Special thanks to Sara McBeen and Sara Dierck for producing this article.
The Guyana Project is made up of 11 young designers. As a group, we are united by an interest in sustainable materials and ethical working environments. Inspired to learn firsthand how our concepts become products, we traveled to Georgetown, Guyana in May of 2009 to work in the Liana Cane Factory, which uses only non-timber rainforest products (NTRP) and is run by local activist and entrepreneur Jocelyn Dow. This same factory welcomed designer William Gordon, whose experience in social entrepreneurship was featured on Core77 in December of 2008. Our trip was organized by Pratt Institute's Rebecca Welz, a design instructor and artist, and designer Patty Johnson, of the North South Project.
In Guyana we met and collaborated with factory workers and indigenous artisan weavers from the Wai Wai tribe. For over 8 hours each day we steamed, bent, cut, sanded and wove alongside the men and women of Liana Cane. At each step of the way, our designs were also shaped by the material constraints and constant direction of the skilled workers, whose knowledge of this process greatly surpassed our own.
"You have to take pride in your work and know good measurement," said Shawn Singh, who has been working at the factory since it opened in 1993. "The hardest part about the work is finishing. First you have to rough sand, then another sand with another grain of sandpaper, then you apply sand sealer, maybe twice, and then you sand again with a finer grain of sand paper. And then finally, you apply the lacquer."
All of a sudden thick rain clouds came in and everything got so dark that I had to put down the nail gun. Forced to take a much-needed cool down in the downpour outside, I was aware of how closely factory life depended on the surrounding natural conditions.
In the end we are all left with more than just furniture. The individual connections we made with people like Shawn enhanced our work and our attitudes toward design. We have set out to rework the formula of an industry whose main objective has been to find the fabricator that will produce the product at the least possible cost; we are now interested in a more sustainable working model. Just as high school math teachers demanded that we "show our work" or our answers wouldn't count, we feel that the final product no longer counts unless we are able to take full responsibility for the path to production, in addition to the end result.
The following accounts of the trip from each of the group members reflect on the moments that stood out for us. "Sancho, how much are you going to miss us?" we teased him a few days before we were to leave. He held up his fingers with an inch of space in between them and we all booed and told him he was a liar. It is perhaps presumptuous to assume that we have changed the lives and perceptions of the people that we met as much as they changed ours. We do however hold out some hope that we have left an impression that presents us as people who are interested in human relations, making new friends and sharing enriching experiences.
Group photo at factory, top, Liana Cane from above, top.
"The workers became as involved as we were in our projects. One morning, Shawn and I came to work looking for the bent kufa we had left to dry the night before. It was missing, and we discovered that Sancho had cut it up and used it on Eve's project. Shawn was angry and a fight broke out between he and Sancho on the factory floor (kufa was thrown and staple guns were shot). The argument was quickly quelled by Pepe, and Shawn and Sancho apologized to each other. Shawn and I had to wait another day before we could get back to work on my chair."
Heléne Kenny, designer
Heléne and Shawn at work; A rainy day at the factory, left; Rebecca and BeBe take a break, right.
"It wasn't until one particularly hot afternoon, when a tropical storm rolled through, that I realized there was very little electrical lighting in the factory. All of a sudden thick rain clouds came in and everything got so dark that I had to put down the nail gun. Forced to take a much-needed cool down in the downpour outside, I was aware of how closely factory life depended on the surrounding natural conditions."
Ashley Thorfinnson, designer
At top Ashley, Patty and Ivey discuss designs during lunch; Below, Walau, one of the Wai Wai master weavers, at work.
"Sometimes I sat and watched the three Wai Wai weavers as their fingers deftly parted, pulled and wove the material called mukra, which they had sliced into thin strips of perfectly uniform width. I asked Walau how they got to Georgetown from their village deep in the southern reaches of Guyana. He said they either flew, which took three hours, or walked. "Walked!" I exclaimed, "and how long does that take?" "Six days," he replied. He drew a map on the factory floor with a stick and described the journey. "First we take a minivan for three hours, then we get another minivan for another 3-4 hours, then we get on a tractor and go as far as it can go on a dirt path. Then we walk."
Details of Wai Wai hands at work, top. Below: Sara, Ivey and Sahar learn how to make a woven marble.
