“I now know what poverty tastes like.”
Nadja Zerunian and Peter Weisz develop with Roma craftspeople the design of their products.
The Romanian organisation Romano ButiQ has been dedicated to reviving traditional Roma handicraft since 2011 and created the Meşteshukar ButiQ (MBQ) brand with this goal in mind. A broad network of people who have learned trades such as copper embossing, blacksmithing or tailoring has since evolved. The internationally successful designer Nadja Zerunian and the designer and tailor Peter Weisz have volunteered to collaborate with craftspeople and artisans and develop modern designs for MBQ. We met them both and talked about their impressions and experiences.
All of the organisations that form part of the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership met in December 2014 to coordinate their activities. Nadja, you attended for the second time and you, Peter, for the first time and presented your work. What is so special about this partnership?
Nadja Zerunian: It is a remarkable platform for exchange. NGOs from different countries and working in many different areas get the opportunity to learn from a great number of initiatives.
Peter Weisz: I was positively surprised by the huge effort that is put into each project and the outcome that this generates. There is such a diverse range of approaches and many of them are successful. Bringing this huge variety of initiatives together certainly plays a role in making the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership so unique.
How did the collaboration between you and MBQ come about? Why do you spend your free time passing on your knowledge to craftspeople?
Nadja Zerunian: ERSTE Foundation approached me in autumn 2013. They asked me to evaluate the design and the proportion of handmade crafts in two of their Roma Partnership projects as a pro-bono expert. I was amazed by the potential and skills I saw. I saw a real chance for MBQ to expand and update its product portfolio in order to reach a broader audience. This was a great challenge and the prospect of working with a group of skilled, traditional craftspeople fascinated me. I was living in my own world far away from reality and I was anxious to broaden my mind. There’s always been something magical for me about witnessing a production process from the initial idea to the finished product. Now I have an amazing opportunity to be part of this incredibly exciting process and position a brand that focuses on traditional Roma handicraft.
Peter Weisz: Nadja told me about this opportunity to make a difference. On the spur of the moment I said, “Yes, I’ll do it”. I have an insatiable appetite for handicraft. My studio is a sort of jumble of treasures, filled with things that I’ve accumulated from flea markets or grandmothers and aunts. I’m interested in handicraft in general and I enjoy creating things with my hands. The fact that I can help someone by doing this is sort of an extra bonus. However, there is another personal reason. My grandparents came from Hungary. I already had some kind of connection to the Roma culture as a child – a romantic stroke of fate, so to speak.
Meşteshukar ButiQ (MBQ) means “handicraft boutique” and was founded in Bucharest in 2012. It sees itself as a network of independent craftspeople and microenterprises and is dedicated to reviving traditional Roma handicraft. The initiative aims to create new marketing opportunities for the handicraft products of copper smiths, tailors, blacksmiths and carvers and to develop modern products for the national and international market. And it has been a great success.
Up until now, the manufactured products have been sold on an online platform. In 2015 the social initiative plans to open several stores in Romania. MBQ is part of the Romano ButiQ association, which supports the development of cultural and educational activities with numerous other projects and campaigns to help the integration of Roma in Romania. Romano ButiQ investigates, develops and promotes the cultural heritage of vulnerable and multi-cultural communities and helps people suffering from all forms of discrimination and social exclusion.
What kinds of challenges have you faced and what experiences have you had during your travels?
Nadja Zerunian: There have only been a few challenges and a lot of surprises. I basically struggle with the same issues as any craftsman: the lack of suitable raw materials, not many – and sometimes not enough – tools, scarce resources, large distances, and bad roads. But I am amazed by the ingenuity and creativity generated by these bad conditions. There is always a solution. I’ve had some overwhelming experiences and seen some unbearable fates. I now know, for the first time in my life, what poverty tastes, feels and looks like. When I get home, I sometimes feel like I’m entering a surreal dream, completely disconnected from the other, real world.
Peter Weisz: I also entered a world that was completely new to me and first of all I wanted to know what culture I was dealing with here. It’s a complex question because Roma live in different countries and each region has its own rich cultural background. When I try to design products, I need some point of reference, I need to feel something. In our working environment, everything is geared towards industry and advertising. Everything is already spoilt, if you will. It’s the same in Romania, but in a different way. People there are not as manipulated by advertising yet. There are still other values and that allows me to create other things. There is still a sense of this simplicity that comes with working with the elements and a strong awareness of working with your hands.
What motivates an internationally established design expert to work with people who, beyond their own ethnic group, almost exclusively experience exclusion and rejection?
Nadja Zerunian: This “ethnic group” has become people with faces and stories, many of whom became friends: Eva and Victor, Zoli and Theresa, Nevers and Simone, Zorin and Maria, Itzok and Bebe. Oh, I almost forgot Alex. I didn’t know much about the Roma. They were colourful and foreign. Perhaps I even romanticised these people. I did some research and learned about them – and was ashamed. It is incomprehensible that we – who would like to be perceived as “civilised” Europe – are incapable of treating a minority of 10 million people in an appropriate manner. How is it possible that we have been tolerating discrimination and persecution for centuries? Since when do we think it is okay to look away? I have tried to avoid working with stereotypes my whole life. This project enables me to support efforts aimed at contradicting all of these established labels and prejudices that face this group of people.
Nadja, you work for famous brands and producers. Peter, you are a trained tailor. Tell me about your work with different craftspeople.
Nadja Zerunian: I love to immerse myself in the creation process and very much enjoy being close to people. It’s stimulating and very inspiring to work with craftspeople who ultimately create things that were devised on paper. It is an extraordinary experience that every designer should have.
