Today I have a super special designer interview to share: Jodie Fried of Bholu. The women who make the Bholu pillows and toys are not just manufacturers, they are true artisans and Jodie has given them the platform and opportunity to make a living in majorly underprivileged areas of India. The products are inspired from children’s drawings AND Jodie has worked to provide these underprivileged and malnourished kids schools, food and incredible care. All of this while following strict Fair Trade practices. Inspiring? Yes, I do think so.
Where does the word Bholu come from?
Bholu was born after I had been living in India for a couple of years. I had gone to India on a scholarship to work as a set & costume designer for a traditional Indian dance company. I had been working there and fell in love with the country and its people. After the devastating Jan 2001 earthquake, which flattened most of Gujarat, I went to assist aid for a traditional village situated in the desert region of Kutchchh, in Western Gujarat, India, near the border of Pakistan. I worked with a NGO (non government organization) based at the Mahatma Ghandi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, my job was to help build huts and traditionally decorate them.
I experienced amazing hospitality by these incredibly rural and poor traditional people. I became particularly close with the women, whose beautiful traditional embroidery is only really used for their own clothing. They are amazing women; they have bangles up to their armpits and do their embroidery with a child strapped to their back in low light. Their skill and art amazed me, and I thought immediately, I have to do something with this.
A few years later, I went back with my designs and gave the samples to different village women to see what would happen. I achieved some amazing results, which excited me and started the possibility for production. The women laughed at the lack of sophistication of my designs and thought that their “Bholu” could do better! (Bholu meaning a small child, often a term of endearment to a grandchild). The name stuck and Bholu was born!
The craftswomen in Gujarat traditionally are all skilled in embroidery, it is a skill that is passed form generation to generation. Each village, in each area in each part of the state is known for their particular type of embroidery. This is only done by women. Men are known for their woodcarving. The products they make are only for their own use. They embroidery their own elaborate clothes, their daughter’s dowry, ornamental pieces for their homes, their own bags etc. The community I started with do not do any of this for commercial use.
I sometimes feel like a conductor of a creative orchestra. I love the circle of creativity in which Bholu fosters starting from the children and their creativity and the women and their craft. The products are merely a result and reason for Bholu existing. We end up with a beautiful designed product, which has passed through so many hands and creative processes to end up in our living rooms. The products, part from being useful are also meant to provide inspiration and awareness for ethical consumerism.
India is a crazy, crazy wonderful place. The people made me fall in love with the country. They are such generous, hardworking people where life revolves around family, food, colour and festivities. It is a country of such richness from all walks of life there. The bonds I have formed with the women, their families, the children in our schools and the artisans we work with, inspire me to no end. The light in their eyes, the smiles as broad as anything mean the world to me. It has taken many years, almost 11 now, to build the trust between us. I now feel so lucky to have had that time to build up that trust and loyalty.
The children and women are really my inspirations there. The joy, which come from these children who have nothing but the thoughts of where the next meal is going to come from, is overwhelming. Where people have nothing but give you everything is truly an inspiring moment. It makes me realize how much we have in our lives, how much excess and how we don’t appreciate the small things in life as well as we should.
The inspirations for the designs come from the kid’s drawings, which I work with in the slum communities. I am also greatly inspired by the handcrafts in India and other places. I often like to start by finding the craft and then working from that. I never start with the design and then try and make it work, I feel it is better to start with the skill first and then work with that. That is exactly what I find challenging.
I love that you use children’s drawings as inspiration for your collections. Tell us more about this.
The inspirations for the designs come from the kids drawings which I work with in the slum communities. I adore the toys. They are the result of a collaboration with the children in the slum communities, and extension of their creativity which is not often let out due to their lives. They are toys which I designed from their drawings. I tried to be as accurate as possible to their drawings, in order to capture the awkward and childlike way children interpret their imagination. A lot of the creatures have quirky anatomy which makes them indefinable as a particular animal. I find that adults love them just as much kids do and they make people laugh. They also make the homewares range more quirky. I think it’s important not to take yourself too seriously.
I’d imagine it was quite a challenge to get all of the logistics of your business in line and keep the social responsibilities at the forefront. What were the biggest hurdles? What has been the most enjoyable part of the process?
