Very early prototypes created by Roma artisans during the development of VÄLGÖRANDE.
Very early prototypes created by Roma artisans during the development of VÄLGÖRANDE.

Changing lives with handicraft

By working together with social entrepreneur Romana ButiQ in Romania, IKEA is creating job opportunities for the Roma population. Traditional handicraft made in wood and wicker is featured in the upcoming collection VÄLGÖRANDE. We talked to one of the IKEA designers behind the collection, Mikael Axelsson.

On his first visit to Romania in 2016, IKEA designer Mikael Axelsson carried with him a bag full of sketches. The rough drawings of kitchen utensils and home accessories were part of the upcoming collection VÄLGÖRANDE. The team travelled to the countryside to meet artisans specialising in traditional Roma handicraft. “Roma artisans are enormously skilled and have a long tradition of handicraft, which is why IKEA wanted to align with them. On site we revised my drawings and constructions. “While working together, we discovered that some of my wicker patterns would have been too time-consuming to make for example, and some spoons were too weak in construction.”

Partnering with IKEA on site is the Romano ButiQ Association. They work towards integration, education, and building livelihoods for the Roma living in Romania. In eleven community cooperatives and workshops around the country, Roma artisans can produce goods. Romano ButiQ Association provide a space to lift the value Roma bring to society.

IKEA designer Michael Axelsson working together with the craftsmen in Romania.

The long-term partnership with IKEA makes it possible for Romano ButiQ to give more Roma regular work, to develop their designs and production techniques and get access to a global market place through the IKEA stores. The collection VÄLGÖRANDE is the first outcome of this partnership.

Mikael Axelsson describes the collection, set to launch in October 2018, as one of the most rewarding he been a part of so far. “Working as a designer you always question your work; what is the purpose of this product, does the world really need another chair? Working with something that helps people to get a better life by creating job opportunities is so rewarding.”

“Working with something that helps people to get a better life by creating job opportunities is so rewarding.”

Traditionally, Roma items are covered with beautiful ornaments and in this collection, Mikael wanted to find the right mix between the traditional and modern expression. “We tried to mix that with our plainer Scandinavian aesthetics. This process was interesting and I like the way the designs turned out.”

Designer Mikael Axelsson’s sketches for VÄLGÖRANDE. “How I make my sketches depends on the project. Sometimes I use pencil, but this time the organic nature of it made water colouring a natural choice.”
Designer Mikael Axelsson’s sketches for VÄLGÖRANDE. “How I make my sketches depends on the project. Sometimes I use pencil, but this time the organic nature of it made water colouring a natural choice.”

During the product development process the team had to rethink some of the products. Parts of the collection, such as bowls, tea strainers and a juice press made in raw linden wood did not make it through IKEA food approval tests as liquids were absorbed by the raw material. “One of the challenges in a collection like this is finding the balance between style and function for an everyday use. We wanted the objects to be unmistakably handmade but they still needed to meet the quality requirements we have at IKEA. So some of the products did not make the tests. But that is part of the development process – sometimes you have rethink your ideas.”

At times, Mikael experienced a subtle clash of cultures. “We wanted the hand carved items to look rugged and retain markings from the knife, because to us that signals that it’s handmade and genuine. Whereas for the Roma that is a sign of an unfinished product. So, that was one of our discussions.”

Working with organic materials in small workshops in contrast to large factories brings with it challenges, said Mikael. “Everything is much more complicated as every item produced is unique. But that’s also what makes it interesting; trying to work around the way the legs of a stool might not all be the same length or figuring out how to use traditional designs and still make it a flat pack. You simply have to work around these aspects.”

In the VÄLGÖRANDE collection, the objects are handmade by Roma craftspeople in Romania. On the left early prototypes in linden wood awaiting the next step of the development process.
In the VÄLGÖRANDE collection, the objects are handmade by Roma craftspeople in Romania. On the left early prototypes in linden wood awaiting the next step of the development process.

The work at Romano ButiQ enables families to earn a proper income, pay for their children’s education and in time become more integrated into society. “Roma children suffer from poverty and are segregated in schools, even though they are not supposed to be by law.” said designer Mikael Axelsson who has been involved since the start of the collection in 2016.

During his two visits, Mikael got to know some of the craftsmen and their families. “I especially think about Alex, the grandson of Zoltan Bojody, a wicker weaver from Viisoara in Cluj. He used to borrow my colouring pencils and draw beside us while we worked. Projects like VÄLGÖRANDE can really make a difference for him and the families, which feels good.”

In addition to the wooden items made in Romania for the VÄLGÖRANDE collection, there are ceramics, handwoven textiles and paper products made by social entrepreneurs in Doi Tung Vietnam. The entire collection set to launch in October 2018 is the first outcome of the new long term partnerships.

Handmade wooden prototypes intended for the IKEA collection VÄLGÖRANDE.
Handmade wooden prototypes intended for the IKEA collection VÄLGÖRANDE.

Facts about VÄLGÖRANDE
According to recent studies, 75% of the Roma minority in Romania (estimated total of 1,8 million people) live on incomes below the poverty line, and out of those employable, only 35% are working. The limited opportunities in the labour market are part of a vicious cycle with a number of negative consequences. One is poor health, where only 50% of the Roma households have access to healthcare facilities, another is illiteracy and poor education with 30% of Roma children not being able to pay for books, clothes or school trips. On top of this is discrimination based on stereotypes.
Romani ButiQ Association was created in 2011 to promote non-discrimination. They work with 11 community cooperatives and workshops in in Romania. 65 Roma artisans produce traditional or modern goods. With this project, they aim to engage 90 more artisans in production.