social innovation // crafts // heritage // industrial design // economy // community // collaboration // product design // aesthetics

The project explores contemporary product design methodologies informed by traditional crafts and production tools. It is located in the central north and northwest regions of Bulgaria and aims to reflect the specific local economic and cultural context. Rather than multiplication of consumerist demands for exclusive and luxurious products, its objective is to promote social responsibility in design practice. Following extensive secondary data analysis on current topics in crafts-related social innovation and the history and contemporaneity of traditional Bulgarian crafts, together with Jan Phillip Ley we organized a research trip to the chosen region in order to explore ethnographic collections and material culture, contact active craftsmen and designers, collect impressions about their way of life and everyday struggles, and identify potential vulnerable groups, partners and collaborators.

The fieldwork trip took place in November 2015 and included walking tours, observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, photography and audio-visual documentation. An important aspect was the involvement of local guides (key community experts) knowledgeable about the context or the project-related issues, through personal and online networking. Conversations were held with craftsmen working with local resources, researchers and cultural workers, and young people active in the preservation of local traditions.

Much like anywhere else, traditional crafts in Bulgaria fallen to the background, with craftsmen struggling to remain competitive in today’s global markets. Starting with the belief that modernization of crafts production merely for the sake of its marketing in more developed countries is an unsustainable intervention which has little impact on the economic or social development of local communities. Moreover, such approach would disregard the genuine efforts of craftsmen to innovate and diversify their work, and adapt to the adverse economic conditions. Thus the project focuses rather on the process of co-creation and collaborative making, and not immediately on the final product or its commercialization. In doing so, we would attempt to: a) encourage non-competitive collaboration between craftsmen and designers with different expertise by detaching the process of crafts innovation from their everyday life and survival-driven work targets, b) bridge the gaps between factory and handmade production through recycling and upcycling of industrial and production waste, and c) promote cooperation between local companies and individual craftsmen and designers by identifying opportunities for symbiotic interactions.

Taking a step back from the immediate daily concerns of craftsmen, we attempt to have them identify their roles and responsibilities in the greater social, economic and material ecosystem. We find it necessary to introduce an economic model alternative to the predominant industrial process of extracting raw materials, producing, using and disposing. A circular framework based on sharing, repairing and sufficiency would allow for creativity and innovation in the recycling of production waste or rejects. Typically, in the process of giving a second life to fired ceramics, another material is added to solder the pieces back together. Based on this metaphor of mixture and collaboration for more cohesive, stronger outcomes, we developed a concept of recycling craft and industrial waste by involving people with different expertise with regard to materials and processes, as well as different aesthetic visions and design approaches. By creating a space for collaboration between craft masters and designers, but also for engagement of the local community in workshops and actions (such as trashing old ceramics or collecting waste to transform into imperfect beautiful objects). We hope to promote networking and interdependency in the region, as well as have craftsmen, designers, enterprises and other interested parties and individuals reconsider their interconnectedness in the community.

In April 2016 we were invited to participate in an international crafts and design conference in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. The event is organized by Fabrikata, regional cultural center in northern Bulgaria whose projects aim to create future perspectives for traditional Bulgarian arts and crafts. The conference will explore the potentials and benefits of establishing a European network of skilled craftsmen and designers, and organizations representing the craft and design sector. It is an opportunity to present the project and gain support for its further development.

Photos by Jan Phillip Ley