This fall, Secretary of State John Kerry stood at a lectern with a speech and an apple. He wasn't planning to snack, although the red, round fruit looked as he noted, "beautiful." It was a souvenir from Kazakhstan, made from local wool by artisans in Almaty, and just the right prop to introduce the idea that the world is hungry for crafts.
Once limited to village markets or tourist shops, handmade goods can now be sold to anyone, anywhere, he noted. Promoting these purchases, Kerry added, has the potential to improve the lives of the individuals who make them.
"Consumers today care more and more about where something comes from, who produced it, under what conditions did they produce it," he said.
That may help explain why an increasing number of stores have added artisan wares to their shelves and sites. That $2,300 rug with a faded floral pattern at West Elm? The $50 picture frame made of bone at Bloomingdale's? Both handcrafted by artisans in India.
They are contemporary designs, styled for modern American home decor. Yet they are made using age-old techniques — ones that had been dying out, largely because in an era of mass production and low-as-you-can-go prices, these time and labor-intensive practices couldn't compete.
The same qualities that once seemed to doom these goods are now making them more appealing to a new audience. A growing number of Americans, says Tori Mellott, senior editor at Traditional Home, are looking for something that's got a human touch behind it: "We live in a world of plastic and screens. We want something personal." And products that can both support craftspeople and be practical for the customer pack the ultimate "double punch."
That's the goal for products from Mela Artisans, a four-year-old startup founded by Navroze Mehta, a longtime Florida resident of Indian origin, and his daughter, Sonali Mehta-Rao. It partners with 5,000 artisans in India to produce jewelry, housewares and accessories that are sold in American department stores and online on its website.
"There were just these amazing techniques that we noticed were disappearing because there wasn't a market for them anymore," Mehta says.
For example, there are many artisans in villages near Hyderabad who specialize in ikat. Unlike most textiles, which are woven and then dyed, ikat is done in reverse. Artisans must meticulously dip the yarn into bowls of dye, and know exactly where the colors will fall when they then weave the fabric. The process results in bold, zigzag patterns, which had been most commonly seen in saris worn by Indian women. But the growing popularity of jeans and dresses has hurt sari sales, says Prasad Vaidyanathan, Mela Artisans' India director. So the company employed artisans to produce ikat pillows instead.
This switch required a few tweaks. Dipali Patwa, Mela Artisans' designer, says they experimented with "more muted colors, and had fun reversing patterns and colors on front and back of the pillows." The deviations, she says, "make it more suitable for Western markets."
What they didn't change was the painstaking process. Although it's possible to re-create ikat designs with machines — and many mass manufacturers have — Mela Artisans has stuck with the traditional method. "It takes time and patience for each piece," Vaidyanathan says. But the final product is always slightly different, ensuring that each one is unique.
That personal touch is what's helping Mela Artisans find their way into luxury department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, Mehta says.
"We flew to Texas, laid out the collection and had an order. I think they just fell in love with the story," he says. "Having a more contemporary spin on it, though, does help."
Similarly, Good Earth, a Delhi-based company that also produces home decor, clothing and accessories, is reviving old-fashioned techniques. For its latest collection, the brand worked with 95 artisans on the Coromandel coast, known for chintz — naturally dyed floral patterns on a tea-stained fabric. The look was once prized by both Indians and foreigners, but in the 20th century, it has been largely forgotten.
To keep these crafts alive, and build them into businesses, Good Earth founder Anita Lal says "a sensitive design intervention is needed — one that connects the artisans to contemporary sensibilities and vice versa."
The latest chintz collection features cushions and queen-size quilts with elegant flower motifs, done by block printing — a technique requiring artisans to coat a hand-carved wooden block in dyes and then press it firmly on the cotton. The dyes are made from plants, such as indigo and jaggery (a kind of cane sugar). Each time a new color is added to the pattern, the fabric has to be washed and dried for the true color to emerge. It can take days, if not weeks, to produce a single piece of fabric.
"Historically, Kalamkari [the floral design on the chintz] was known for very complex patterns with multiple colors. We've simplified it a bit," Lal explains. Instead of those intricate geometric patterns of countless flowers, Good Earth's collection shows restraint: a flower bouquet repeatedly printed on a quilt, or a rosebush at the center of a linen pillow.
The simplicity also makes it more economically viable and feasible for the artisans.
Jaipur Rugs, an Atlanta-based rug company, learned the importance of this consideration in a conversation with its weavers.
"In a feedback session, we asked them what changes they'd like to see. They requested fewer colors to weave," says Asha Chaudhary, president of the social enterprise that has gone from a humble startup in the villages of Rajasthan to a multimillion-dollar company.
So the designers at Jaipur Rug took a classic Mughal-inspired rug with more than a dozen colors to a gray, charcoal palate. Same floral print, but with a spin.
"The new rug is obviously more modern — no border, more texture and new colors," Chaudhary says.
Rebecca van Bergen of Nest, a New York City nonprofit and think tank for artisan-made fashion, has been training small artisan groups in the developing world in how to be more savvy entrepreneurs. They rely on designers who have worked for luxury fashion brands. For instance, Megan Ryley, a textile designer who had worked for Versace and Oscar de la Renta, spent four months in Varanasi, India, educating hand-loom silk weavers in how to make their designs more contemporary. Earlier this year, that line debuted in Paris at a prominent textile show, Premiere Vision, inviting fashion houses to order the new prints.
Kristin Lane, Nest's communication director, argues that artisan products, which are becoming increasingly fashionable, need more than just a do-good attitude to survive. They need to make products that today's customers want.
Chaudhary couldn't agree more: "That's why we send our designers around the world, beyond India, to bring in modern aesthetics from around the globe. Bring it back to the village."
It allows villagers to continue their tradition of artistry, and that's a beautiful thing.