A group of 11 Pratt industrial design students led by faculty member Rebecca Welz partnered with Patty Johnson of the North South Project to travel to Georgetown, Guyana. The trip, taken in the summer of 2009, provided an experience that combined research and study of cultures, materials, processes, markets and design with hands-on design and fabrication in Guyana. With guidance from factory owner Jocelyn Dow, students were able to collaborate one-on-one with the workers of the Liana Cane furniture factory- manufacturing prototypes, learning techniques, and discussing forms and construction.
The Liana Cane factory employs local workers who make designs with sustainable and ecological manufacturing processes. The materials employed are indigenous and sustainably-harvested non-timber forest products (NTFPs). In this case, the NTFPs are plants that grow in symbiosis with old-growth forest trees: kufa, nibbi and tibisiri. The woody and fibrous kufa is a vine that grows very quickly. At the factory it is shaped into regular round stock of varying diameters, steamed and bent into the desired shapes. Nibbi and tibisiri are weaving materials used to fill in the kufa and to make connections.
Working with the weavers and steamers, students learned the value and craft of the labor-intensive process. This is translated through the collaborative design process, creating products that will hopefully be in demand in contemporary, international marketplaces. By establishing a viable market economy for products made out of NTFPs and manufactured by local communities, the preservation of Guyana’s vast and untouched rainforest is directly supported.
In Guyana, the design group got a taste of the rich racial, religious and cultural diversity. Students worked alongside the artisans at the factory and did informal interviewing to find out about the lives and histories of the people they were working with. Students were also fortunate enough to work with three Amerindian Wai Wai master weavers who traveled up from their village deep in the rainforest in southern Guyana. The Wai Wai took the students with them into the jungle to harvest mukra – another sustainable plant – which they used to craft the designers’ sketches with their traditional weaving styles and symbolic patterns.
In the fall of 2009 an exhibition and product launch will be scheduled at Design Within Reach. Students are shipping their prototypes back to New York and preparing for the exhibition, creating a collective identity and a documentation of their journey and work. Design Within Reach (DWR) is a design retailer with a mission to carry high quality design objects while also advancing discussion about contemporary issues in design through events, newsletters and conferences.