Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The art of good lamp-making


People watching: 
Karin Willems, co-founder of Zenza

About seven years ago the renowned Dutch designer Li Edelkoort helped to kit out a restaurant in Paris' Galeries Lafayette. As part of her scheme, she chose to accent a modern, white space with Middle Eastern flair. Hammered brass lights were hung above the restaurant's tables, casting their shadowy patterns onto the tiled walls. A new trend was born: the lamps were featured in Harper's Bazaar and an explosion of interest followed.

Karin Willems and other founders of Zenza, a Dutch producer of home accessories
Karin with her husband Hussein
and business partner Yasmina
The company behind those lights is a Dutch producer of handicrafts called Zenza. Last week I interviewed co-founder Karin Willems, who has just launched the company's newest store in Rotterdam. The company prides itself on crafting handmade home accessories, using oriental designs and artisanal techniques. It operates mainly as a wholesaler, but has two other stores in Amsterdam and Maastricht. 

About 18 years ago, Karin spotted the lights in a souk in Egypt - they were traditional lamps with closed bottoms for burning oil. "We made the design cleaner, more modern and easier to use with an electrical system," she says. The company's design mantra is to reinterpret objects of the past, giving them a more contemporary feel. The lamps have been Zenza's best seller ever since. Last year, Heineken even used them in an television advertisement to sell beer.

Lamps designed by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Zenza's lamps are crafted by hand in Egypt
Karin maintains that her company is not run on conventional lines, using business tools such as strategy and research. "I always follow my heart and rely upon my taste and intuition," she says. "That's who I am and how I do it... and I like having the right people around me." 

Not surprisingly, the company was forged out of a relationship: while Karin was visiting Cairo's souk 18 years ago, she met and married Hussein. At first, he wasn't keen to join Karin's fledgling venture in Amsterdam - he offered to help carry boxes until he found his own way. It turned out he had a gift for dealing with customers so he stayed on. Now he also helps Karin with her designs, often handling the more technical aspects.

The couple have a daughter and moved to Egypt three years ago so that she could grow up in two cultures. Unfortunately, their move coincided with the recent political upheaval. "In the beginning it was very exciting, adapting to a new culture," recalls Karin in a soft voice. "But it is a difficult time now and people are losing their businesses and there is all this sadness around us. Now I admit I am counting the days until we go back to Amsterdam." As an exporter, Zenza is not so affected by Egypt's troubles.


Furniture designed out of mango wood by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Workshops in India make wares out of old print blocks
The company has its own factory in Cairo and also provides microfinance to various workshops making its goods. "We didn't want to be everyone's boss," explains Karin. The workshops often repay Zenza's loans in six months and are able to hire more staff as required. The company also uses the workshop model in India to produce furniture made out of (sustainable) mango wood. 

Karin is committed to maintaining ethical standards and is "very confident" that Zenza operates on a fairtrade basis in Egypt, providing safe conditions for workers and paying good salaries. With a degree of honesty, she admits that it is harder to achieve such standards in India. "I am sure there is not child labour and I am sure the mango wood is not harvested illegally, but it would cost me so much time to find out more." Despite having an agent in India, keeping tabs on Indian suppliers is one of the challenges Zenza faces.

Lamps designed by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Zenza's lamps have caught the attention of designers
The company is also, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Demand for its lamps is outstripping its capacity to produce - many of its retailers in the UK are out of stock. Karin is ideologically opposed to mass production, but it can take months to train up new craftspeople. "Good things take time and I don't like it, but this is our reality. We don't want to compromise on quality." 

Remarkably Zenza seems to be weathering the slowdown in consumer spending, even bucking the trend in Rotterdam. Some of the local outlets for Zenza's products have been forced to close down, giving the company a unique opportunity to open its own shopfront without treading on any toes. With all this going on, you wonder how Karin ever gets time to rest. Although Hussein sometimes tells her that he doesn't want to hear about work for a while, she finds it hard to switch off. "Even on vacation, I see a new material, or I find a location for photo shoot," she says, laughing.

On paper, such squeaky clean credentials make for good marketing. During the interview, however, Karin's passion for craft and fair trade come across as genuine. It appears to be a peculiarly female success story: a design-winner bred out of intuition and generosity, rather than hard-nosed business nous.

UK suppliers of Zenza's products include John Lewis and Pomegranate Living with Style. Zenza's lamps also recently featured in Homes & Gardens magazine. Please note that I was not paid or incentivised in any way to write this article.



FINALIST BiB 2014 WRITER