The Wall Street Journal
European Artisan Influence Puts a Shine on Bali Crafts
2 September 2005

View Original Article by Karen Mazurkewich Here

Eight years ago, Etienne de Souza arrived in Bali for a quick five-day vacation to decompress. He never left: The French designer closed up his 10-person jewelry shop in Paris where he was making gold baubles studded with semiprecious stones for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, and relocated to the Indonesian island.

"When you see so much available raw material that you can recycle, you can’t resist," he says. Today, Mr. de Souza’s Balinese atelier makes funky tables from mother-of-pearl and exotic woods, and over-size bowls from polished coconut shells. His fashionable homewares now decorate hip hot spots like Christina Ong’s posh Club 21 boutiques in Singapore and suites at the Four Seasons Hotel New York.

Bali handicrafts have finally arrived. An influx of European designers in the late 1990s, combined with a miniboom of private villas on the island and a rise in shopping tourism, has created a small manufacturing base for homeware designers on the island. The value of all exported handicrafts — from musical instruments to pieces made of bone — have risen 20% since 2000, according to the island’s Office of Industry and Trade. From contemporary glass lamps to fine bed linens, the rising popularity of Balinese wares has transformed sleepy tourist villages like Seminyak, Kerobokan and Legian into must-visit shopping experiences.

To be sure, Bali isn’t the only place in the region that’s seeing a boost to its handicraft industry. Now that homeware trends are changing almost as often as a woman’s skirt-length, consumers are updating their serving bowls and centerpieces every year — sometimes every season. Total world-wide imports of wooden tableware and kitchenware, for instance, climbed 17% from 2002 to 2004, according to the United Nations statistics division Comtrade. And while many parts of Asia have long been a shopper’s destination — Bangkok’s Chatuchak weekend market, for example — there are other up-and-coming areas. These include India, Vietnam and parts of Indonesia other than Bali, according to a report by the Program for Eastern Indonesia Small and Medium Enterprise Assistance (which is managed by the International Finance Corporation’s East Asia and the Pacific Department).

But what sets Bali apart from the rest of Asia is a highly successful merger between a community of artistic craftspeople and European entrepreneurs with a strong design sensibility. Retno Savitri, who owns Arrah Bali, a company that sources products throughout Asia for the Four Seasons hotel company, says local designers have honed their skills for a broader audience. "Designwise they are more international because many of the foreigners are now coming directly to Bali with their designs, whereas other parts of Indonesia are still more traditional," says Ms. Savitri, who’s been buying handicrafts throughout Asia since 1993, but has been focusing more on Bali in recent years.

Part of the success local designers have seen is a result of the boom in villa construction in recent years. While official figures aren’t available, Bali residents point to hundreds of developments being launched in the past few years as more international investors look to build villas for private use or for rentals. This in turn has led to numerous furniture orders and editorial spreads in overseas publications. Says Gianni Francione, an Italian architect who has developed 17 villas in Bali and has collaborated on two books on contemporary Balinese architecture: "This [homewares] market was nourished and promoted mainly by the growing number of villas built in Bali. The more books promoting Bali style… the more villas were built."

The transformation of Bali is also linked to a growing trend in travel: shopping tourism. More and more, people are spending their vacation time sourcing stylish, unique products in exotic locales that they can show off at home. "They know for the shopping, Bali is paradise," says Claire Guillet, co-owner of Piment Rouge, a company that sells furniture, lighting and homewares to boutiques in Europe and Asia. "They know they will find something rare, something they won’t find in Europe."

The island’s price-points are also an advantage: "If [tourists] buy a [shipping] container of furniture and lamps it will cost three to four times less than if they buy in their own country," says Ms. Guillet. Take for example the wooden globes that designer Bruno Helgen makes. His 30 centimeter-size globes sell for $ 220 (€ 180) in his Bali showroom; at Smithsonian museum stores in the U.S., the price tops $ 600.

The Euro-Designers

The island of Bali has long captured the imagination of travelers for the beautiful wood and stone carvings traditionally produced there. In the 1930s, when anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson arrived on the island, they bought dozens of drawings from their favorite artisans. Some pieces in that collection were auctioned by Christie’s in Singapore in 2001 and fetched more than $ 360,000.

By the 1970s, a wave of foreign expatriates settled in Bali. Souvenir shopping was born. While newcomers like Jane Hawkins dabbled in antiques, others like John Hardy, a self-described beach bum who dropped out of a Canadian art college to travel, managed to eke out a living by commissioning Balinese silversmiths to craft jewelry that he sold to visiting tourists. People like Mr. Hardy — who has since expanded into a range of silver and shell homeware items sold in Neiman Marcus stores and high-end boutiques such as Tesorini in the U.S. — have helped lay the foundations for the next wave: the Euro-designers.

Piment Rouge’s Ms. Guillet and her husband Ken Prud’Homme, arrived in Bali from France in 1995 to produce a photography book. Three years later, the former bed-linen merchandiser and the assistant photographer for "Marie Claire," respectively, decided to join forces in a new venture: lighting production. It took them two years to source materials and build their Piment Rouge workshop, but the couple now produces a line of lamps that Ms. Guillet describes as "contemporary ethnic." They use roots, bamboo and other raw local materials that are shaped into geometric, clean lines.

Today, Ms. Guillet and Mr. Prud’Homme own three stores on the island and supply products to chic boutiques such as Ethico in Milan, Shogun in Paris and Meubles du Monde in Tokyo. Recently the couple noticed that while customers first started looking outside Europe for lamps, they’ve also started to hunt for other household items such as linens and furniture.

Locals Who Adapt

The Euro-design trend in Bali is benefiting not only the design migrants of Europe, but locals, too. The key has been the flexibility of Balinese to "adapt themselves to everything and everyone," says Bruno Helgen, whose company, Gecko Spirit, employs 75 people for projects big — designing furniture for the Manta Resort hotel in the Caribbean — and small, like his signature small wooden globes that retail in stores like John Lewis in the U.K.

Glass isn’t a traditional trade in Bali, for instance. But French-Canadian carpenter Marc Le, who moved from the south of France to Bali in 1999, has trained a team of 18 people on the island to blow, twist and layer glass for his collection of coiled lamps at his company Radiant, which sell for $ 25 to $ 300 in Bali. Luxury bed linens are another nontraditional trade; yet Dominique Sequin has developed a line of bed accessories using botanical themes that she sells in her Bali store, Disini, and exports to boutiques in Europe.

"The design environment related to building and furnishing is much richer and more vibrant than it was five years ago," says architect Guy Morgan, who has built six villas on the island. "A lot has been driven by the export market, but the knock-on effect is that it’s available locally. Eventually, designs filter out in the street… you can only keep your secret so long in Bali."