In 2009, German designer Alexandra Joy Jaeckel used her design talents and expertise to design a beautiful line of hand-crafted baskets and gourds. She collaborated with WomenCraft, a fair trade social enterprise which partners with artisans throughout Western Tanzania. Her volunteer trip to Africa enabled her to work directly with the artisans, expanding their product line by designing a traditional, yet modern collection. The goal was to help distinguish WomenCraft in the marketplace. Alexandra says, “It’s the most rewarding task for me to design ‘with people for people’.” She adds, “Working together with artisan communities allows me to combine my extensive product design background, strong interest in color and material trends with my handcraft skills.”
While working with rural Tanzanian and Burundian women, Alexandra utilized traditional coiling techniques, while incorporating natural fibers such as bamboo sticks, gourds, and brightly colored Ugwafu grasses. She also experimented with weaving twisted Kitenge textiles into these pieces. This resulting fabric is a common form of dress worn by many East African women.
Alexandra has a talent for designing decorative, yet functional pieces. She moved away from the traditional flat woven patterns and was interested in creating three-dimensional designs to dramatize the product’s appearance. These products were meant to be timeless, so only the smallest of adjustments need to be made to stay up with the latest color trends.
In order to familiarize herself with the region, she researched and gathered information concerning Tanzania’s cultural background, handicraft traditions, and the environment. Upon arrival, she spent quality time with the master artisans, understanding the artisan’s skills and taking note of the materials available. Her goal was “to develop a mutually respectful and trusting partnership which fostered fruitful interaction and open dialogue.”
Ideas for this collection were influenced by Tanzania’s array of natural materials and simplistic beauty. For example, the “Kata” basket was inspired by the Kata, a woven ring that is commonly used to balance a bundle of firewood or bucket of water on top of one’s head. The “Kuska” basket means twist in Swahili inspired by the plaits seen in African hairstyles. The “Joey” collection combines the dried gourd with vibrant Kitenge textiles taken from the practice of carrying bundles wrapped in fabric.
Alexandra started out with baskets and expanded into gourds after realizing how incredibly time-consuming it was to weave a single basket. When working with these artisans, she found there to be a mutual exchange of ideas. She adds, “WomenCraft artisans taught me how a dried gourd must be prepared in order to get a shiny surface and how to punch holes into it with a hot needle. I showed them how to add the crocheted rim. In return the artisans came up with a new design on their own adding a woven basket rim to it.” She concludes with, “The most rewarding and exiting part of the creative process for me is when the development becomes truly collaborative…when we inspire one another.”
Alexandra is the founder of Design Guide, which offers consulting services, tailored the needs and requirements of rural artisan communities. Please visit www.productdesign-guide.com and www.womencraft.org for more details.