"In another conversation when our time in Guyana was drawing to a close, I mentioned that we would be going back to New York. We were inside the factory building but he pointed in the direction of north and then south where they would be going. I had not paid attention to where north was and it was not necessary for me to know to get around in Georgetown. I was made aware even more so that these are people who have a keen awareness of nature, of the land and the creatures they share it with."
Rebecca Welz, design instructor and artist
When you see a basket for sale at Target, you don't consider the fact that it was made by a person somewhere, and the implications of the fact that it costs five dollars. Semaria destroyed that illusion, and for that I will always be grateful.
Designer Mike Jozewicz in the forest.
"I stayed behind to harvest more Mukra with the Wai Wai, while the rest of the group took off to visit a nearby village. With only one New Yorker fumbling around noisily instead of twelve, it got quiet. Then it got loud again. My eyes darted around chasing unknown sounds. I followed the Wai Wai, who moved silently and analyzed everything going on around them. At that moment, strangely, I tried to picture the six of us in Manhattan; I imagined the Wai Wai staring confusedly at the endless billboards, car horns and street signs and finding them as indecipherable as I found the jungle."
Mike Jozewicz, designer
"One day, Trevor and I were visited by Shawn and Sancho. I told them why I was making the chair like a boat—that I liked the shape and that I wanted the user to gently sway back and forth. 'It shouldn't be a chair,' Sancho told me. 'It should be a place to sleep.' They all nodded. I really appreciated the candidness of the workers, from design details to stories about their daily lives. It was pretty clear that the chair had to adapt into a place to nap."
Sara Dierck, Designer
River boat on the Pameroon River at left; Pepe and Carla help Sara with her rocking bench.
"Thinking I'd help out the extremely busy and hard-working Trevor, I attempted to move my piece forward by soaking, bending, and fixing the tight kufa rings by myself. It took me several hours of careful work, but I was fairly proud of the results. Later, upon showing Trevor, he would rip all work out and redo it himself, shaking his head and muttering that the quality was 'no good.'"
Jason Hu, Designer
Jason with Trevor, top; BeBe and Eve at work on her lights.
"I remember asking Bebe what her favorite things to do were. She said weaving and cooking. She would ask me about my family and was very surprised to hear how far away we were from each other. She told me she lived with most of her family and they would all cook together on the weekends. She brought treats everyday. Her pickled goose berries were a hit."
Eve Fisher, Designer
"My favorite time in the factory was when I sat next to Carla and sketched while she worked on my basket. It's during those quiet times when I learned about her and the things she loves. She has two children, one of which is 19 and a real looker. Carla said that she reminds her of herself at that age. Carla's personality reflected the confidence and quality of her work. Smiles from her were not easy to come by and I enjoyed the challenge."
Ivey Lian, designer
Carla and Ivey at their work station.
"Jocelyn's home is never empty. People filter in and out, staying for an hour or as long as several months. A few of us had the honor of experiencing her infinite hospitality first hand when we stayed behind in Guyana after the rest of the group left. We slept wherever we could find room among the other houseguests. At night, after our daily excursions, we would lounge in the living room listening to Jocelyn's stories and anecdotes about the factory, Guyana, and the adventures of her youth. The marvelous crusades of her life throughout the years, coupled with the dismissive manner in which she related them, was better than any late-night television series."
Sahar Ghaheri, designer
Jocelyn with Walau, Ayio, and Shuhsu, a few of the weavers left in their tribe.
"To have the particular draft dimension for my steel frame Jocelyn took me up the road to one of Georgetown's remaining industrial scale steel companies. I handed their technician my hand drawn plan and they delivered a magnificent 3/4 rod frame. From there Roy and I hand worked the remaining bends, fitting and welds. Always soft spoken, Roy's cool demeanor clashed with the flash of the arc welder and the crackle of the reggae from the transistor radio in the sun-beat shed."
Robert Patrick, designer
Top: Robbie, left and Roy, right, in Liana Cane's metal shop. Cat and her chair frame prior to Semaria's weaving.
