As the concerns of our time move toward issues of the environment, ethics and cultural identity, craftworkers are seeing new opportunities.
By WILLIAM CHEW for Lensa Seni
The role of craftworkers in society has been in question since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Unable to compete with the quantity and prices of machine production, craftworkers have been relegated to serving the elite, and even then, their trade is a dying one. However, as issues of the environment, ethics and cultural identity arise, discussions on how to revive or sustain what is left of local crafts are surfacing as well. Craftworkers are seeing new opportunities, some of which are already being explored locally.
Kedai Bikin, founded by Adela Askandar and Farah Azizan in 2013, is the retail arm of Studio Bikin, an interdisciplinary practice involved in architecture, interior, furniture and product design. Having worked with craftsmen from all over Malaysia to execute their designs for built projects, the duo saw an opportunity to set up a curated shop showcasing contemporary furniture designed and crafted by local talents. Neither romanticising nor rejecting traditional craft, their works manage to blend the principles of modernist design with the familiarity of local materials.
In Adela’s Big Bend, we see elements of the chairs designed by affiliates of the renowned Bauhaus art school, particularly their efficiency in making the chair frame out of a continuous bent steel tube. Having that as a reference point, Adela adds a simple yet elegant twist to accommodate an armrest, a move that will surely be appreciated by the end user. In line with the sensual curves of the steel tubes, using rubber strings to make the backrest and seat pan allows a gentle tolerance to the contours of our bodies.
Farah’s Mr Gould features a super simplified structure, again made with a continuous steel tube, but deviating from the uncompromising rationality of the modernists, it cleverly embraces diagonals and a slight asymmetry in its hind legs to accommodate the termination of the bent steel. The clear separation of structure and surface allows the rapid production of the frame whilst giving the clients a flexibility in choosing the upholstered materials. But looking beyond the functional aspect, it is also a considerate aesthetic decision to express the structure of the chair in the form of planes and lines.
The beauty of their works is in the translation of a concept, such as making a piece of furniture out of one continuous steel tube into a physical and usable form through an engagement with local crafts. Care and attention are placed upon all aspects of the process: how materials come together, where they are sourced, and in using methods that are familiar to local craftsmen.
Rattan Art, on the other hand, was established in 1954 by Tay Wee Kean, a rattan craftsman, with the pragmatic reason of having to earn a living. The family business has since expanded beyond its hometown in Parit Jawa, Muar, to Melaka and Kuala Lumpur. As with most traditional craftsmen, the bulk of the business revenue comes from custom orders. The diverse range of commissions they receives also expands their expertise in rattan and bamboo. Their range includes all that we typically associate with rattan products – the curvy lounge chair, drum stools, lampshades and baskets.
Mila is a traditional piece with thicker proportions and curvier gestures showing off the flexibility of the material. In contrast to Kedai Bikin’s continuous tube, here, strips of rattan span short distances, bundling and branching out to support each other, forming a whole network to share the load. Each strip plays multiple roles: the loop on each side holds up the armrest and ties the front and back legs, and the seating, together. That looping motif also continues onto the back with the thicker one forming a frame and thinner strips functioning as back support, and also as a subtle floral ornament.
In a bid to remain relevant, they are also expanding beyond their comfort zone, venturing into a more modern look by mixing up materials. The VW chair features a rattan weaved seating fixed on top of a metal frame, a simple and decent idea at first glance. But looking from behind reveals that the rattan weaving is actually wrapped around a metal frame, making the seat rather rigid. With that said, the parallel-grained weaving still holds a certain promise as it evokes the image of a banana leaf, making one wonder if it is possible, in a future iteration, to incorporate that leafy gentleness in the seating experience.
Unlike the conscientious approach of Kedai Bikin, Rattan Art’s seems to be that of daring trial-and-error, blazing through all options and rapidly expanding its repertoire. The output may not have the same level of finesse, and is certainly more client-led as it is simply there to execute designs with technical proficiency. Despite the differences in approach, both practices are valid ways of sustaining local crafts, sharing similar views with regards to their societal roles.
Aware of the environmental impact caused by imported products with non-renewable materials, both practices place an emphasis on local material sourcing and production. Rattan and rubber, for example, are materials found locally with a quick harvesting cycle compared to cutting down trees for solid wood. This also minimises the need for swathes of monocultural land. On top of that, the proximity of raw materials, production facilities and retailers also help to reduce carbon emission by transport.
The topic of sustainability can also be applied towards craft, but here is where they face some difficulties. Rattan Art mentioned in a conversation that the younger demographic is not attracted to this trade due to its laborious nature and noisy and dusty work environment. Kedai Bikin also faces this lack of successive generations to continue the craft, so their solution is to pay their craftsmen their efforts’ worth. However, that means placing their products at a higher price range compared to other furniture shops.
With materials and local talents in place, perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is for Malaysians to understand the value of local craft. These works are rooted in a place – materially, culturally, climatically – and should be valued much more than the mass produced works of a globalised nowhere. Seven years ago, Adela commented that Malaysians are willing to pay double the price of their bespoke chair for an imported one. Here’s to hoping that things have changed, even a little.
William Chew is a participant in the CENDANA ARTS WRITING MASTERCLASS & MENTORSHIP PROGRAMME 2021
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