Out of strength, sometimes, comes sweetness. Nine years ago, when Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, was being challenged over the use of child labour, its executives decided that instead of distancing themselves from the issue they should engage with it. After discussions with a number of charities they entered into a long-term commitment to Unicef entailing financial support to date of $180m.
The Ikea Social Initiative initially focused on development, health and education work in the eastern Uttar Pradesh area of India, with a particular remit to move women towards economic empowerment. More than 20,000 women in 500 villages were involved and, nine years down the line, some have opened tea shops, others flour mills, while 2,000 are employed as embroiderers making items for an important western corporation: Ikea itself.
"We got the idea that we could produce some products to show that ... they can help themselves," says Marianne Barner, head of the initiative. In 2005 the company sent two designers to India to work with the women and develop a suitable homeware for them to manufacture and this resulted in a series of cushion covers called Grindtorp.
This month it is launching a set of folk-story wall hangings drawn up by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, produced by 200 women who were recently taught the embroidery skills to make them. "This is run as a normal business; they are subcontracted to a supplier of ours," Barner says. "The products have been very well received. They have a story behind them and I think that appeals to people."
Ikea is not the big first furniture company to explore the coincidence of ethics and aesthetics that developing-world, artisan products can bring to their offering. For more than 30 years non-governmental organisation Aid to Artisans has helped manufacturers and designers build non-exploitative working relationships with workers from Africa to Asia.
Recently it helped US homeware chain West Elm to create an ethical business framework for the production and acquisition of khadi (hand-woven) silk from India and it has been such a success that the company has upped its demand for the second order from $40,000 to $70,000.
According to Aid to Artisans' marketing director Colleen Pendleton, there is now a genuine blossoming of interest in traditional skills and materials. "I think that because consumers are feeling so vulnerable they want to demonstrate through their buying power that they care," she says. "There's a drive toward simplicity. Artisan products make a statement about keeping uniqueness alive, about cultural richness, about not losing ourselves. There's a resonance for consumers."
This goes beyond ethics, says Dutch-born designer Tord Boontje, whose work has always been marked by an interest in folk iconography. "Fifty years ago there were a lot more handmade products in the shops. Now people are starting to realise that clean, modern design has become plastic and bland and anonymous; that we lost something," he says.
In 2004, the same year Artecnica launched Boontje's multi-award winning Midsummer Light, he began working with a women's collective in Brazil called Coopa-Roca. The collaboration resulted in a lampshade design - Come Rain Come Shine - that featured traditional embroidery and rope-work set around a circular metal frame and Boontje asked Artecnica to produce it commercially.
This was not without precedent; the year before the California-based company had sent students from Design Academy Eindhoven to work with craftspeople in Brazil. But attempts to turn the resulting pieces into commercially viable products had failed.
"The prices were really high and we weren't the kind of company that could demand that," recalls Artecnica's art director, Tahmineh Javanbakht. "The market wasn't ready for it. And the artisans weren't really set up; they didn't have the logistics for something as simple as getting boxes or filling out commercial invoices."
Still, by the time Boontje approached them, executives felt they knew the pitfalls to avoid and were ready to give such a scheme another try, this time with the draw of a big-name designer to help push the idea along. As it happened the lamps were so successful that they formed the basis of Artecnica's Design with Conscience range, which now includes pieces by Jongerius, Fernando and Humberto Campana and Stephen Burks, as well as Boontje, all developed with and made by artisans in South Africa, Vietnam and Central and South America.
Boontje's latest collection for the label is Witches' Kitchen, a kitchenware set based on traditional Colombian black clay pots, imprinted with local leaves and flowers and reworked for the modern market. For example, since the pots are now more likely to be placed in an oven than hung over an open fire, he changed the handles to make them easier to carry.
"When we started, people were sceptical; they said the project was only for a hippy, niche market," Javanbakht says. But "three years ago it was unthinkable that certain people would trade in an SUV for a small hybrid car; now gas prices have changed that. Five years ago whole-food was a very niche market; now Wholefoods is one of the most formidable chains in America. With awareness comes interest."
"It's really time that we look outside of Europe for inspiration and for business development," adds Burks, who is based in New York. "There doesn't have to be any type of division. The way that I live and the products that I'm interested in all have diverse origins; I might have a Danish sofa and a British shelving unit and tons of little items with more personality ... If we travel the world we realise that it is full of people making things in different ways."
Burks first worked with South African artisans in 2005 on a series of patchwork-covered vases for Missoni. Two years later, through Aid to Artisans and Artecnica, he created TaTu, a wire table that breaks down into a bowl, a tray and a basket.
And, last year, with Cappellini, he launched a new range called Cappellini Love, the first collection of which includes tables made from shredded magazines and vases and bowls made from mosaic tiles and silicone, produced and developed with a women's community centre, also in South Africa.
He says he sees a rich future in such collaborations because they make business as well as ethical sense. "In the high-end design world, where the distribution numbers aren't as high as in mass design, there's a possible fit between what can be made by hand and what can be distributed in a certain market," he explains.
Giulio Cappellini, founder of the eponymous Italian furniture company, agrees. "Today it's not so interesting to present a new shape; it's easier to give a new appeal to old shapes with artisanal materials," he says. In addition to the Love range with Burks, he has invited two Indian artisans to re-work classic pieces by designers such as Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison from the company's existing collection. "We can apply the spirit of contemporary design to the spirit of artisanal production in countries that are not producing design."
The allure of such projects is also tied to the disappearance of affordable master artisans in Europe. Where Cappellini is taking a creative approach, others have simply been forced to outsource; last year it was reported that porcelain manufacturer Royal Copenhagen was moving almost all of its production to Thailand.
Meanwhile, in the developing world, the issues are somewhat flipped on their heads. South African designer Haldane Martin says, for example, that while conscience plays a large role in his work, the main reason he experiments with local craft techniques is the lack of modern manufacturing options available to him.
"I'm not averse to high technology but we don't have a lot of access to it here," he explains. "I don't think that low technology is the answer to the world's problems - we can't go backwards - but I have found a niche where we can look at old technologies and present them in a different context."
He has also discovered first-hand how important real commercial applications are in keeping traditional skills alive. For his Zulu Mama chair, which marries an indigenous weaving technique to a contemporary stainless steel base, he had to create a separate business to train the workers who now make the piece for an international market.
But the benefits - both social and financial - have been significant. "We're still a tiny business but it does create a bit of national pride. The products have a global design vocabulary but they come with a local flavour. We're showing the rest of the world that we can make beautiful objects."
Indeed, one hopes that eventually it will be more developing world entrepreneurs who harness their own compatriots' talent, rather than NGO or corporate sponsors. "It would make a bigger impact if we as African producers and craftspeople were able to organise ourselves into private businesses," acknowledges furniture producer Peter Mabeo, speaking from his studio in Gaborone, Botswana.
Yet, like Martin, he has already made a start. Armed with only a basic drafting qualification, in 1997 he launched his business making bespoke pieces for the local hospitality industry but, as the production standards and skills in his workshop evolved, he decided to solicit a European or North American partner for a series of products that were "reflective of Botswana but applicable anywhere".
In 2006 he launched a collection designed by Toronto-based Patty Johnson that is now distributed by US retailer Design Within Reach. "It has exceeded our expectations," he says. "We're coming from kind of humble beginnings and we've made an impact internationally using basic machinery and craftsmen without formal training."
His company is now working on other, similar projects and he's confident that such collaborations can effect powerful change. "This is a different environment," he says. "It requires patience and innovation. But designers" - and, he should perhaps add, the corporate executives who employ them - "are very practical people."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009