Traditional bhutanese art & contemporary interior design
A lover of traditional Bhutanese art, Isabelle Antunes talks about her dream house project in collaboration with local Bhutanese artisans to open our minds to a whole new interior design space.
It was back in 2013 when I first received a phone call from a French expatriate living in Punakha interested in featuring her interior space in Yeewong’s next. Dr. Isabelle Antunes shared her ideas of transforming a traditional five-storied Bhutanese house into a dream project of incorporating traditional Bhutanese art into a more contemporary interior space. She struck me as a home decor enthusiast, but little did I realize during our first conversation on the phone, that her project was going to be a lot more than just creating a beautiful home.
It was only in the summer of 2014, that I finally managed to pay a personal visit to her house in Punakha and get a first-hand idea of what she told me almost a year ago. As I entered her house, I was immediately blown away. Her home radiated a sense of spacious living that one finds most common in European contemporary designs…striking a fine balance between flamboyance and minimalism- a combination I find very rare in most Bhutanese homes where more is definitely more.
But what really mesmerized me was her use of traditional Bhutanese art in every design aspect of the house; whether it was the antique door handles or the intricate cement-carved pillars in the living room, her dream house was nothing less than what its name suggested.
So I sat down to get a deeper understanding of her work and aspirations. Dr. Isabelle was born in Cannes by the Mediterranean Sea into a multicultural family (of Spanish and Portuguese origin from Tangier (Morocco) on her father’s side, of French and Czech origin on her mother’s). “I grew up between France and Australia where we migrated with my parents when I was 15 years old. “On the professional side, I am a cultural geographer and a development practitioner with broad experience in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. A cultural geographer studies culture in space, how human beings with their intelligence, creativity, dreams, hope, religious beliefs influence landscape, economy and the relation to money in a particular place. The planet is not only made of biodiversity. It is also made of cultural diversity, of a multitude of minds and energy, and from that comes a wide range of solutions and opportunities but also the possibility to share with one another. Today the diversity of point of views, of personalities and of values and biodiversity all contribute to enrich and to enchant the world. It also offers a fantastic opportunity to develop through exchange with one another. I believe economy should be at the service of people and their culture and not the other way around whereby people are at the service of economic development. For this, natural resources must be promoted by culture. So my work consists of understanding and promoting cultural diversity and to encourage open cultural diversity. For example, I study communities in relation to their territory, their beliefs, rituals and their environment. I look at farming practices and local produce derived from the existing biodiversity and the imagination of the people. Then, I identify the best tools to facilitate production, to protect and market their produce that are unique to a place and the culture. In many cases, when it comes to food, because their produce and the taste of their produce are issued from a particular environment, environment becomes their business and therefore producers are more inclined to protect their environment. From the money they make from the sale of their produce, they can buy others’ produce and in turn have a cultural experience.
In Bhutan, considering my background, I was appointed as the counterpart to the Dean of Research and Industrial Linkage and Head of the Centre for Rural Development Studies (CRDS) at the College of Natural Resources (CNR) to assist in carrying out activities and projects related to rural development and to support the development of CRDS, and as the Entrepreneurship and Communications Coordinator at the Institute of Languages and Culture Studies (ILCS) under the cooperation agreement between the Embassy of France in New Delhi and the Royal University of Bhutan. At ILCS, I concentrate on activities aiming to contribute to the development of the documentary film industry in Bhutan. ”
Yeewong: Can you share your story behind the creation of this dream house project?
“Since I was posted at CNR, I was asked to live near the college. It was quite tough to find accommodation in the area nearly 3 years ago now. I can’t thank enough Mr Penjor, the manager from Zangto Pelri Hotel in Punakha for introducing me to Aum Ugyen Dem and Yeshey Namgay who were building a house in Wolaka below the hotel. They are the most wonderful landlords. There was still a lot of work to be done and they agreed to finish the construction within 3 months. They encouraged me to design the place as I would like it to be. That was wonderful and so generous of them and it really inspired me.
