Zeri Craft's mission to preserve Bedouin handicrafts

Despite a shortage of experienced artisans, Laila Al Hamad, the founder the up-and-coming Kuwaiti brand, is taking on the challenge.

The silk cushions are hand woven at Carol Cassidy's studio in Laos. Courtesy of Zeri Crafts
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With an inviting splash page and judiciously planned exhibition on the way, the new Kuwaiti design brand Zeri Crafts is almost ready to roll. Wisely, though, the founder Laila Al Hamad, who first explored ideas for her company in 2007, won't launch officially until her bespoke products meet her exacting standards.

"Like zeri, the gold or silver thread that brightens traditional garments often used in the region, the company is seeking to cast Gulf heritage in a new light by modernising craft design and uses, and reintegrating those into the everyday lives of people," Al Hamad explains.

"Zeri draws inspiration from traditional handicrafts and traditions: Bedouin weaving, incense burning and palm basketry, among others." Although not produced in the Gulf, the high-end products are very much inspired by the area's traditional patterns and handicrafts.

Together with the weaving expert Keireine Canavan, the programme director of textiles at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales, and the designers Nedda El Asmar and Charlotte Duffy, Al Hamad has developed an initial collection of hand-woven textiles and contemporary incense burners, and aims to expand into home accessories.

All of Zeri's wares have been carefully planned out, with no shortcuts in design or production quality.

Then again, Zeri has been a labour of love for Al Hamad, who is driven by a passion for beautiful, well-designed objects. Developing the company has allowed her to watch artisans create handmade products of a quality that is hard to match.

A background in economic development may not seem like the ideal path to high design, but in her previous job at the World Bank, Al Hamad says, "I was working on a lot of gender issues, with women NGOs, on educational projects both in the Middle East and in East Asia." The NGOs focused on developing sustainable skills and building entrepreneurs within communities, she says.

"Through this work, you see these women weaving, for example, in Yemen, where they are not working. While we were talking to them about education, they were weaving baskets, which they sell at the market - same in Laos, same in Cambodia, where they were weaving scarves and doing small things. It proved that women really do contribute to the household income.

"In Laos and Cambodia, the craftsmanship is very sophisticated. There has been a lot of money poured into handicrafts to make them more attractive, and you can view the artisans at work first-hand. That makes you part of the process, to really see what it involves to buy something that is hand-woven and so different from that which is printed or machine woven."

Al Hamad's journey with Zeri Crafts began when she went back to Kuwait after her father's death in 2007. "My sister and I were brainstorming, and I spoke about recreating the East Asian model that I so admired." Al Hamad started investigating Sadu weaving, the traditional Bedouin art, and other indigenous crafts that she had always loved.

"It's part of my subconscious. So the initial idea was to really focus on local Gulf artisans, to help build their skills and produce items that were more marketable."

By 2008 Al Hamad and her family had moved back to Kuwait, and while continuing with development work, she surveyed artisans in Oman in 2009. By this time, her sister, Sarah, had assessed artisans in Bahrain but moved on to other pursuits, while Laila continued on-the-ground research.

After a pilot project in Oman, Al Hamad concluded that focusing on local skill was unviable because there were too few master artisans and the traditional patronage-led model was not marketable. She also became frustrated with bureaucracy. "There is a lot of work to be done across the region in terms of updating the products and organising the artisans, and a huge investment is needed. But government initiatives are just not going to cut it. The Gulf no longer has the competitive advantage. Labour is very expensive. You have to import all of the raw materials and that is costly. When you put so much thought into your product in terms of quality and [making sure] that it is well marketed, the situation ends up being lose-lose," she says.

So without abandoning Zeri Crafts's commitment to handcrafted Gulf-inspired design, Al Hamad looked to other resources. She decided that the Sadu weaving and the incense burner were key first projects, especially after market research revealed few other well designed, thoughtful updates to the traditional versions.

By luck, a lecture by Canavan at Sadu House in 2010 sparked collaboration. Last year, she helped Al Hamad find the right textile designer by launching a competition among final-year students at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

"I had already approached three designers in Europe unsuccessfully; their designs were so digitally driven. It's not what I wanted," Al Hamad says. "Instead, Keireine believed I would obtain much better results via the competition and it worked. Even on a cultural level, it was a very positive exchange."

Four finalists emerged from about 30 participants. "The breadth of Charlotte's work was impressive," Al Hamad says. "She really put a lot into it. Plus the colourways were so interesting and they really lent themselves to hand weaving. They had an earthy quality - exactly what I wanted but wasn't sure how to articulate."

The collection and colours were finalised in Kuwait, and resulting silk scarves/table runners and cushions have been assiduously hand woven by artisans at Lao Textilles, the weaver Carol Cassidy's Vientiane workshop.

Separately, after two years of testing, the award-winning Antwerp-based Nedda El Asmar's contemporary interpretation of the mabkhara, or incense burner (reported on in House & Home earlier this year), is almost ready for full production.

"El Asmar's work was also exactly what I wanted," Al Hamad says. "She was familiar with the culture but designed from the aesthetic first rather than the culture down." The non-Orientalist approach has resulted in a streamlined Arabic incense burner with an indelibly contemporary design, singular in its appearance and execution.

Next, Al Hamad is hoping to produce tableware, more cushions and other home products in various parts of Asia, but only if the samples are high-quality. "I won't rush or commit to something until it's absolutely right," she says.

She has just come back to possibilities within the Gulf by exploring new designs by Bedouin weavers in Abu Dhabi. She sees potential, and with time, once the quality meets expectations, it could provide a route back to Gulf artisans.

For now, however, the mabkhara and limited-edition hand-woven textiles are the centre of attention, and will be showcased at Zeri Craft's launch exhibition at Sadu House in Kuwait City in May.

"Up until now, it has been all about design, development, sampling and finalising. My opinion is that by September, as a collection, the products should be available for sale, all being well. Also, I will do other exhibitions in the region following this one, and then target key retailers. "

Al Hamad admits, "I'm not a designer, but I like beautiful things. I'm inspired by beauty. I had a French education in Kuwait. The French have a way of making everything look beautiful, and having had that influence, especially with many memorable visits to Paris, you see things differently. The way the French present things and their appreciation of art, all of that had a huge impact on me.

"I'm not one of those design freaks," she adds, "but I believe in combining quality and beauty. I also don't believe in too many materialistic things or luxury for luxury's sake. But if I buy something for my home, I want it to be really nice - an object that will last."

Not surprisingly, this standard has already revealed itself in Zeri Crafts's initial designs. If you like what you see, there's definitely more to come, so watch this space.

Zeri Crafts will host the exhibition Gulf Handicrafts: New Interpretations, New Horizons at Sadu House in Kuwait from May 7-9. For more information visit www.zericrafts.com, email info@zericrafts.com