The Importance of Design in Guatemala

Last week, I went on a wonderful adventure to the highlands, invited by a third-tier cooperative to give advice as a designer.  What’s that, you ask? I didn’t know either.  CONFECOOP works with multiple federations of cooperatives to provide different kinds of assistance, one of those being linking designers/buyers (me) to providers (cooperatives).  So of course I said yes, yes to visiting cooperatives and yes to going to parts of Guatemala that I love so much!

We visited a federation of cooperatives in Xela, a glass-blowing cooperative there too, and a weaving cooperatives in Zunil (near Xela) and San Antonio Palopó (by Lake Atitlán).  I always love meeting artisans, seeing the process, and taking treasures home with me, too. But on this trip, I brought home more than my purchases…. I realized several things for cooperatives and perhaps artisans in general here in Guatemala:

  • Innovation is key.  The glass-blowing cooperative was a great example of this, with so many new designs and products.  They are also happy to work with other brands and designers, producing exclusive collections.  On the other side, the textile cooperative at the lake only offered items that I have seen over and over, and with the same color schemes.  The only product that caught my eye was a scarf that the group had produced for a designer in Guatemala City.  Clearly, coming up with new designs was a struggle for this second group, and it was also clear that the group was struggling to get by in general.
  • Guatemala lacks innovators.  This is so unfortunate, but the reality is that it is difficult for Guatemalan artisans to break the cycle of copying designs.  At school, they are taught to memorize, to copy, to recite things as they are (I know this because I’ve taught in both public and private schools in Guatemala).  Critical thinking is not an emphasis, and that is crucial for innovation in anything, as in design.  And say you are one of the few, probably from Guatemala City, who have a gift in artistic expression? As it turned out, one of the family members for the leader of this trip was stuck in this kind of pickle… I found this scenario very insightful.  There we were, discussing the good and bad of these cooperatives, these struggling artisans.  We agreed that design was key for their success.  And yet it was clear that this young Guatemalan girl in their family would not be encouraged to continue on a path of art.  They agreed that there are not enough opportunities for artists in Guatemala unless they are educated and/or work abroad.  All this, when they had invited me as a designer to go on this trip?  So we are stuck in a cycle here, where it is clear that Guatemala needs people who can think outside of the box (in this case in design), and yet people seem to think that there are no career opportunities within the country to really pursue it.  Are there really no opportunities?  There is clearly need.  Demand, maybe not, as artisans and other producers may not realize the need.  We just need to figure out how to fill that space, the disconnect.  I think we are almost there.
  • People have different tastes.  You might think duh, this is obvious, but I continue to be surprised by this.  Throughout the trip the Guatemalan members preferred items with color schemes and patterns that I would not.  This is not to say one item is better than the other, just that our tastes are very different.  The cooperatives, and even the federation of cooperatives, struggle to design products that are practical and attractive to foreign markets.  The little details really make a difference, and these little things turn out to be pretty big challenges in Guatemala.

Given these three points, I feel extremely fortunate to be working with the artisans that I work with now, for weaving, embroidery, and leatherwork.  They are so talented.  But could any one of the artisans have made the kind of high-quality and beautiful products we offer as Kakaw?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so.  I would like to say that there are many people who could fill my shoes, but right now I don’t think that is the case.  There are many foreigners trying to make beautiful things here in Guatemala.  Their approaches working with artisans is a completely different topic (a passionate one for me), but as far as just trying new things in design, I would love to say that there is a steady supply of up-and-coming Guatemalan designers with appreciation and knowledge of the handmade and artisan-made worlds, but I don’t think that is true.  Foreign designers fill that niche, for better or for worse.

I look forward to the changes within Guatemala.  For us to have been invited to the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Show was amazing to me.  Artisan-made products used to be looked down upon, especially those with traditionally Mayan designs.  Things are changing.  Slowly, but hopefully surely.

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Contemplating all the possibilities with these new naturally-dyed cotton threads.

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Sharing ideas with Francisca, working together to make designs come to life.

XOXO,

Mari

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Design in Guatemala

  1. Hi Mari! I love when you write about these things. Honestly, I feel like you’re the owner designer really talking about it and I’d love to learn more about what you think of the relationship between foreign designers and the artisans. I was thinking about this a lot during my trip to Guatemala (so many questions). I was wondering, what kind of education (beyond their craft) and access to information do the glass blowers have that the artisans within the textile cooperative didn’t have? You said that the glass blowing cooperative “are also happy to work with other brands and designers, producing exclusive collections” and I’m pretty sure these collaborations have exposed them to different points of views and aesthetics. I wonder if the artisans who aren’t doing so well, but want to, make an effort or know to explore beyond the world around them. It does make me a little uncomfortable that foreign designers fill the niche and I’m still trying to figure out why, but like I said, I have more questions than answers.

    • Hi Amber!

      First off, thanks so much for reading 🙂 It’s nice to know that people actually take time to go through my rambling thoughts.

      I think you have some really good questions, and the fact that it makes you uncomfortable that there are so many foreign designers shows that you are thinking. It makes me uncomfortable too.

      The glass blowing cooperative was really refreshing. The leader was a young man (in his 30s I think), forward thinking, asking questions and for feedback. His father is also in the cooperative, and the group itself has been there for a while. I can’t remember exactly how long, but I think over 20 years. And they are located near Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala, with universities and an up-and-coming cultural scene. I think those factors make a difference in the mindset of the workers.

      The two textile cooperatives I mentioned were much more isolated geographically. They also had more difficulty communicating in Spanish as it was not their first language (there are 21 spoken indigenous Mayan languages in Guatemala). I did not feel comfortable working with either group because I think the challenges are too great to overcome from a business perspective… Guatemalans often say “yes, of course” even when they may not fully understand the question. Again, because they are taught to repeat, memorize, and be obedient rather than ask questions. So add this cultural challenge to the linguistic challenge, and the geographic one too (it would take me longer to get there and back), and it’s just too much for me to handle. If they had amazing technique, colors, something different, I might consider it. But not when the products are pretty standard. And I image that is how other designers feel too… so then the cycle again, since the artisans need some external ideas to spark things up.

      I feel like this is a circular system. But I do think that things are changing here. Poco a poco.

  2. Pingback: The #1 Problem Working with Artisans as a Brand | Kakaw Designs

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