I wanted a home where I would feel good, and where I would be able to welcome and host guests, friends and family. When I visited the house, the ground floor and the first floor were just an open space surrounded with windows. There was nothing, no wall, no kitchen, no bathroom, and no toilet. I imagined a Bhutanese contemporary loft with modern facilities yet designed while making use of Bhutanese crafts and art. I had seen Yeshey Dorji’s amazing shot of the Buddha in construction where one feels so close to the Buddha. I always had this photo in mind and I pictured it enlarged standing as a masterpiece in the open room. Yeshey Dorji generously gave me the photo as a gift and little by little, I designed the main room around this photo.
One day, watching the artists carving and painting the poles outside the main entrance of the house gave me the idea to ask them to carve the poles inside the main room and in the bathroom and to leave them in cement. The result was amazing and was enough to give a unique feel about the place. This is when it all started.
I first thought that the house would be a wonderful opportunity for craftsmen to see how they could use their skills and art for interior design. I also began to think that the house could become a concrete example and a project around which we would progressively develop a Bhutanese interior and outdoor design line. From a development perspective, this would not only make use of existing skills, it would provide room for growth to a wide range of small businesses, help structure value-chains and offer new and attractive job opportunities.
I had been around shops in Thimphu and clearly, except for the traditional table and day bed, Bhutanese interior design was and still is yet to be invented. So there is a need and there are markets both in Bhutan and abroad. Just imagine how some old cottages could be beautifully renovated, how hotels could differentiate themselves or simply how it could inspire and support the development of homestays across the country. Also, some produce could be very well suited for niche markets abroad.
We were able to complete the house in 4 months and getting all the furniture made in Lobesa and Thimphu took as much time if not more. During all this time, my landlord and I discovered all the headaches that come with building a house in Bhutan but it provided me with an on-hand experience of the working environment and mentality that I was yet to understand.
A total of 10 entrepreneurs, all artist, photographer, craftsmen, carvers, carpenters, upholstery specialists and weavers were involved. Most are presented here. Besides, the wonderful work of Yeshey Dorji I mentioned earlier, Mr Gembo who works with antiques made simple but beautiful door handles in brass designed after monastery doors. I bought an old yathra from his shop and turned it into a bed runner and a small pillow for the guest room. To show how we can also recycle or make things from an object, I asked him to make a lamp from one of his largest old butter churner. Mr Ugyen and his team did all the upholstery, from modern type sofa and stools to day bed, cushions and outdoors mattress. They did a fantastic job, always trying to improve the finishing and taking pride in doing a good job until I was happy. Mr Passang and his colleagues did all the carving in cement and the wood carving around the doors. They are true artists who could easily export their talent abroad. Most of the furniture was made by Bajo sawmill and Lobesa sawmill. I am grateful to both sawmills and especially to Mr. Raana from Lobesa sawmill for going out of his way to make pieces they never made before when most sawmills in the country only make what is in their catalogue, leaving little room for choice and creativity. The stools, small side tables, armchairs and dining table were inspired after European designs in order to build carpenters’ confidence and to give them an opportunity to do something different. The single armchairs, the round coffee table, square stools and both standing lamps are Amankora designs and were imported from their supplier in New Delhi. The yathra that served to make the large square shape stool at the entrance comes from Sephu and was bought in Pelela pass from one of the vendors there. I worked closely with Aum Tshendu Choden and the nettle weavers in Langtel to make indoor cushions as well as bed throws for outdoors mattress and cushion covers. All are made in natural dye and are unique. When one knows how difficult it is the collect the nettle and to process until it becomes a thread, it is priceless. It is important to say that I was able to develop new produce from nettle only because the weavers had been trained before hand by Taryana. This is one example of the many skills that with guidance could become a niche product. I discovered the work of Chand at VAST Gallery. His Majesty’s portrait inspired after Andy Wahol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe stands out from the work I have seen so far and gives a modern and joyful welcome to the people entering the house.
