In the Algarve, life still proceeds in a manner that its contemporary inhabitants’ medieval ancestors would have had little trouble recognising. The soil is a glistening red and the hills are bedecked with lemon bushes as they always were. The cork and acacia trees are filled with the same crickets that accompanied the farmer picking oranges in the Middle Ages.
The land the Romans called Lusitania is an ancient one, a cradle of traditions without which Mediterranean civilization is unthinkable: wine, virgin olive oil, terracotta, basket weaving, fishing and bread making—staples around which the life of the homme du midi has revolved since time immemorial. Now, among the holly oak, hibiscus, oleander and jasmine bushes of the backwoods of Faro and Beja, a new (albeit manmade) flower is bursting into bloom: design.
Designer Albio Nascimento is steeped in the traditions of this ancient area. ‘My grandfather still bred pigs. I was the first one in our family to finish high school. The hinterland of the Algarve was, until the day before yesterday, still in the dark ages.’ Nascimento, like many of his compatriots, yearned to escape, to flee what he then regarded as the terrible backwardness of the region. His roving spirit led him to Milan, where he studied design at the Politecnico di Milano and met a kindred spirit and future partner—German designer Kathi Stertzig, who would later become the second half of their design bureau, The Home Project.
Ancient Techniques, Modern Solutions
While Nascimento and Stertzig were studying, the first seeds of a design revolution in southern Portugal were beginning to blossom. The Regional Development and Coordinating Commission of the Algarve (CCDR Algarve), a body charged with reinvigorating the hinterland, was engaged in a project know as Tasa—an abbreviation for técnicas ancestrais, soluções actuais, or ‘ancient techniques, modern solutions.’
Otília Cardeira is exactly the type of old school craftsmen that Tasa was interested in supporting. With a halo of white hair, a turquoise t-shirt and pink scarf wound around her neck, she works in a workshop as antediluvian as they come: at the centre of the room with its exposed stone walls sits a massive wooden loom, round about lie heaps of yarn, spun thread and fabric remnants; on the wall, a huge photograph board elaborates on the techniques of ancient loom weaving. When she shows visitors her work, the first feeling might be a legitimate sense of bewilderment. There’s a glorious disjoint between the way Cardeira works and the products she makes—utterly contemporary woven yarn covers for that most ubiquitous symbol of borderless modernity: the smart phone.
‘Otília rocks the village’, says Kathi Stertzig. When she and Nascimento founded The Home Project in 2005 in Berlin, they had a clear idea of what they wanted to do: they wanted a design studio ‘that focused on finding solutions with an origin—responsible design innovation that unfolds from an exploration between people and place’, they say. ‘In a sense, we’re designing a return to craft. A revisit that credits technique and knowledge with the potential for renewed engagement and value.’
That approach entailed a search for authenticity unbeholden to nostalgic dreams of a return to a (non-existent) rural arcadia; most of all, it required extensive collaboration with craftsmen and women like Otília. Artisans, that is, with one foot in the fifteenth century, another in the twenty-first; craftsmen who can discern the sense in which a MacBook is, just like a wood fired terracotta vase, an object whose success resides in its usability and not the date of its manufacture.
A Wild West of Design
Navigating this nexus of tradition, modernity, handcraft and design has its own particular challenges. What they’re doing, Nascimento comments, ‘isn’t about cool, streamlined objects for the design world.’ Both he and Stertzig are convinced of the absolute importance of preserving the character of traditional southern Portuguese handwork, noting that ‘the local, sometimes raw character of the individuals has to remain palpable.’
It wasn’t long before CCDR Algarve came across The Home Project and involved them in their project to revive and broaden the range of activities of local craftspeople. Sitting in a café with a cold evening beer in the coastal city of Faro, not far from CCDR’s headquarters, Nascimento thinks back to that old urge to escape the ‘backwardness’ of his homeland. With the help of The Home Project, he says, came also a reconnection with the traditions of southern Portugal and an appreciation of its idiosyncratic development over the years. ‘There’s something pristine about the area, as though it hadn’t been touched at all by the modern world. It’s a little like being a pioneer in the Wild West of design here.’
Text: Benjamin Blackbenz
Images: The Home Project
Traditional, handcrafted home accessories and kitchenware with a contemporary twist by The Home Project are available from September 3 until September 10 in the MONOQI shop.