A home decor revolution?
August 25, 2006 10:23 AM   Subscribe

What the world creates by hand. The sons of a Peace Corps member, Roberto and Andy Milk had a lifelong interest in artisans in developing countries. They teamed up with Armenia Nercessian, a UN human-rights officer, to create Novica.com, an online marketplace that sells the work of more than 10,000 craftspeople. While Novica operates chiefly in association with National Geographic, NPR also helps to promote them.
posted by owhydididoit (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I came across this site a while back.

While I don't begrudge them for wanting to make money from their art, the prices on the site are higher than I can get locally for similar (in some cases, identical) pieces. Every section of the site is like this.

In an era where people are deal seekers and internet hagglers, they are pricing themselves out of the market for most of their products.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:34 AM on August 25, 2006

I don't know, Kickstart--I really like the site. Personally, I wouldn't know where to go locally to buy things like the items available on the site (and there are already a bunch of things I want). I also love that it lists the artist who made it, and Novica's policies toward the artists seem quite fair.

On another note, I usually hate pointless (non-functional) home decor items; they just seem like clutter to me. But if I bought from Novica, not only would I be buying art every time I made a purchase, I wouldn't feel gross about being a consumer. I hope it does bring a home decor revolution. Thanks for the link!
posted by lagreen at 10:43 AM on August 25, 2006

Neat site, thanks.

But a home decor revolution? In the age of Pottery Barn? Not likely.
posted by agregoli at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2006

i used to work for a company that did this, selling wholesale. our biggest client was UNICEF. eventually the company went out of business and was sold to novica. our bestselling products were these bags.

this type of business is problematic in many ways. as kickstart mentions, price is a big one. when buying at a price that pays the producers more than they would normally be able to make, the cost of goods FOB their country of origin seems very inexpensive. however, the cost of importing and the markups that happen at the wholesale and retail level end up making these products significantly more expensive than items that aren't sourced from NGOs or other fair trade organizations.

there are also issues associated with creating artificial demand by purchasing at higher than market value prices. if the buyer ends up going out of business because the products are too expensive, or demand for that item dries up, it basically kills the market. when i was in thailand speaking with an NGO, they told me about a handmade paper fad that cause the government to heavily promote papermaking in the poorer, northern part of the country. as production increased and the fad died out, it ended up being a lot of wasted effort that could have been put to better use in other ways.

to some degree, there's really a question about whether it's responsible to promote handicraft production. it's nice to preserve culture, but if it ends up being a dead end from an economic development standpoint, promoting it may be harmful. it certainly isn't the straightest route to modern ecomomic success.

the company i worked for, and i think others, like novica, were partially inspired by the success of microfinance in developing nations as a way to help the poor become entrepreneurs and stop a cycle of poverty. micro-loan programs do seem to have been quite successful, but i think that comes from getting a kickstart to help you develop a successful local business with a market. assuming that microbusiness is going to work in an international market, or that a company can create a demand for handcrafted goods because they want to help these people may be mistaken.

Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit group that helps artisan groups in the developing world does, or at least did, do one really sensible thing, which was to enlist product designers, including famous ones, to help the organizations make their crafts more marketable, rather than just buying whatever people made and trying to create a market.
posted by snofoam at 10:56 AM on August 25, 2006

I'm with lagreen on the home decor - less is more. But I liked what I saw at the site, and didn't find it horribly expensive. I live in a high-cost country, though. Now I covet a handmade chess set - my old plastic one just seems tacky...
posted by Harald74 at 10:58 AM on August 25, 2006

to some degree, there's really a question about whether it's responsible to promote handicraft production. it's nice to preserve culture, but if it ends up being a dead end from an economic development standpoint, promoting it may be harmful. it certainly isn't the straightest route to modern ecomomic success.

