Home furnishing with a designer conscience

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2011, 12:00am


Designers are finding new ways to give back to society. In Cambodia, an award-winning US interior designer gives young girls lessons in art; in Afghanistan, artisans receive funds for their hand-embroidered cushions helping secure their children's future; while in New York, a lighting firm supports needy children on the mainland.

Sometimes, part of the proceeds from the sale of these home products might be channelled back to the people making them. Or, in the case of Sandra Espinet, designers are simply moved to support a worthy charity and use their trips overseas exactly for that reason.

Espinet, who has studios in Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, visits Cambodia at least once a year to check in at the Cambodian Children's Fund, of which she has been a long-time supporter. While there, she runs art classes for girls aged 13 years and up, and tries to mentor them while they navigate their early teens. As a result, some are keen to become interior designers, but Espinet - who last year was named designer of the year by California Home & Design Magazine, has had to ask them to readjust their expectations.

'There is no interior design in Cambodia,' she says. 'I'd rather steer them into graphic arts. I have to be conscious that their culture is not mine, and these girls are not going to live in my world. Sometimes they just need someone they can talk to about girl issues. The children are amazing, and the work is life-changing. You can't help but get involved.'

Designers around the world are embracing that ethos.

Independent collective Design House Stockholm worked with Australian designer David Mayhew to create a pair of serving tongs, handcrafted from jamjuree wood and inspired by the shape of a whale's tail. Sales of the tongs - priced at about US$50 - help support the Save the Whales fund.

At WAC Lighting, a company based in New York that makes energy-efficient pendant lights, LED downlights and track-lighting systems, co-principal Tai Wang oversees a relationship with Alliance for Smiles, a charity that brings together US surgeons and Chinese children who need cleft lip and palate surgery. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, WAC - which manufactures in China - raised US$270,000 in two weeks for aid. Wang also takes children from China to the US for surgery to correct heart defects.

The fact that products are made in a certain part of the world is often reason enough for some designers to focus their philanthropic efforts there.

Wendy Summer, founder of Connecticut-based accessories brand Zaanha, has found a way to send Afghan children to school by selling luxurious home accessories fashioned by the women of their communities. On a visit to Asia and Afghanistan to seek out volunteer opportunities several years ago, Summer stumbled across the fine, delicate embroidery work done by the Afghan women she met. The products - which include lushly threaded decorative cushions, stone bowls and herringbone throws - which are also made in Nepal and India - sell for hundreds of US dollars, with a portion of the proceeds paying for the education of Afghan children.

Similarly, American furniture brand Theodore Alexander, which makes products ranging from lamps to seating to bookcases, has a manufacturing facility in Ho Chi Minh City, and, as a result, an alliance with the Saigon Children's Charity. Together, they help build schools in remote areas and provide scholarships for children from poor families. Beyond that, Theodore Alexander pays its 4,000 employees at its million square feet of manufacturing space good wages, offers an in-house clinic and provides meals for staff.

'We have a corporate and ethical duty to ensure the well-being of employees,' chief executive Harvey Dondero says. 'Without a healthy workforce with good education and access to training opportunities there can be no true quality in manufacturing. A company's treatment of its employees is as much a reflection of its brand as its product and we are proud of both.'

And because the local artisans are well compensated, they do a better job, which is reflected in the end product, Dondero says.

'Our training opportunities in carving, finishing, artistry and the foundry mean that our craftspeople are able to create works of art that will last lifetimes,' he says.

For some designers, a commitment to philanthropy is personal. Terry Grahl is the founder and president of Michigan-based Enchanted Makeovers who closed a successful interior design company in 2007 to focus on charitable endeavours. Now, she oversees a team of volunteers that works on local women's shelters, elevating the spaces from their original bare-bones style so the troubled inhabitants can feel uplifted. Instead of metal bunk beds in dark rooms, Grahl furnishes them using pastel colours, soft fabrics, tranquil wall murals and home-made quilts. At one shelter, she transformed corridors into forests, stenciling the walls with leafy designs, and adding vintage screen doors and a porch light above each door.

'It's not enough to provide just the basic needs for these women and children,' she says. 'It's really about transforming lives through changing someone's surroundings.'

She and her volunteers and fund-raisers - many of whom are previous clients - don't buy anything off the shelf. Instead, they ask artisans from around the world to contribute to the cause, whether by procuring artworks from Japan or hand-embroidered pillow cases from craftswomen in rural parts of the US.

'There's a power and a story behind each item, and that helps provide the healing for these women,' Grahl says. 'Major change comes in when we get the community involved, where everyone is using their talents. If we know a woman who loves to quilt, I'll never tell her to paint a wall.'

Espinet tries to acquire materials from wherever she travels; textiles and necklaces in Africa, or pottery and woodwork from Myanmar. But ultimately, few things are more satisfying than when the worlds of art and design can benefit other people, one community at a time, she says.