An Hour With ...
Catherine and Claire, mother and daughter, and founder of Artha warmly welcomed me to their showroom in Zurich. An initiatory journey through India, South Africa and Tibet discovering astonishing embroidery and design, learning about the survival of ancient traditions.
Can you tell us how the story of Artha started?
Claire: Artha stands for “meaning and purpose” in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian ceremonial language).
Catherine: The story started back in 2011 when I was travelling in India. I was there doing some voluntary work teaching young women living in a shelter basic English. At that point in time, I had met women who were involved in hand weaving cotton sarees, a tradition that was dying out. The idea came to me that perhaps I would be able to do something to help women preserve their traditions. Initially, I was looking to have clothing made as I found it very difficult to find clothing in Singapore, where I was living at the time. Through a very roundabout way, this led to being introduced to Lalitha, a doctor, who helped establish the group that we initially worked with. I received samples of their work, really liked the quality of their embroidery. I started buying some of their products, bringing them back to Singapore with me and selling them to friends. In 2012, Claire came along we spent some time with the women in their villages and realised that there was a lot more potential to sell to the markets we were from: the European and American markets.
Claire: During that trip, I was really impressed by what the women were doing. We realised that they were really passionate about their craft and they were really determined to make a living through it. At that time, we spoke about creating our own brand, our own designs, having an influence on the colours, improving the fabric quality. We then decided that this would be our first group that we start with in this whole collaboration process and that we would continue to find more groups that would produce different types of products that we could add to our collection.
Today you collaborate with 6 artisans' groups, how do you source them?
Catherine: It grows organically. The Banana fiber was a material I came across while travelling to Hampti and I always loved baskets. It naturally added to the range. This is actually an unusual product in the sense that all baskets are crocheted. These banana fiber baskets represent well what we are trying to do: offer products that you cannot find everywhere.
We look at the traditions of the country. I am passionate about India so for me it was the focus on what else could we do there. Block printing is a traditional way of decorating textiles. I spent a lot of time reading and came this particular
family run group in Bangalore. It’s small meaning we could develop a good relationship with them. We also knew that we wanted shawls and through a meeting at New York Now, with strong support for the artisan sector, we met our production partner for our Jamdani shawls. At the same time we looked into woolens and came across yak wool a fiber much more sustainable than cashmere.
Claire: The carpets…it was pure research, I saw these designs and I wanted to know where they came from until I found a small community of artists and I contacted them . The way we source the groups with whom we collaborate is a real mix of word of mouth and a lot of research. We usually know which products we want to add and then we try to find the best country that does have that craft. We then either hear from someone or research for the group of artisans. We create some samples, if we like what they do we try and meet them and come up with a collection together.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Claire: Primarily, each group contributes its own aesthetic. We then bring our own western taste.
Catherine: The petal pattern, for example, came from a old tile pattern I saw while on a trip to London. The tiles on the floor of the old train station there have a very similar petal pattern to that which is also found in the Lambadi traditional designs. That way it was a perfect fit. With the embroidery, we do look a lot at older pieces, this is how the idea for the peacock and the chevron designs emerged.
Claire: When you work with these communities, you visualise something and until you get your vision onto the fabric, it is a bit of a process. We also source our inspiration through tribal tradition. For example, the inspiration for the carpets was inspired by the Ndebele tribe from Northern South Africa. They paint their houses colourfully with a lot of different geometric designs. I took some elements, I made them bigger, sketched them and the result can be seen in our hand woven designs.
How important is it for you to reduce the environmental impact ?
Claire: It is crucial. For example, we use natural wool sourced from sustainable farms, environmentally friendly washed, hand spun and hand woven. We use the natural color fiber from Yak, a fiber which is more sustainable than cashmere.
“ We try to offer products that you cannot find everywhere.”
Catherine: Under Yak’s outer coat lies an incredibly soft, warm and luxurious fiber known as Khullu. This fiber is naturally shed by the animals as the weather warms up every spring.
Claire: The nomads do not have the animals just for their coat but also use the milk to make cheese. The yak herd is almost part the family.
Catherine: We also use linen which is more environmentally friendly than cotton. It requires less water and fertilisers to grow the flax which is spun and woven into linen.
Claire: The baskets are made of banana fibers coming from banana plantations that surround the villages where the artisans work. They splice the leaves shed from the banana plant and hand roll them into the rope used to crochet the basket. An all natural product.
What is your decoration tip?
Claire: A well dressed table is for us always something that is so easy to do and it creates a perfect sanctuary around your home. Styling the perfect breakfast table sets the mood for the day.
Catherine: When you do have guests over, sitting around a beautifully set table makes them feel special and welcome. Cushions are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to update or vary a look. Think one set of cushions per season, for example.
What types of interior designs do your products best fit in?
Claire: Our products are quite neutral, they can fit in a few different environments from classic to modern, from bohemian to elegant settings. Our product range is quite wide now with a variety of designs sure to be at home in a variety of settings. Our beautiful cushions could also be an inexpensive way to freshen up an old sofa or lighten up your bedroom.
Favourite online shop?
Claire: For now it is Everlane. They have great basics and are very transparent about their productions. They also are great at engaging with their community.
Reformation is also great for easy dresses that are made our of recycled material.
Catherine: About the only one I use regularly is SBB
Claire: Instagram. Always pretty pictures and inspiration while on the go.
Catherine: Besides artha and humans of new york
Claire: Hard to choose. There are so many great interior design accounts out there. Goop is great as an overall lifestyle account.
Catherine: Not really a blog but I love the Newsletter sent out by Hiut Denim - Scrapbook Chronicles
Claire: Avenue Lifestyle
Where is your favourite spot in Zurich?
Catherine:Anywhere by the lake and Hiltl for lunch
Claire:The area around Fraumuensterplatz, walking around early in the morning when there are not many people.
Catherine: "I'm too poor to be cheap"
Claire:"There is nothing you cant achieve without time, attention and effort"
What is next for Artha?
Claire: We have new product ranges we know we would like to have for the new collection and already have some communities in mind. We are starting the sampling process, but we don’t want to say more at this point. You will have to wait and see! Our Spring collection from the existing artisans is starting to come in. New shawls, new baskets, new carpet and cushion designs.
How many pieces of each set of products do you order?
Claire and Catherine: It depends on each product. We will never mass produce and often we first test a product by ordering smaller quantities. However, another thing that is important to know is that we launch collections not only seasonally, but throughout the year. This way we ensure artisans have a continuous source of income. We create long term partnerships and as our business grows so does our involvement with each community.
Where can we see and feel your products ?
At our showroom in Zürich! We do attend a few fairs around Switzerland and were recently at Blickfang in Basel. We also try to organise regular pop ups. If you are around, pass by Merkurstrasse 37 in 8032 Zurich. We would be delighted to share with you our experiences and tell you more about the artisan groups we collaborate with.