Peter Weisz: We encounter a great variety of people in different environments and the concept of a designer means nothing to most of them. This is not how we present ourselves either. Instead, with MBQ we want to communicate that we aim to go a step further. We want to get ahead together. All of these people come from a long tradition of craftsmanship and have always produced the same products, possibly for practical reasons. I encourage them to try something new.
Were you successful?
Peter Weisz: Yes. When we manage to develop a new form, the craftspeople also notice it and realise: it just rocks. In most cases I can’t help them with the technical details – I’m a tailor. What we can do is give them access to other forms and provide new ideas and this is often a spontaneous process. Even with the best preparation, we might have to completely change direction on site. Tailoring is a technique. As with any other handicraft, if you master it you can leave the familiar territory and go a step further. But if you don’t know the basic rules, you don’t know where you can go. There is no path open to you and you can only move within your boundaries.
Nadja Zerunian: From the broom makers in Clejani to the coppersmiths in Medias, I’ve never heard: “This is impossible!”, which is a phrase designers know all too well. The craftsman is your partner. Developing a product is a shared experience. There is always curiosity and, above all, the ambition to demonstrate your skills, plus a general determination to challenge the status quo. I rarely encountered hesitation, but this normally disappears anyway as you experiment with different forms and techniques.
Nadja Zerunian is co-founder of the design group zerunianandweisz & advises the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership. She worked for a decade as a senior designer with Calvin Klein in New York before becoming creative director first at Georg Jensen and then at the Swatch Group. Nadja studied at the university of applied arts in Vienna under Ernst Caramelle, Carl Auboeck and Ron Arad. She lives and works in Vienna & the USA.
Peter Weisz co-founded zerunianandweisz. Previously, he worked as creative & fashion director & stylist for Schaufenster/ Die Presse, Diva, Woman, Wiener, Ahead, Attitude/ GB, Palmers & Swarovski. Under his eponymous label, he has designed bespoke fashion for men & women as well as outfits for staff at social hotspots including Ungerundklein, Taubenkobel & Wunderl. Peter studied fashion in Vienna where he now lives.
Photo © Stefan Zeisler
What have the individual craftspeople achieved so far and what still needs to be done?
Peter Weisz: I was able to teach some techniques to Lenuƫa, the tailor from Bucharest. She understood that the right draping and ironing technique makes all the difference between H&M and Dior. Each time I visit her, she learns more and we’re slowly but steadily managing to build up a tailor’s workshop. She recognises the benefit of our work. What’s more, she now takes great pleasure in it. Before, she didn’t have time to think about how far she could go with her designs. It was a brutal struggle for survival. Together we created seven collections and for the eighth we intentionally opted for a minimalist design. She was proud and happy when she saw the final result.
Nadja Zerunian: Nevers, our wonderful silversmith, displayed his works for the first time in two renowned contemporary jewellery exhibitions in Bucharest and was also able to resign from his part-time job as the head of a warehouse. He now works full-time for MBQ and is able to support his family. In the best-case scenario, we will be able to repeat this success. We can update the range of products, explore alternative sales channels and provide presentation spaces for skills and traditional handicrafts in order to shed new light on this exploited group, but this won’t be enough. We also need to create opportunities for them to generate an income. At present, there is not much interest among the next generation of Roma to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps and carry on these cross-generational skills. They have few expectations. Many of them believe that low-wage jobs in Europe are the only options they have. By showing them that craftsmanship can generate an income and secure their futures, we will hopefully help reverse this trend.
MBQ and other organisations in the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership make a point of promoting social entrepreneurship. This means that you’re also contributing to this with your work?
Nadja Zerunian: That’s right. MBQ is a strong advocate of entrepreneurship. Craftspeople are encouraged and trained to found small enterprises. MBQ supports the establishment of cooperatives to facilitate access to resources and legal aid and help tackle the many challenges facing small companies.
Peter Weisz: Nadja and I work on the creative side of things, but we can also see how much organisation is involved. In the long run, we not only want to develop designs but also to be able to sell them. If we manage to refine our products, they must be marketed professionally. In the beginning, of course, we won’t be dealing with large quantities, but some day – and this will be the challenge for MBQ – we will be able to take the next step. Fortunately, craftsmanship is once again becoming increasingly popular. We will have opened the first store by the summer of 2015 and in the meantime there are plenty of avenues to present the products – at Wien Museum in 2015, for example.
Inside the Project
Meşteshukar ButiQ Showcase and Workshop 2015
ERSTE Foundation organised two events at the Wien Museum together with its partner NGOs. Romano ButiQ showcased brand new collection of Meşteshukar ButiQ (MBQ) products created by Roma artisans from Romania together with the renowned Austrian designers Nadja Zerunian and Peter Weisz. Inside the museum, a workshop was organised for 25 children who built a rocket out of copper tubes, with the help of eematico trainers from Romania.
Production: Media Voice
Director: Vera Lacková
Camera: Vera Lacková
Sound: Alin-Cristian Ciocea
Postproduction: Vera Lacková, Laco Korbel
Music: Shukar Collective – New Hop´a
ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership
The ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership is an informal alliance of committed partner organisations that aim to sustainably improve the lives of Roma people in Central and South-Eastern Europe. The platform was born out of the common concern to support the development of social entrepreneurship, income generation activities and educational programmes for job creation opportunities at community level, while enabling and reinforcing long-term collaboration between Roma and non-Roma.
Besides funding, member organisations are supported with business consultancy and guidance offered by international pro-bono experts, and additionally they are sharing valuable know-how and experiences with each other.
14 organisations are members of the network since 2014.