How Can the Design Industry Avoid Appropriation?

Though it has been nearly three decades since Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, making it illegal “to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product” that is falsely marketed as Native American–made, last summer the chief of the law enforcement office at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which heads enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act) told Indian Country Today that as much as 80 percent of Native art sold globally is fake—despite the fact that someone convicted of selling fake goods could face a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Counterfeit Native art is one extreme example of cultural appropriation, but the problem is wide-reaching and often nuanced. The fashion industry seems to be particularly prone to transgressions. In recent years, brands like Zara, Gucci, H&M, and Victoria’s Secret have all been accused of cultural appropriation by journalists and social media’s masses. In February 2012, the Navajo Nation even filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters, claiming the retailer infringed on the Navajo Nation’s trademark rights by selling products under the brand names “Navajo” and “Navaho” without tribal permission (the two parties later reached a settlement). Conversely, some brands are taking a proactive approach, offering progressive models: Nike collaborated with Pawnee/Yakama artist Bunky Echo-Hawk on its N7 collection, from which a portion of the profits benefit athletic programs in tribal areas.

How Can the Design Industry Avoid Appropriation?

In the design industry, such collaborations have given way to fair trade organizations such as Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Aid to Artisans. Still, for every fair trade platform, there are vendors who attempt to mask plagiarism as “inspiration.” Some consider this a gray area. Take the topic of Indian trade blankets: Barry Friedman, who has been selling them for nearly five decades to clients such as Ralph Lauren and Visvim’s Hiroki Nakamura, says that most vintage Indian trade blankets are based on centuries-old motifs. For example, he says, “The diamond shape is found on most [Indian] trade blankets, and who can lay claim to inventing the diamond shape?”

The first Indian trade blanket was manufactured in 1892, according to Friedman, by a company called J. Capps and Sons in Jacksonville, Illinois. “Most of these designs are just geometric patterns that date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They weren’t invented by the indigenous tribes,” he says. Pendleton Woolen Mills, the only surviving Indian trade blanket designer and manufacturer, produced and manufactured its first blanket in 1896, he adds. “So I take the cries of cultural appropriation with a grain of salt when it comes to ‘Indian designs’ because many originated on Indian trade blankets designed by non-Indians and based on ancient patterns from cultures all over the world.”

And perhaps Friedman has a point. It seems that all artists and artisans should be afforded creative license to infuse their work with inspiration gathered outside their front door or across the globe. After all, artists such as Picasso and Matisse borrowed from African sculptures, as well as from Post-Impressionist artists including Cézanne and Gauguin. But we also need to give artists from regions that are typically culturally exploited a seat at the table—or at least credit where credit is due. Thankfully, many design businesses are doing just that, partnering with artisans the world over.

West Elm has already invested $225 million in the handcraft sector and has partnered with Fair Trade USA to ensure that 40 percent of its products will be Fair Trade Certified by 2020. Indego Africa—a company that partners with groups of artisan women in Rwanda and Ghana to create a range of handcrafted products—supplies goods to brands like to Goop, ABC Carpet & Home, and Anthropologie. Their artisans, on average, earn 50 percent of the wholesale price of items, according to Indego’s website.

But big retailers aren’t the only ones collaborating with artisans around the globe. Take the Haas Brothers’ partnership with the South African women’s beading collective Monkeybiz. Since their first meeting, four years ago, during Design Indaba, the brothers and the female artists (now known as the Haas Sisters) have been collaborating on an ever-growing and ever-popular collection of beaded and bronze creatures, called Afreaks, that’s been shown everywhere from New York gallery R & Company to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The creatures were also the subject of the brothers’ second book, which gives credit to each of the artisans, whose names also serve as titles for the works. “I think a true collaboration is like a relationship,” says Nikolai Haas. “If one partner never gives the other emotional satisfaction or engagement, ultimately you don’t make something that’s beautiful and romantic, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

If you go in and do one project, give a bunch of hope to a bunch of people, and then say, ‘See you later,’ that does a lot more damage.

