A West Elm Mystery

Posted August 6, 2012

A friend of mine sent me this photo. It's a picture of a women with the following, "Chris Silverston founded Cape Town artist' collective Potter's Workshop in 1991. Trained through apprenticeship, new artists slowly acquire the skills to create the bead-like, textured ceramic patterns the studio is known for."

West Elm

My friend told me he was very upset when he turned the bowl over and read the words, "Made in China". What?! How can these artist collective handmade bowls be made in China?

If you look on the West Elm website, the pottery is listed as "Imported" and there is a video of an artist hand painting a bowl.

Creative Director Vanessa Holden visited South Africa for nine days in 2011, We felt so strongly about South Africa, we wanted people to be able to sit on it, eat out of it, and observe it.” she told Elle.

Did she also want to use it as a marketing tool? I emailed West Elm asking them to shed a little bit of clarity on exactly how the artists in this collective benefit from the mass production and sale of these bowls.

Here's their reply:

"Thanks for your email into the blog. The Potter's Workshop pieces were designed in South Africa and they benefit from the sale of every single piece.They were unable to produce the quantity we needed in order to offer it to all of our catalog, online and retail customers, so to bring their unique hand-painting process to the product, we worked closely together to train a collective of artisans in China who hand-paint each piece. This collaboration will help support the continued growth of Potter's Workshop, while maintaining the integrity of their process and bringing their designs to a global audience at a great value."

To be fair, the AIDS–awareness nonprofit, Wola Nani, patterned papier-mâché Pencil Cups do say "Made in South Africa" as do some other products. I would encourage West Elm to be completely transparent regarding all their collaborations.

If they are producing hand-painted bowls from a collective of artisans in China - they should say so. Where are the photos of the Chinese artists? Are they truly a "collective"? Are they also benefiting from the "sale of every single piece"? Without complete transparency, the customer is left to wonder. If West Elm is really uplifting the lives of Chinese artisans, that's great, if they're simply using the Chinese workers to mass produce low cost "feel good" items, that's terrible.

~ by Sarah Manski for PosiPlanet, the blog of the founders of PosiPair.com

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