Finally, Dr Tulsi and the students from CNR for the landscaping. With the same idea in mind to provide room for experiment and demonstration, I proposed to my colleague Dr Tulsi to use my garden as an assignment for students learning landscaping. It is the first private house they did and the result is very encouraging. I wanted to show future graduates that landscaping is an opportunity for self-employment. The whole of Bhutan is yet to be landscaped. With the knowledge they gain at CNR about plants and flowers combined with creativity and a zest of passion, there is scope for opening nurseries, inventing gardens and designing outdoor furniture, and to win a whole domestic market to beautify homes, monasteries, Dzong, public space,etc.
Each of these skills alone have beauty and an interest in their own but when given the possibility to come to life, they gain in value and they find a new market. Think of that yathra blanket that became a design modern stool, nettle that turns into comfortable garden cushions and a butter churner that becomes a lamp. The house serves to showcase what we could do with Bhutanese crafts and art but also to build the confidence and the relationship with craftsmen and artists, and to encourage them to innovate. My greatest reward is that the house also motivated a young wood carver from Wangdue, Sangay Penjor, a Loden’s laureate, to explore new ways of using his art. Within a year, he was extremely productive and very successful. I hope that he will inspire other craftsmen around the country.
Once the house was completed, my objective was to keep making things and I decided to work on prototypes for two reasons: (1) the artist would be able to see what he/she is capable of doing and could appreciate where to improve the quality of his/her product and (2) I was able to evaluate production cost and in the process understand some of the blockages preventing growth. I also had in mind to find a buyer for each prototype in order to further encourage the craftsmen. I was lucky enough to have friends who had visited my place and who asked me to work on their interior design. Ulli wanted a living room and left it up to me to design it and Karma wanted some idea for his new bar. Thanks to them, I secured the sale of the prototypes and could concentrate on spending time with the craftsmen and on working with them on new designs.
I worked simultaneously with Sangay Penjor and the nettle weavers. Sangay first did some wood carved shutters for my windows in Thimphu that created a wonderful ambiance. I then asked him to reproduce a stool shown on a photo. Then, he proposed to make a baby cot. I was so exited when he took the initiative. I gave him the dimension and a few weeks later, he made the finest baby cot I had ever seen, finely carved. It turned out that Dhensa Hotel was looking for a baby cot at the time. When the GM saw Sangay’s work, he immediately bought it and ordered another one. Their meeting was magic to watch. Later, I introduced Sangay to Karma from RKPO Resort in Sobsoka to whom I had suggested to make a bar designed after a chosum. It was a big contract for Sangay but more importantly, it was an opportunity for him to showcase what he could do and to promote his work. Karma and I strongly encouraged him to be as creative as he could be and we left the design entirely up to him. He did an amazing job, so much so that Karma gave him his chosum to do next. I then asked Sangay to make a lamp stand, then a chair, some stools and some trays. And each time, I witnessed the same enthusiasm in him to find ways to make something nice and to meet my expectation. I am proud of him.
In the meantime, the nettle weavers from Langtel were making new designs for bed throws and cushions and preparing the thread. I wanted to make a sofa in nettle for Ulli’s apartment but the width of the loom was too small to produce the size required to make sofa. Fortunately, Dorjibi in Bumthang has large width looms and I was able to ask the weavers from Langtel to prepare the thread and to send it to Dorjibi so they could weave it. This is how we managed to weave some 15 meters of nettle to cover a sofa. Ugyen, the upholstery specialist had previously learnt on how to best stich the nettle from making the cushions for my garden and could improve on the stiching when making the first sofa in nettle.
I found several different beautiful designs of yathra in Chumey and made sofa cushions. I had also ordered some yathra to make floor cushions and after many trials, Ugyen, his staff and I came up with an interesting momo-type hand-stiched floor cushion that in itself adds value to this traditional weaving.