In a world made of molded plastic fashioned by urban third-world serfs, I am pleased that I can buy beautiful, sturdy, thoughtful things made by people with a different perspective from mine. If I have to complicate my life with posessions (and I do), this is the way to do it. I don't think "Oh, I am helping India's economy" when I buy something from, say, Ten Thousand Villages. I think "I am getting something of actual value beyond the cost of materials, shipping and markup. And I am further encouraging this by putting some money in the hands of the person who actually made it and cared about it."
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:16 AM on August 25, 2006

I looked through the site and then came here to say that the stuff is really expensive. So I agree with Kickstart! Over 40 dollars for a simple hammock? No backgammon boards for under $100? It isn't just that there are places where I could find comparable products where I live in the States for cheaper, it's that I know that were I in Turkey a similar chess set would cost pennies on the dollar. Which then raises a serious question for me about why the price is so high.
posted by OmieWise at 11:29 AM on August 25, 2006

i don't mean to say that nice handcrafted stuff isn't nice and special in this day and age of machine-crafted crap, but most of the people making most of this stuff aren't weaving and sewing all day because they always wanted to be artisans when they grew up. it's more because they have no marketable skills and no job opportunities where they are. they are rural third-world serfs, who work in their villages instead of their factories, and there isn't much of a difference. all i was saying was that teaching someone how to weave baskets or do detailed embroidery all day isn't necessarily making their life that much better or giving them something that really opens up more opportunities like literacy would.
posted by snofoam at 11:38 AM on August 25, 2006

The unintended consequence I worry about when I see something like this is well-expressed in Wendell Berry's The Idea of a Local Economy:
Albert Schweitzer, who knew well the economic situation in the colonies of Africa, wrote nearly sixty years ago: "Whenever the timber trade is good, permanent famine reigns in the Ogowe region because the villagers abandon their farms to fell as many trees as possible." We should notice especially that the goal of production was "as many...as possible." And Schweitzer makes my point exactly: "These people could achieve true wealth if they could develop their agriculture and trade to meet their own needs." Instead they produced timber for export to "the world economy," which made them dependent upon imported goods that they bought with money earned from their exports. They gave up their local means of subsistence, and imposed the false standard of a foreign demand ("as many trees as possible") upon their forests. They thus became helplessly dependent on an economy over which they had no control.
It's especially worrisome if the prices for the art are inordinately high compared to what's received for more mundane labor in the area. I'd like to see the prices lower so that the market is bigger (and therefore probably more steady) and that production might not be such a singular draw.

But disaster certainly isn't the only possible outcome, and let's face it: this is simply the kind of thing the internet facilitates. And it really is cool from a number of points of view.
posted by weston at 2:32 PM on August 25, 2006

The artists set their own prices; that's part of the company's mission. And they are not farmers whose fields lay fallow. These people are artists, that is what they do. No one is hijacking their idyllic jungle life and turning them into basket-weaving serfs.
posted by owhydididoit at 2:54 PM on August 25, 2006

That's well worth noting. For example, in the Brazilian section, they feature blown glass from a family of Segusos. Related to those Segusos - the ones who've been blowing glass in Murano for about a kazillion years. It's not like these are all peasant farmers who are making shoddy trinkets for subsistence money instead of planting crops.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:49 PM on August 25, 2006

some of the novica stuff is by actual artists, but some of the less expensive stuff really is handicrafts, not art. i'm not saying that they are enslaving people in order to have them produce handicrafts, in a lot of these areas, people don't have a lot of options. they still carry items from suppliers i used to work with at my old company, and some of the suppliers were really proud that their workers made, say $4,000/year in a country where the per capita gdp is $2,500/year. i'm not saying these companies are evil, it's just not entirely clear to me that financing NGOs to promote manual labor is the best way to help the poor in developing countries.
posted by snofoam at 5:26 PM on August 25, 2006

one other thing, in terms of actually helping the rural poor in developing nations, which was the reason the company i worked at was founded, this model isn't very efficient economically. only about 15% of the retail value of an item went to the supplier (we mostly worked with NGOs), obviously some amount less than that went to the person who made the item. the rest goes to shipping and the wholesale and retail markups here in the US.
posted by snofoam at 5:34 PM on August 25, 2006

That's not the way this one works, snofoam. If you order off the web, Novica is the only middleman. They basically end up doubling the money these artists are getting for their works, while also giving them exposure to a much bigger market.
posted by owhydididoit at 5:49 PM on August 25, 2006

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