I think my biggest challenge to date has simply been working in India and all the elements which come with working with import/export and a third world country. I guess there definitely could have been easier ways to do what I have set up, but it is exactly this that has gained us the respect and the difference in our business, which we didn’t do conventionally. I think many people would have started a business by finding a factory and then buying a product and shipping it in. The way Bholu has evolved has taken a lot of blood sweat and tears (and money) in order to set it up in a way which is based on our philosophies and principles for setting up the company in the first place.
First, it can be expensive manufacturing ethically and is certainly not the easiest or most profitable road. It is expensive, it is hard work and many choose to take the easier option by manufacturing through factories, which have the cheapest price points in order to increase their own profit margins.
Second, it is still a developing concept. It is more difficult to find manufacturers offshore, which are Fair Trade Accredited, and often this is also an expensive process. If has taken years of development, trust and training to be anywhere near close to a manufacturing quality. This has been far one of our greatest challenges.
I’ve read about the Bholu Anganwadi Project which has now built 8 pre schools in underprivileged communities. Tell us more about this project.
The schools have also been a huge challenge, but again a joyous one. I was in the thick of an urban slum in India armed with paper and crayons, fresh water and food for small children who don’t go to school and are mostly rag pickers or street children. I let them be children by drawing and creating as their imagination lets them, I happened to be in one small school which was more like a tin shed with more than 50 children crammed in there on a 48 degree day. It had to be more than 50 degrees inside and at that point I realized I had to do something. I immediately asked how much it would take to rebuild the school and then next day the contractors started. $1200 AUD was all it took to build a modest, clean, ventilated school in which these children were able to learn in.
Only the children from wealthy and middle class families can afford to go to a formal pre school in India. Over 18% of children do not get any formal education at all and children from these poor families are often lack the proper nutrition. More than 43% of children in India are malnourished. Proper care, hygiene and discipline are also lacking in these children. It is proven that a child given a chance to attend a preschool will more likely to start formal primary education.
The first school took me almost a year to build, then I met AWF Architects Without Frontiers speaking on a panel of Designing For Good at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. We realized then and there, we had the problem, and they had the skills and resources, It has been a happy marriage ever since and The Anganwadi Project was born.
After a detailed survey, a location is selected and a room is rented for the center. One trained teacher and one trained caretaker (divorced/widows given the first chance) will be providing education, personal hygiene and nutrition to over 50 children every day. In the Manav Sadhna kitchen, fresh and nutritious food is prepared and distributed hot to each centre every day. In the month of September we implemented a new growth and weight chart in which to weigh and measure the children, as an incentive to track their nutritional results.
Recently, a really big win for many of the children is simply that their parents have made the commitment for them to be in at school in the first place. I have seen many of the children go from tiny under nourished children and 3 years later, their eyes are brighter, they are fatter and are better behaved. A success story for us is that they leave the anganwadis and make a choice to go to a munciple school. Many have, which is great, but some we never know about, and just have to hope that we gave them the best start possible in life anyway.
Since starting the project, it was a slow beginning, but now they can see the results. We are teaching them about sustainable building materials and new ways to create better ventilation and water catchments. Our building philosophy is based on RRR (Reuse, Recycle and Reduce). This not only teaches the community about these resources, but makes it a sustainable and environmentally friendly process as well.
We have built a total of 8 schools and have 272 children in school who are daily given a meal, education, hygiene and love. Each year we see these children (between the ages of 2 and 6) growing up becoming healthier and fatter who, most are malnourished when they start school. This is one of the biggest rewards ever. This would have to be our greatest achievement there.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers who want to get started with Fair Trade practices?
We are Fair Trade because this is the whole principle and reason behind setting up Bholu. It was to create a product in which women and men were able to be paid fairly for their work and be able to save money for themselves for their children. I saw many women in positions with no power or independence and I felt it was important for me to be able to offer them an opportunity in which they can make a future for themselves and their children.
We monitor the women and their work very closely. We have set up bank accounts for them so that there is no corruption of money between supervisors and team members. This allows the women to save for themselves and we all know everyone is being looked after fairly.
We hope to be pioneering the awareness of Fair Trade and what it means to consumers so they can make their own choices when it comes to buying everything.
I think the term Fair Trade has not yet been thoroughly explained to consumers about what the difference is to communities and makers when they are paid fairly. This includes so much in what we have to factor into our makers.
Thanks, Jodie! Since we didn’t get to chat about you as a designer we’ll save this for Part Two of your interview. More to come!