This Is how, little by little for more than a year now during my free time we were able to make prototypes. For each of these craftsmen and weavers, the possibility to do something new, to see how it comes to life in a garden or a house and to feel proud of what they have made encouraged them to do more and better.
Trust, understanding and patience are key ingredients. In the end, an investment in time to nurture and to build confidence is well rewarded and is the basis to support future production. Two of the artisans have filled in an application to protect their designs with the Intellection Property Divion at MoEA. The next step will be to take orders and to start a production line for each of these produce while continuing to invent new models that will all contribute to developing a truly Bhutanese interior design line.”
Yeewong: How important do you think entrepreneurship is for a nation’s growth?
“Entrepreneurship is vital for a nation’s growth because entrepreneurship is energy and creativity. It provides people with pride, a sense of self-achievement or to contribute to their country as well as financial autonomy. It provides employment and contributes to the country’s wealth and fame. In the process, entrepreneurs must overcome obstacles and make choices, it reveals them as human being and enables them to evolve and to lead changes. However for entrepreneurs to grow and flourish, it is important to secure a favorable environment and to have in place right policies to nurture and support their growth.”
Yeewong: What have you experienced so far?
“My experience working with all these craftsmen has made me realise that there are still many challenges for growth. So much effort had been made and is currently being made to kick-start and to encourage entrepreneurship development. So many cottage and SMEs have been created over the past years. It would be interesting to know what they have become and whether or not they have grown and are in a position today to offer jobs, and if not, why? The craftsmen I worked with were given financial support to invest in equipment and to start their business but they are in no position today to expand. They can barely provide for their needs and instead of becoming a true entrepreneur and developing a business, they have become self-employed which is totally different.
Money is important but not only. From my little experience, improving the working environment is a must if we want to encourage entrepreneurship development. I came to understand that the lack of confidence and the fear came from disrespect, from being cheated or not being paid for their work. In all cases, the buyer wants the goods so cheap that entrepreneurs are unable to pay their workers a fair and motivating price. When I analysed the cost of production, it was on an average no loss no profit. The entrepreneur would include his daily rate when doing the work himself and for every transaction, he was left with no treasury.
In such a case, these entrepreneurs cannot take risks, they cannot invest in making prototypes or new products because they don’t have the money to buy wood or thread nor to pay the workers. Moreover, because they can’t pay a good salary to the people they employ, workers come and go and they are not in a position to start any production line. None of the workers are reliable and the situation is not helping them to be. I feel more attention needs to be paid to improve working and business environment. Funds are necessary but they don’t solve all problems. With this project, I sold a few prototypes 30 to 50% more than the price asked by let’s say “craftsman A” that was equivalent to the cost of production. I created a saving fund for that same “craftsman A” to enable him to invest in the making of new prototypes with the understanding that he would pay his worker more than he usually does. The objective is for him to build a good relationship with his workers in order to ensure that they will be reliable when he needs to start a production line. So this is what I am putting in place at this stage. In the future, once orders will be secured, they we could use all the different available financial tools.”
Yeewong: What can people do to create a healthy entrepreneurial environment?
“It will take education and demonstration to persuade people to change their habits and the strategies they have developed over the years. The situation is not black or white with the good ones and the bad ones, Everyone is concerned. I gave the example of craftsmen but the same is valid for the “client”. When we were constructing the house, I witnessed myself my landlord being cheated by workers who took the money and never came back for example. So in both sides, they are genuine people and some who do not know how to behave another way. It will change with time and the new generation, provided people acknowledge that this is an issue , will begin to act differently.”
In the process, it will require respect, professionalism and sincere help from the more privileged ones in order to show the way, build confidence and to give out a brand new image of entrepreneurship, not that of a risky business but that of satisfaction, pride and growth. It will also take more respect and true consideration for craftsmen and weavers often not regarded well enough in spite of their art and the major role they play in promoting Bhutanese heritage.”
