Design Indaba Emerging Creative for 2023 Edward Wakefield started Crayon Artel in 2020, creating unique handmade Persian rugs from original artworks. The company’s multinational team connects with artists from around the world, regardless of demographic or political ideology. Wakefield also works as a 3D-printing journalist, and intends to apply this knowledge to enable artists to create sculptures using this technology.
We spoke to the well-travelled entrepreneur about his role in the creative world, finding artists for collaborations, and what’s up next for him in 2023.
What led to the creation of Crayon Artel?
I founded Crayon Artel based almost entirely on my experience in the fashion industry – which included importing and selling sneakers from China when I was 13, and working at the head office of one of the biggest streetwear brands in the world, in London, when I was 18.
During this time, I noticed that collaborative projects almost always had the most commercial value or got the most attention. During my time in London, I was fortunate enough to see how this all played out at a higher level.
During the pandemic, in 2020, I returned home to continue my remote studies through Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China. (My plan is to be based in China in the next few years, as I’m fascinated by the culture and the economy - it’s the perfect place for ‘disruptive luxury’.) One day, I was out carpet shopping with my mom in Pretoria and I noticed the intricacy of the knots at the back of the carpets. I felt that the designs were objectively beautiful, but that I did not understand the beauty - it was from another time. Something had clicked, but it would take a while for me to understand what it was.
A few weeks later, I was at my friend Dino Dino Anastasopoulos’ house and I saw one of his drawings on his wall, and I finally understood how to apply my experience in the carpet shop: essentially, knotted carpets plus contemporary art equals what is now Crayon Artel.
I understood that knotted carpets are essentially physical pixels, and therefore anything that could be viewed digitally could be translated into knots. That was the easy part (and it’s now even easier thanks to the software Dino and I have developed for this application). I figured, in this globally connected world, I could find an artist to work with to create a contemporary interpretation of this ancient textile, and I wanted to do this in the sanctioned, politically shunned, unstable, incredibly beautiful country of Iran.
A few months later, an old friend from my childhood, David Mahouti, who lives in Tehran, got involved, and the foundation of Crayon Artel was set. Today, our core team consists of four people – myself, David in Tehran, Devon Wakefield in London, and George Coltman in Melbourne. I think this speaks to the widespread nature of the company.
Tell us about how you find artists to collaborate with.
Collaborating with artists is both the most rewarding and the most frustrating part of all this. It’s rewarding because artists bring insights and ideas that I had never before considered, and it’s frustrating because they’re often oblivious to time!
I don’t seek out artists with a particular style or medium, but rather with a particular way of seeing and interpreting the world. The value of art is, broadly speaking, in the idea, not in the skill required to bring the art to life. The skill is simply a commodity, and that can be outsourced. This is where my team and I at Crayon Artel come in.
At this stage, we work mainly with illustrative artists. I’m introduced to these artists through friends of friends, or I connect with them through platforms like Instagram. Luckily, I’m almost always travelling - which really adds a lot of value in terms of connecting with diverse people from around the world. I find that people often get really excited when they have the opportunity to introduce artists to other people.
You describe yourself as ‘not as an artist but as an enabler of the arts’. What does it mean to you to take on this role in the creative world?
The easiest way to think about it is that Crayon Artel gives artists access to unconventional and traditionally inaccessible canvases - and we try to keep the style of art that is applied to these canvases as broad and far-reaching as possible.
As time has passed, Crayon Artel has evolved from Persian carpets to include other traditional and contemporary crafts. However, the underlying philosophy is still focused on enabling artists to create and express their ideas, more easily and more impactfully, through access to different media. I see my role in the creative world as a fundamental part of who I am. I cannot imagine a life lived differently.
When I’m making a work of art with an artist, it is not simply me and my team providing a service, but rather all of us creating as partners. We don’t profit off artists and, in fact, often cover the costs of production ourselves - lowering the barrier to entry psychologically and also financially. The result of this is that we have equity in the final artwork. It is deeply rewarding.
What has been a career highlight for you?
There have honestly been so many, ranging from meeting famous rappers at art fairs in Los Angeles to presenting to design directors of multinational private members’ clubs. Of all of them, my trip to Iran last year has to be the most exciting.
After eight years of not seeing each other, David and I spent 10 days visiting suppliers and meeting with our existing and potential partners. Coincidentally, the annual Iranian handmade carpet exhibition - which had been cancelled for the preceding two years due to the pandemic - started on the day I arrived. This was completely unexpected.
If you could collaborate with any artist to create a rug, who would it be?
Lil Wayne. Hit me up!
On the off chance that he doesn’t see this interview, it would be great if someone could put me in touch with him… lol.
Tell us about your work as a 3D-printing journalist.
Funnily enough, this work came as a direct result of the Persian carpets. In short, I met the founder of the 3D-printing media company when I was in Milan (I was working on the super yachts in Italy at the time, so I could be closer to my girlfriend while she was studying there) and a month later I was writing for the company.
He and I connected over LinkedIn after I saw an article he had written about 3D-printed jewellery. It was just a fortuitous cold-outreach kind of thing. We are friends (and colleagues) now.
My work ranges from editing news articles to interviewing CEOs and travelling to the production facilities. General Electric flew me out to Cincinnati for a couple of days late last year to see their factory. I really wasn’t sure that anything to do with manufacturing could be ‘cool’, but this was. This work has also taken me to many other cities, including Paris for trade fairs and to Milan for Design Week.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing (the opposite of reductive manufacturing, which is how sculptures are traditionally made), is one of the ‘technologies of the future’, and there is huge creative potential for artists who take the time to understand the possibilities that are now available to them thanks to the development of this technology. The applications for art, and how I can connect artists with the right companies and help them understand how to work together, is what excites me most about it.
Companies also send me 3D printers to review, so I’ve built up a small collection in Joburg that I use to print prototypes for sculptures, jewellery for casting, and a bunch of other things. These printers, and our digital 3D partner in Mexico City, are available to all the artists I work with. Once again, the goal is to make it really easy for artists to create their works.
What’s up next for you in 2023?
Working with all these artists, it’s hard not to become more like them in certain ways - their creativity rubs off on me. Through all of this, I’ve found myself creating things that are considered to be art. I’ll be exhibiting a collection of 19 fairly large stone sculptures within the next few months. (I’m still getting used to the ‘artist’ title.)
There are many exciting collaborations under way, with several fairly renowned artists from different countries, but most of them won’t be ready this year, as they take anywhere from three months to two years to come to fruition. I’m not particularly fond of Instagram, but I’ll update my pages (@edwardwakefield and @crayonartel) as and when these projects materialise.
I’m also hoping to connect with more South African artists before I leave the country again.
Photographs: Edward Wakefield, Crayon Artel.