The brothers, who are currently looking to do another beading project with the women of a farming community outside Los Angeles, hope to keep the Monkeybiz collaboration going up to and beyond the decade mark, which is a time-tested threshold for sustainability (a factor often overlooked in certain well-meaning collaborations). “I think this project helped me learn to check myself and my privilege, but we really wanted to work with this group of women because their work is so beautiful,” says Simon Haas. “If you go in and do one project, give a bunch of hope to a bunch of people, and then say, ‘See you later,’ that does a lot more damage.”

Mexico City–based designer Gloria Cortina says she had a similar thought after meeting silversmith Jesus Pillado, who helped create the prototype for her hand-hammered bronze Mathias tables (inspired by the iconic gold leaf panels of German-born artist Mathias Goeritz, who lived in Mexico City for most of his life), which she shows through New York’s Cristina Grajales Gallery. According to Cortina, Pillado passed away shortly after they started working together, but she continued on with his wife, Karla, and his two sons. Cortina also hires obsidian workers in Teotihuacán to help manufacture other pieces of her collection. As part of the partnership, she supplies all her artisans with new tools and technologies, including sewing machines, cutting wheels, and tubs for nickel plating.

“By honoring heritage and local artisans, you can contribute much more value to your design,” says Cortina, noting that her pieces can take up to five months to prototype and are only available in editions of 12. “I’m not saying it’s easy, but what I can say is that in 100 percent of the cases, the outcomes have been much more enriching not only for me as a person and designer but also for the piece of furniture. It’s more of a soul partnership.”

After a trip to Cape Town, South Africa, to work with Aid to Artisans in 2005, then–Brooklyn-based designer Stephen Burks has made similar partnerships—with macramé artists, beadmakers, potters, and weavers from Senegal to South Africa to Peru, and beyond—the bedrock of his collections for clients that include craft-based projects for clients BD Barcelona Design, Cappellini, Dedon, Moroso, and Roche Bobois.

“Since the beginning of the last century, in all kinds of cultural conditions, modernist artists, architects, and designers have traveled and borrowed from other places around the world,” says Burks. “You can call it inspiration, appropriation, whatever you like, but unfortunately it’s really more of a 21st-century idea that we actually give credit to the people we are inspired by.” He cites everyone from Picasso to Noguchi to Jean Prouvé in this lineage.

Burks says he considers some business models in the design world “controversial” because “you almost have this inverse relationship to luxury happening where there is so much value on the artist end that isn’t necessarily translated to the artisan or community because the techniques of making aren’t progressed or innovated, but simply applied in familiar ways and offered to a new audience. There is also this situation where access to that village or community is controlled and builds exclusivity. Of course, the techniques aren’t unique to one specific community. They aren’t the only ones making these pieces—but in the context of the design edition world it appears so—and even if somebody else wanted to make those pieces, they don’t have access. And then, because an exclusive relationship is established, astronomical numbers can be charged for adornment that literally wasn’t valued before.”

Burks works on a “trade not aid” model: Artisans set the prices for production, and his prices are based on those. (Cortina uses a similar process.)

In discussing his and his brother’s particular model, Simon Haas explains, “We asked that wages be increased substantially from the usual payment, and we also salaried the group that worked with us. A portion of sales is returned to anyone who has worked on the project, and a portion of sales also goes into purchasing blankets and eyewear for the members of the community that we were unable to employ.” In fact, in the wake of the marketing and PR surrounding the Haas brand, the Monkeybiz artisans are now prominently featured by Monkeybiz itself and have more visibility while prices are increasing, according to Simon Haas.

Ultimately, pushback in the industry against any perceived appropriation is likely forthcoming. As Burks notes, “The Maasai are now trademarking their image because they have been so blatantly knocked off in corporate advertising.” Parallel to his work in Milan, as a 2019 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, Burks would like to create his own platform for artisans to have more of a voice in contemporary design, perhaps along the lines of Amazon’s Handmade. (Amazon sells items across more than 15 categories and subcategories from vendors in 87 countries, a company spokesperson told AD PRO.)

“It’s the most pluralistic time in design history—everything is coexisting all at once. And to the extent that things are made in a certain place by a certain people, we have to do our best to be socially responsible and give them credit for being part of the design development process,” says Burks. We couldn’t agree more.