animals including the world's largest alligator/caiman (the Black Caiman), the world's largest scaled freshwater fish (the Arapaima), the world's largest snake (the Anaconda), the world's highest numbers of fish (420) and bat (90) species for any area this size, the world's largest otter (the Giant Otter), and South America's largest cat (the Jaguar)...to name just a few.
Woven baskets made by craftspeople Indigenous to Iwokrama + Iwokrama overlook
In late 2007, the government of Guyana offered a deal to place its entire 50 million-acre standing forest to a British-led, international body in exchange for development assistance to change South America's poorest economy into a green economy. The proposal would potentially be the largest carbon offset ever by turning Guyana's pristine forest into a vast carbon sink. The Iwokrama reserve is a model for what could be done countrywide. It alone is estimated to hold close to 120 million tons of carbon, equal to the annual carbon footprint of the UK.
From the research station I was able to explore the sources of all of the materials I had been using at Liana Cane. The thick tree canopies teamed with vines as well as birds and animals. All of the products I was designing started their life cycles in these vines with bats hanging on them and ants marching over them. Sitting in the forest and feeling its immense life and complexity helped me to understand the place of the designer in this process. The intersection of international commerce, ecology and local traditions gives designers a pivotal role in managing the effect of globalization on small communities with small-scale production. If we are to find a new model for a more mutually beneficial collaboration between manufacturers in the developing world and their first world markets, designers will play a central role in the complex brokering of culture, resources, economic viability and sustainability. The resources of a place go far deeper than what can be mined, drilled or cut down. Commodifying the developing world as a source of raw materials and labor is the colonialism of Globalization. The designer has a unique ability to bring together culture, materials, people and economic opportunities while understanding impact and consequence in a global context. Designers too often allow no connection between their designs and where their products are made. These relationships are rich opportunities to explore global interconnection and understand human ecology beyond carbon offsets. Ethical and sustainable design starts with a complete perspective from the edge of the rainforest.
I am now planning a new project for early next year in Guyana involving craftspeople in forest communities. This project will focus on developing a wide range of craft products into high caliber goods for local and export markets. The individual projects will range from small changes in color, material, utility and form as well as complete ground up designs. As for my current project, Jocelyn has finally pinned down Lennox and he promises to give her the pieces back if she pays even more to help him offset the charges he has been subjected to by the US customs. I'm starting not to worry.
William Gordon is an internationally recognized, award winning industrial designer and design educator. His designs include Kohler's Purist Hatbox toilet and Smart Divide sink. He currently runs his own design studio, Faxon Design, which concentrates on developing products for large scale manufacturing, consulting in developing countries, and designing products involving small brands.