"I worked with Semaria Hernandez, an effusively warm Amerindian grandmother. My chair was based on a rope twisting in space, which resulted in an asymmetrical seat. When the factory workers told us that we wouldn't be able to weave it, Semaria and I found that we had a stubborn streak in common. We worked together, strand by strand, and high-fived after every layer. When we finally found a solution, we couldn't resist some triumphant but good-natured gloating. Later, Semaria described the terrible working conditions she endured in a factory elsewhere in Guyana, where she wasn't allowed to take breaks and wove splintery bamboo until her hands bled. When you see a basket for sale at Target, you don't consider the fact that it was made by a person somewhere, and the implications of the fact that it costs five dollars. Semaria destroyed that illusion, and for that I will always be grateful."
Catherine Merrick, designer
Semaria with Cat's chair. In the background, Wally looks on.
"Pepe has been working at the factory for some 15 years but his position as floor manager is a new responsibility, and one that means his time is in high demand. Relatively few people in Guyana speak Spanish and as soon as he found out he could speak it with me we had an instant bond. "Estas bien?" he would smile at me each time he walked past. Most of the time I would nod and answer si, estoy bien, even if I wasn't, until I felt like I could grab him away to help with the construction of my chair. "You seem happy," he said to me one day, and I asked him if he meant in this moment or generally happy in life? He said that I look like I am a happy person. I told him I saw the same in him, especially when I noticed the tender pride that washed over him when he introduced us to his son and daughter who became frequent afternoon, much-appreciated distractions."
Sara McBeen, designer
Pepe working on Sara's chair, Top. Pepe's daughter and a school friend visit the factory, left; Fatt Boy with his chicks at his hatchery, right.
"Fatt Boy, that's what we called him. And he would correct us if we were to let slip his real name. He was introduced to us in the beginning as our driver, but little did we know that he would provide much more than just transportation. From our early morning rides to the factory, to our after work excursions, he continually kept us entertained with running commentary. The only CD in the van was a compilation of cheesy American soft rock hits and it became the sound track to our journeys. He left us with the following parting advice: "never chase money and NEVER invest in perishables.' Fatt Boy owned and operated a hatchery in Georgetown."
Sahar Ghaheri, designer
Dietary staples: Guyanese roti, rice and snapper, left; Banks Beer, right.
"Some evenings we worked at the factory until it would get too dark to see what we were doing. Being near the equator, night falls about 6:30, the same time year round. The factory relies on daylight so we, plus the three Wai Wai, would pile into our bus, commandeered by Fatt Boy, and head back to Georgetown. He'd ask us where we wanted to go, what stops we needed to make. It wouldn't take us long to decide we wanted to get take-out roti for dinner—a vegetable or meat dish to be scooped up with large flat bread pancakes. We would stop at a gas station and Robbie and Mike would buy an enormous water cooler size jug of water for all to decant into personal water bottles since drinking tap water was not a possibility. And we'd stop at a liquor store that looked like it could belong on Avenue D in lower Manhattan in the 80s, with grating up to the ceiling and a slot where the requested bottles would slide out. We found they make good rum in Guyana and have a local beer called Banks."
Rebecca Welz, design educator and artist
The Liana Cane Family (top), Sancho shows us how much he'll miss us.
On the plane, on our way home, we think about furniture that we have seen in stores like Pier One Imports—rattan couches and chairs so similar to the kind made by the Liana Cane factory—all with impossibly low price tags. We think about the cost of a woven IKEA basket. "There is no such thing as a weaving machine," Patty told us, "the only one in existence has human hands." Design markets here in New York are full of individuals who have come with their "handmade" goods. The price tags are usually high but there is a mutual understanding from the general public that it is because they are made by skilled human hands, not machines. Somewhere between the Demerara River and the Hudson, this understanding has been lost. Even if we never see Guyana or Liana Cane again, our lives will still never be the same. We will never again be able to pick up a stool in the store that says "Handmade in India" without having a flood of images come to mind of the faces and hands that must have gone into the physical manifestation of this object.
During our farewell, after a night of drinks and bowling out on the town, Sancho stretched out his arms as wide as they would go saying that he would miss us this much. There is no doubt that we will miss all of them too.
Sara McBeen is currently earning a Master's degree from Pratt Institute in Industrial Design where she has been inspired to find simple solutions that are socially and environmentally responsible without detracting from the design aesthetic.
With a background in interactive and public art, Sara Dierck is pursuing a Master's degree in Industrial Design at Pratt Institute.