Yeewong: How can businesses and customers help each other?
“There are many ways businesses and customers can help each other. First of all, they need to get to know each other in order to understand one another. When I try telling a hotel to buy local produce instead of importing, the GM usually replies the same answer: farmers can’t ensure regular supply, quantity is never the same, ect… And I give them the same answer: Do you remember when you first opened your hotel, did you sell all your rooms on the first night? No. It took your ability to build relationships with tour operators and guides to slowly win business from them. The same applied to a farmer. If you are constant in buying his supply, he will be more confident to take risk and to produce more. This cannot come overnight. Thinking about one own self-interest is a very bad equation for everyone because in the end, no one can really grow and it doesn’t create the conditions for positive changes.
Take for example a customer has a restaurant. He wants to buy a table and goes to see a craftsman. He bargains so much that he manages to get the table at a very low price. He might be happy about his transaction but in the process he has lost one or two customers; If he had paid the reasonable price, both the craftsman and his worker would have earned more and would be able to afford a meal in his restaurant.
I remember getting very annoyed with the owner of a wonderful coffee shop who made the best cakes; I could drive from Punakha to Thimphu just to have a piece until one day, the size of the cake had reduced by two and the cake hardly tasted like cake anymore. There might be many reasons that motivated the coffee shop to take such action. One reason might be that the number of customers is too limited for that person to make enough profits and therefore that person had to cut down on production cost. When you come to think of it, it’s always the same numbers of people who can regularly afford a nice cup of coffee and a piece of cake in Thimphu and until the number of customers grows, the business cannot grow. This is why customers also have their part to play when it comes to development. It takes two to tango. Reciprocity is very important to enable economic growth. So businesses and customers can help each other by being guided by the Buddhist philosophy of interdependence rather than by short-term profit.
Entrepreneurship comes from a French word entreprendre, meaning to undertake, to take the lead or an initiative. It also means “to participate in the development of”. So from this perspective, being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean that you should take big financial risks and start a business of your own. You can participate in the development of an existing enterprise by bringing skills that are complementary and missing.
Most of the craftsmen and weavers I work with cannot speak English and have never travelled outside the country. Once they will have orders, they will need support to supervise the production, to follow-up with the customers and build the relationship, to ensure the terms of the contract are respected and delivered on time. They will need to attend international interior design fairs to showcase their produce and win new orders. All these jobs are attractive new opportunities for young and future graduates. They can all read, write and speak English. They can appraise and analyse a situation. They have learnt a trade of their own which can be useful in the development of craftsmen and weavers who thrive to expand and reach out to domestic and international markets. This is valid for opportunities in the sector of interior design but also in agricultural produce and local food. Graduates can participate in the development of any existing economic activities to add value, ensure quality production and market a produce.
This project is a joint effort. I would like to thank all the artists who have ventured with me. I have learnt a lot from all of you and about Bhutan. Working with you represents some of my best time in Bhutan. I also thank my friend Oliver Schuster, Country Representative and Project Director for the Savings Banks Foundation for International Cooperation (SBFIC) who supported me since the beginning till now as shown by the very generous sponsorship he has offered to Yeewon Magazine for the making of this month issue. I would not have been able to make so many prototypes without Baljit Singh and Frédéric Perez, ex and current Dhensa Hotel GMs, Ulli Cokl, PhD student in social anthropology and co-founder of Bhutan Network and Karma and Rinchen from RKPO Resort in Sobsoka who all bought the prototypes and gave a chance to the craftsmen and weavers to show their skills and art. They have greatly contributed to support and to promote this project. My last words go to my fabulous landlords, Aum Ugyen Dem and Yeshey Namgay and their 3 daughters Namgay Choden, Namgay Zam and Nawang Choden whom I love dearly. Thank you for allowing me to realize this project, for being open to new ideas and for caring. I would also like to thank Dasho Karma Tshering known as KT for his support to the students and myself while doing the garden.”
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