An emerging Spanish designer redefines his role by pursuing philanthropic projects with indigenous peoples in Colombia.
Turning the manufacturer-as-patron model on its head, Madrid’s Alvaro Catalán de Ocón is his own best client. The designer, who trained at London’s acclaimed Central Saint Martins College, is committed to the process of self- production—at a rate of one project per year. “In the recent past, there’s been an excess of products in the market which didn’t respond to a real demand from the public,” he says. “Manufacturers have taken advantage of this. They come to you with a brief that creates a necessity we don’t need. I am not interested in this model.”
In 2011, Catalán de Ocón traveled to Colombia on holiday with his partner. He had arranged to meet Hélène Le Drogou, a psychologist and activist concerned with the plastic waste that contaminates the Colombian Amazon. Upon returning home, Catalán de Ocón came up with the idea for the PET Lamp, a pendant whose basic form comes from the reshaping of a polyethylene terephthalate bottle. The lamp shade is made from woven straw or strips of textile, using traditional Colombian basket-weaving techniques. The next year he returned to Colombia to jump-start production. The only missing factor was seed money, which is where Coca-Cola stepped in with a onetime donation to get the initial design workshop off the ground. “They are aware they are part of the problem,” says Catalán de Ocón. After all, it takes minutes to consume the contents of a PET bottle and hundreds of years for it to decompose.
Catalán de Ocón knows his PET Lamp won’t solve the issue of waste, but he does hope it will raise awareness. Colombian artisans from the southwestern Cauca region, which has become the epicenter of the country’s armed conflict, collect the bottles themselves and receive a regular, fair-trade wage (at a rate stipulated by the nonprofit organization Artesanías de Colombia). The artisans shape the plastic material over a wooden mold and are given creative liberty in the choice of colors and technique they use for the weave. The shade is then shipped to Europe and fitted with a textile-covered cable and a plug. Catalán de Ocón sells the lamps online and through a handful of high-end European retailers. Each piece is unique, with its own variation in shape and artisan impression. “We wanted to do something that represented the rich visual culture of Colombia,” says Catalán de Ocón, “and bring that to Europe.”
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