Seventeen years ago, Naomi Neilson Howard got into her van and drove through Central Mexico looking for remote villages where artisans practiced ancient crafts. She realized that with guidance, this craftsmanship could provide a reliable revenue stream for local communities if she brought the artisans’ handiwork home to the U.S. Today, her company, Native Trails, is one of the leading manufacturers of handcrafted bath and kitchen products in the world, founded not only on the value of creative collaboration, but also on shared prosperity.
Known for products they call functional art, Native Trails uses materials like copper and wood, which are given a second life in sinks, range hoods, bathtubs and home decor. “There is a lot of adventuring in the way we do business. It really requires a continual feedback loop,” said Neilson Howard during a session at last week’s Dwell on Design, “It Takes Two: Collaborations between Businesses and Artisans.”
Communication is vital, not just between artisans and distributors but also between dealers, designers and consumers. When you’re talking about hand-crafted, everything is one-of-a-kind. That means designers must manage the expectations of homeowners picking products out of a catalogue, who then wonder why their sink is slightly different than the one in the picture. The essential value proposition is also in the story of the brand. For the right client, the purchase is about more than a sink: it’s the legacy and tradition of three generations of coppersmiths and the opportunity to help a rural community take care of their families, while featuring a unique product in their home.
From the manufacturing perspective, Native Trails invests a lot of time overseas, monitoring and improving the full chain of supply for each product. Is the bamboo being harvested properly? Are the artisans happy? How can the overall production process be streamlined and new products developed? The company even offers microfinancing to some of its suppliers to improve their infrastructure and output.
Neilson Howard admits that working with artists brings the human side to production and that means variability in the design process, which isn’t always easy. Ultimately though, it’s the human factor that works with the company’s positive, eco-social philosophy. Lower production is the trade-off for high-quality, inimitable work. For them, collaborating with artisans is part of a larger value system: a multi-tiered equation that’s not just about the bottom line.
Kim Kuhteubl is an award-winning producer and writer who works with interior designers, product manufacturers and hosts in the home category on business strategy, the creation of bold brands and audience engagement through social media, publication and licensing. For more information visit www.mebydesign.net or follow her on twitter @bykimk.
Photo courtesy Native Trails