Haiti Rising

Artisan Business Network works with professional designers to expand global market share

Among the most successful artisan groups in Haiti is Artisan Business Network, which provides Haitian artisans with entrepreneurial skills, design input and market access. The organization’s network of three depots, located in Jacmel, Port-au-Prince and Croix-des-Bouquets, provide a variety of artisanal products from the independent ateliers of Haiti. In addition to the skills and the leadership of its founders, ABN draws upon the talents of advisors dedicated to the retail success of Haiti’s artisans. Those advisers include designers Aviva Maya Shulem and Roberto Calasanz.

Shulem and Calasanz were introduced to ABN co-founder Nathalie Tancrede during Design Council Day at last August’s Artisan Resources in New York City, where professional designers give feedback and ideas around product design to market Incubator participants. Both designers were given a tour of the ABN booth and were asked what ideas they might have that would attract a more sophisticated consumer in the global marketplace, but to keep in mind the materials and tools the Haitians artisans use in their work.

Both Shulem and Calasanz provided feedback that impressed Tancrede; they were asked to visit Haiti to help with the conceptualization of the designs, and work with the artisans for a new Spring/Summer 2105 collection. During their two week stay in Haiti, Shulem’s assignment was to work with metal, soapstone, and some paper mache, while Calasanz created designs for bone, horn as well as paper mache.

Said Shulem, “The materials determined what type of product I would design, and most of those were tabletop or wall art.” Shulem worked with the metal of recycled oil drums to create the new designs. The challenge she noted was the designs were more sophisticated than what they did in the past, but also “preserve the originality of Haitian art, and to take into account that they have limitations with tools.” Knowing the constraints they were working with, she created items that have practical and decorative uses such baskets, trays, candleholders, wall art pieces that included animals, mermaids, as well as incorporating vodou motifs. For the soapstone designs, Shulem decided to veer away from the typically rounded pieces, and guide the artisans to make more geometric shaped items that were inspired by 1950s and 1960s design.

Calasanz, a designer with a fashion accessories background, also met with Tancrede and was asked to help the artisans with merchandising, but also with texture and shape of the new items to be produced. Once he knew he was part of the new team of designers, Calasanz began to research the products made, who they appealed to and where they wanted to go with the next collection. In creating the new designs, Calasanz noted that he needed to keep within the Haitian identity, “you don’t want break it, you want to keep it because it’s the best asset that they have. When you se​e craft from Haiti, you say, ‘Wow, this is Haiti.”

Calasanz worked mostly with the artisans who specialize in making horn and bone jewelry and creating vessels from paper mache. “Many of the vases were already preconceived shapes, but we helped them with the patterns and simplified them.” The ultimate goal was to come up with designs that were more current and appealing to the market and “to compete at level of ‘world chicness,’” Calasanz said, adding, “They have the hands, they have the raw materials, they have everything, but they just need someone to guide them; to consult with and to have someone get down and dirty with them.”

Artisan Business Network will be attending Artisan Resource at NY NOW on February 1-4. They will be exhibiting the new Spring/Summer collection consisting of metalwork for tabletop, and wall art,  paper mache vessels, and bone and horn jewelry. 

For more information, visit www.artisanbusinessnetwork.com.

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