When the model becomes the medium

How do you collaborate with someone who speaks another language? Swiss designer Laurence Stoffel tells us how she overcame the culture barrier.

Last month we interviewed the founders of a design skills exchange programme called Hors Pistes about the group’s recent excursion to Banfora in southern Burkina Faso, where six European designers worked with local palm weavers and a Tuareg jeweller from Niger. The project, which wrapped up at the end of November, yielded a collection of experimental designs that reconceptualise local craft traditions in refreshing new ways. The body of work is now on show at the French Institute of Ouagadougou until 10 January.

Swiss product designer Laurence Stoffel was among the group. She joined the Hors Pistes project in Banfora to challenge her usual way of working without any of the tools she uses every day. “I was very curious to see if I would be able to adapt my working process to these new conditions,” she said. Not speaking the local language was a huge obstacle to overcome, she tells us in her first-person account of the collaboration below, but it resulted in an interesting development: through the process of prototyping, the design object itself became their common language.

Stoffel found the experience so enriching that she plans to broaden her knowledge of African crafts when she travels to Ghana for three months later this year to learn local weaving techniques.

The project really began when I asked Tessemé, the weaver I worked with, to make a flat round tray around 40 cm in diameter. It turned out to be something totally different than I had expected. In my eyes, it would be square and curved. In hers, it was round and flat, lead by the material’s properties. That day, we realised that the true challenge would not only be the object itself, but the communication between us.

We both made totally different interpretations of my drawings and paper models.

Something that seemed obvious to me was absurd to her.

While I was drawing the objects with precise sizes, she would follow the width of the fibres and that would influence the size of the object.

I was at the beginning of a process and needed to see and try different things to continue to work, and was often cutting the woven models, which irritated her. I envisioned clear functions in my head, but even with our translator, Ouahabo, my words did not represent a clear object in Tessemé’s mind.

I decided to change my way of working.

I followed the material and reused the tray and its curvy shape. I also stopped to draw for a moment and started to experiment with an existing, classic basket that is used a lot in Banfora’s market. By making simple "readymades", cutting and testing these baskets, I made various small changes that changed the way the basket functioned.

These models made it possible to communicate with Tessemé, while we were seeing and testing them. I was able to make simple models and even show her small changes in the technique without having to weave, and she was able to show me very quickly what worked, what she thought would improve it and what was impossible to realise. 

At first, I tried to add handles to the basket, combining them with the curvy tray edges that she had woven a few days before. The function was clear quite quickly and the challenge was to combine the two weaving techniques.

After a few days of testing together, Tessemé asked me to let her weave one alone, which worked perfectly. But the handles were still wrong – they didn’t face each other symmetrically. For her, this was not so important.

This was one typical moment when I felt that we were reaching our cultural limits and the subjectivity of aesthetics.

The object would work, of course, if the handles were not in the centre, but according to my criteria as a Swiss designer, they had to be perfectly facing each other.

As the objects need to be sold outside Burkina as well, we kept them centered. But we absolutely agreed on the fact that the basket would need handles, and she even told us that she was thinking about adapting the handle technique to other objects and start her own production.

This was one of my highlights during the workshop: it showed us that a design’s function can be a link between two cultures, and that this object had reached that goal.

The project culminated in a series of three objects, all based on the initial basket, in which we made simple interventions to change its function: a basket with handles, stackable boxes and a double basket. 

It was extremely important to me not to change the habits and techniques of the weavers and to make objects that could be used both in Burkina and Europe. Due to their open and basic functionalities, all three designs we created can be used in different situations and geographical locations.

By being forced to focus on the essential function of an object, I had to rethink my judging criteria and forget my prejudices. In Burkina, I could not work instinctively, which I often do here in Europe. Every decision had to be looked at from different angles, and was often changed afterwards.

Working in such a different environment was a chance to get some distance and become aware of my usual working process. By trying to understand the needs of new objects in a different country, I had the opportunity of discovering the culture of Burkina Faso from a professional and very different point of view.

It was definitely the most difficult but by far the most interesting experience I have had as a designer so far.