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.


Wednesday 17 April 2013

Dream catching

What a difference a week makes! Only a few days ago we were about to rent out our house and move to a sunnier clime (possibly Cornwall) to embrace the good life. Now the summer term has started, my husband is back at work and we are once again 'safe' in the old routines. As you might have guessed, we have just returned from a week's holiday: the perennial time for hatching harebrained schemes and entertaining fantasies of jumping off the treadmill.

Genki cafe, St Agnes, Cornwall
Anyone for a smoothie in compostible plastic?
Some people, however, do manage to pull it off. During our aforementioned holiday in Cornwall, I was talking to a friend about this - her theory is that we tend not to make any dramatic changes to our lives until we reach rock-bottom. In her case, after a relationship broke down, she skipped England for Kenya, where her life has since blossomed.

Last week, on our pilgrimage to the beach in St Agnes, we happened upon a cafe called Genki (translates as 'health and happiness' in Japanese). It provides a winning combination of lemon drizzle cake, barista coffee and granola, all served up with a cosmopolitan-cum-surfing vibe. Our daily diet of cake and flat whites became a highlight - the "best bit of the holiday", according to our son. Owen and Natalie Lewis, who own the cafe, are relaxed and friendly hosts. With their tousled hair, good looks and rude health, you could well believe they grew up on a surf board down in the bay.

Natalie and Owen Lewis, owners of Genki cafe, St Agnes
Natalie and Owen Lewis
Imagine the surprise when we discovered that they spent six years pursuing careers in Japan. Natalie taught at the British School in Tokyo, while Owen was an equities sales trader for a US bank. Owen candidly admits that six years of the high life in Tokyo - drinking and eating out - eventually lost its lustre. "You have to ask yourself what's your ideal life," he says. "Some people have their ideal life in a place like Hong Kong, but I realised I was not a city person. I was becoming someone I didn't want to become." These days after work, Owen is more likely to be found surfing or fishing than drinking in a bar.

Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster, also played a part. Nothing like a radiation leak to focus the mind - the couple left behind a beach house in Fukushima, the site of the nuclear power plant that suffered equipment failures in the wake of the tsunami. Health and happiness on Cornwall's breezy shores was a more appealing prospect.
St Agnes beach, Cornwall
An idyllic life by the sea?

At the end of our holiday, we attended the wedding of an old friend. She is one more example of someone who sought another path. She swapped a flat in London for a house perched on a cliff in St Agnes with wall-to-wall views of the sea. Now she has married a Cornishman and is expecting her first baby in July. 

All of this makes me think it is possible to achieve a dream, if you are determined enough. Perhaps one day we too will down tools and make for the nearest beach! The difficulty is that our nice existence in Oxfordshire is a little too comfortable. There is some solace in that - we obviously haven't hit rock-bottom. So until the quake breaks, we will be sitting tight, dreaming about a new life by the sea... 

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot. "This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns." -- Amazon review

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Work in progress

Today I am posting an excerpt from my new novel about a young woman trapped in a ruinous marriage in Jakarta, Indonesia, during the 1970s. 

Sunset in Bali
The sun deserted us within minutes...

