The Desi collection actually started out as a school project when I was in graduate school. I was working on my thesis, and decided to focus on fair trade. In my previous job I had spent a lot of time designing furniture to be manufactured in Asia, and I wanted to learn more about opportunities overseas to work with factories that employed socially responsible manufacturing practices.
I began by doing lots of research on the World Fair Trade Organization, Fair Trade Federation and other organizations supporting the idea of social responsibility. Through the WFTO I found a few factories in India that were fair-trade certified and reached out to them to find out more. I focused on India because I had traveled there several times, and love the people and culture. I also saw the devastation of poverty and disease in the country and was interested to see what kinds of opportunities there were for both skilled and unskilled people to find work at factories.
Ultimately, I hoped to create a collection of 10 pieces for my thesis exhibition and have a fair-trade factory produce them. In January 2011, I planned a visit to tour the facilities at a few factories in India and traveled there with my boyfriend, (now husband) Drew.
We started off at Teddy Exports in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The city is in the southern part of India and is most known for its intricate Meenakshi Amman Temple. We got there a few days early to explore the city before meeting with the factory.
We met with Amanda, the Irish owner of the factory. It is very rare for a factory to be owned by a woman in India, and for her to be an Irish expat was also very surprising. Amanda was welcoming and told us about her journey to India and how she started Teddy Exports, which was named for her son. Then we took a tour of the factory, visiting several facilities on the campus that focused on different production processes. At the time, their biggest business was making wooden massagers for The Body Shoppe. They also did alot of screen printing and other small wooden items. They had a furniture line, but it was only sold locally and the designs were extremely simple.
The Teddy Exports campus was pretty unbelievable for an Indian manufacturer. They had on-site childcare and a school for children that went all the way up to middle school. They also had free meals in the cafeteria, and a medical facility where workers could get free health and dental care. We had lunch with the workers, and I was also able to sit down with several line-workers and managers to speak with them about working at Teddy Exports and how they were treated as employees. All of them told me that they were extremely lucky to find work there, and that Teddy was the most sought after company to work for in the region because of the excellent benefits and pay they offered. All of them also mentioned an annual trip that they entire company went on to a place a few hours away. They brought their families, and all food and lodging expenses were paid for a long weekend.
I brought rough sketches of designs with me to the factory to show them and ask if they thought they would be able to produce them. The production managers I was working with, Noodles and Ravi, were confident they could make them to my specifications and on my timeline.
After returning to the U.S., I finalized all of my designs and sent them specs for samples to be made. A few weeks later, I received photos of the samples. I had everything made out of Acacia, which is an indigenous wood in India. The samples looked ok, but needed some work. I sent revisions and they made final samples and shipped them to Savannah where I displayed them for my thesis.
TO BE CONTINUED….