From village to villa: A room in Dubai made up entirely of fair-trade products

The specially created room is proof that there can be a colourful side to fair-trade products

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.  04 MARCH 2018. Dubai-based design firm Tribe created a “Village to Villa” room set that is made up entirely of Fairtrade furniture and accessories. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Melanie Hunt. Section: Weekend.
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Take a seat. And then perhaps get up and take a closer look at it. Where's it from? Who created it? What are their lives like? And did the making of this chair in any way impact the community in which they live?

When Jo England, founder of interior design and homeware company Tribe, launched her company in Dubai, ethically sourced and fair-trade products were at the heart of her business ethos.

“It must be good for the environment, good for the artisan and good for the community,” she says. 

“In developing countries, artisans often learn their skills in the family or community in which they live, and are the gate-keepers of their community’s heritage and cultural identity. Yet they often receive very low incomes and have access to only the most basic standards of living.

“Bringing handcrafted work to Dubai is an opportunity to create a connection between cultures, as well as ensuring that skills and craftsmanship will be preserved for the next generation.”

The Australian designer is often inspired by her travels, and when she comes across a new artisanal skill or material, she will often channel this into her collections. Working with recognised fair-trade organisations, England is creating a market in the UAE for handcrafted products from around the world.

She is also ensuring that those involved in production at these remote locations, often in some of the world's poorest countries, are rewarded for their efforts.

There are a number of bodies involved in nominating and monitoring fair-trade status.

The best known is the World Fair Trade Organisation. Criteria for fair-trade status are varied but, in essence, they focus on ensuring that producers receive a fair price and wage for what they make or grow and send to market, while also ensuring that no child or forced labour is used, working conditions are safe and the environment is protected.

A number of such companies and organisations working with producers from Third World countries go further and invest in schools, school meals, training, housing, healthcare and so on, and entire communities become involved as produce or goods are fed into new markets.

Increasingly, designers in the developed world are contributing to the success of the model by embracing traditional, artisanal skill sets, such as weaving or embroidery, to create new work that is commercially viable. A key factor in Tribe's growth, from a small office (which England then closed daily at 2pm to allow her to do the school run) to a design hub in Al Quoz and a retail outlet at The Courtyard within three years, has been its Instagram presence.

Tribe's bohemian, coastal and handcrafted "global-chic" aesthetic has captured the zeitgeist. Its Instagram account offers tempting glimpses of interiors that offer a new way of living – one that reaches beyond the region's villas and apartments, and touches the lives of faraway village communities and artisans. To make the point that boho at home doesn't necessarily have to be all beige and light neutrals, Tribe put together a room set for us at England's Arabian Ranches villa, featuring fair-trade products, including a jute macramé wall hanging from Bangladesh, a soft wool rug from India, a pair of Malawi chairs and a sofa throw from Argentina. 

These are all made in villages that are now reaping the rewards of new markets and fairly rewarded for their skills and work in the process.  

Malawi Chair

The Malawi chair is made from local Malawian bamboo and water reeds, in keeping with a design process that is traditional to that part of Africa.

The World Bank recently declared Malawi the poorest country on the planet, with a GDP per capita of just $226.5.

A fair-trade project, initiated by architect Maria Haralambidou in the village where the Malawi chair is made, has now touched the lives of over 600 residents – artisans, their families and their community – ensuring that the skills of this craft are passed on to the next generation. By instigating trade, not aid, and connecting this village to modern sales platforms, a growing community of sustainable businesses is being built.

Macramé wall-hanging from Bangladesh

Macramé is enjoying something of a resurgence. A wave of hand-knotted craft pieces, often in the shape of suspended plant pot holders and wall-hangings, is finding its way into boho-inspired interiors around the world.  

Dharma Door is working with artisans in Bangladesh to produce taselled macrame hangings and has collaborated with the Tribe. Courtesy Dharma Doors

Tribe has been working with Dharma Door, which in turn works with artisans in Bangladesh to design and produce large feature pieces of jute macramé, utilising traditional skills in new ways to produce tasselled macramé hangings.   

Armadillo & Co rug from India

Armadillo & Co rugs are handmade in India and are fair trade and sustainable. Different weaving techniques and yarn weights create variations in the finished designs, but each rug comes with a label issued by the Carpet Export Promotion Council of India and a "Care and Fair" label certifying that child labour was not used in the manufacture of the product.

Fair-trade products are making their way to villas such as these in Dubai from villages with the help of Jo England’s design firm Tribe. Courtesy Armadillo Rug

Armadillo & Co also works alongside India’s Care and Fair Program to provide health and educational support to families working in the rug production area.

The company provides employment for over 1,500 weavers and helps to sustain this ancient craft. It also supports education and local schools in  weavers’ villages.

Argentinian sofa throw

It is notoriously difficult for textile products to achieve true fair trade status as the provenance of every piece of cotton or wool and every thread or button has to be established.  

By working with Argentine artisans and weavers, Australian-based Pampa has every part of its production covered, from the rearing and shearing of sheep, to the washing, hand spinning, dyeing and weaving of the wool, right down to the finished product.  

Read more:

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Techniques used to make these textiles are traditional to Argentina and artisans work with both llama and sheep’s wool, using naturally occurring pigments from flowers, vegetables, plants and smoke to colour fibres before weaving.  

Pampa’s blankets are made by a Patagonian family that draws inspiration for the colour of their weaves from the Andean mountains and the grassland plains where weavers have been working
for generations.