The journey ended as the wheels of the aeroplane struck the tarmac with a deafening roar. I stared into the face of an airhostess and decided that Death wore a batik uniform and crimson lipstick. Over our heads, the rain hammered upon the cabin like gunfire, while the wind sucked at the egg-shaped windows. As the plane listed from side to side, I gripped the hands of my two little girls and opened silent negotiations with God. We were three hundred passengers holding our breath, waiting for an engine to blow or smoke to billow out from the wing. My eyes sought out the airhostess once more, scanning her features for any trace of panic. Her mouth remained composed, still fixed in a faint smile, her lips ghoulish in the dimmed light. At last, the plane came to a juddering halt. A hoarse cheer broke out, followed quickly by the snapping of seatbelts. It was all over – we had arrived. My hysteria shrank back down like a defeated genie into its lamp.
It was dusk by the time we staggered across the runway, crumpled and exhausted. We had endured forty-eight hours of travel, with eight pieces of luggage, a pushchair and a wooden crate. I thought I would be used to it by now, but the trip still knocked me for six. There were pustules of vomit on my jeans from where my eldest child had deposited her evening meal and my swollen feet filled up every crevice in my shoes. It was a journey to shake body and soul.
Within minutes of arriving, the sun deserted us, tunnelling down to another part of the world. I inhaled the soupy air and straightened my spine. It was a reflex – partly a reaction to the cramped cabin, but also a stiffening of resolve. Jakarta, we have returned! That said with defiance and weariness. After a summer away in Sussex, expatriate life was about to resume. While we swung croquet mallets in an English garden and caught up with the relatives, it was like someone had lifted the needle off the record player. Now, with a little crackle, the music would begin again.
When we reached the baggage hall, Simon disappeared into the rabble by the carousel, to collect the suitcases, while I ushered our girls over to a bank of seats. Two flights had arrived at once and there was general confusion as to whose baggage would materialise first. Outside the window, our jumbo jet melted away into a twinkle of lights, which swam in fluorescent waves as my eyes struggled to focus. A muscle in my left lid went into spasm. The urge to close my eyes was overpowering. Everyone had managed to sleep on the plane apart from me – the girls sprawled on the floor at our feet, Simon swathed in blankets. Ever watchful, I sat condemned to a numb kind of wakefulness, queasily aware of the body odour drifting over from across the aisle. Now sleep was calling me. The babble of the baggage hall was oddly soothing and I felt myself falling gently off a cliff… until a small jab on my forearm brought me back round.
“Mummy! Katie won’t let me have any of her water,” complained a voice by my side.
Slowly, automatically, I reached into my hand luggage for a flask to give to Hannah, my youngest. She took one swig and then flew back to her sister, invigorated. Both of them had been fractious and tearful when we left the plane, but now the excitement of arriving had given them a jolt of energy.
“Katie! Hannah! Please! Calm down,” I called after them. My glance flickered between Simon’s head, now floating above the crowd at the conveyor belt, and the girls in mid-flight. “Shush now, Daddy will be cross.”
After a while – I lost track of time – Simon and a porter returned with our luggage piled high on a trolley. I was too tired even to check the cases, an unusual omission for me.
“For God’s sake, try to get the girls to behave,” Simon snapped, before heading off to sort out the paperwork for the new dog.
During our summer in England, my husband had finally relented and allowed the girls to adopt a russet cocker spaniel called Dixie. For too many hours the poor animal had been holed up in a crate, two rows behind us on the plane, whining for her freedom. When we stopped in Bahrain to re-fuel, I watched out of the window as Simon gingerly led her around the plane. She eventually peed beside the wheel of a nearby truck as impassive soldiers looked on, cradling their machine guns. After Simon returned to his seat, he looked at me as if to say, this was all your bright idea.
More minutes ticked by in the baggage hall. I felt a dull ache rolling through my body – I was thirsting for a cigarette! With some sort of sensory memory, my fingers began twitching in my lap. The girls clambered across the floor, pretending to be donkeys. Where in the world had Simon got to? Girls please! Get up off the floor, it’s dirty. I gazed out across the marbled tiles and spotted my husband in the distance, arguing with an official in a blue uniform. Simon’s head was jutting forward, shooting words into the space between them. Something was wrong. Hauling myself to my feet, I tottered over in my sick-spattered trousers, trailing small girls, a porter and a squeaking trolley in my wake.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s the bloody dog,” said my husband tersely. “There’s an issue with the paperwork.”
That was Simon to a tee – controlling, aggressive, persuasive. He turned his back on me to continue his negotiations.
Selamat datang,” the customs man said, ignoring Simon and beaming across at me. “Welcome to Indonesia, Nyonya!”
Despite my malaise, despite the ache in my head, despite bloody everything, I smiled back. It seemed the thing to do. For the dog’s sake.
“How can we resolve this?” Simon cut in, his voice officious.
“I am sorry sir,” said the man with another oily smile, “but you are not permitted to bring this dog into Indonesia. It is against our regulations. Your paperwork is not in order.”
He jabbed his finger accusingly at the documents on the table in front of us.
The pulse in Simon’s jaw started to throb. His fury was like ice in my veins. I almost pitied the customs official – he had no idea who he was dealing with, poor soul. Dixie whined pathetically in the background, scrabbling at the door of her wooden crate. I held out my hand to her through the mesh window. There, there, little one. It will soon be over. One of the girls started to cry again – Hannah – she had a knack for tuning into emotional static. Katie leaned despondently on the crate with her arms hanging by her side.
“Give me your gun then,” Simon said.
“Sorry sir?”
“You heard me. Give me your gun.” Simon gestured towards the man’s holster. “If I can’t bring this dog into your country, I will have to shoot her with your gun.”
The breath was sucked out of me, my fingers snagged on the mesh. Katie gave a yelp of dismay. “No Daddy, please!”
The man gaped at Simon, his mouth hanging open, revealing an array of yellowing teeth. “One moment please,” he said and disappeared into an office by the side of us.
Inside my head I began to scream. No one deserved to die. Not yet, anyway.
Then the official came back. “Go, go!” he said, waving us through with a dismissive hand.

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

"This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns." 
-- Amazon review