We first discovered The Home Project last summer, when a beautifully arranged window display of delicate red clay vessels, paired with objects made from robust walnut wood and upcycled glassware lured us into their small showroom and studio on Hobrechtstraße in Neukölln.

The Home Project collaborates with local crafts people, pushing the boundaries of age-old techniques and materials to create new — products with an origin.

Their shop is not a regular shop and designers Álbio Nascimento (PT) and Kathi Stertzig (DE) are not sales people. They simply made their products available as a response to a constant stream of requests — In fact they are reluctant to part with their products unless a potential new owner also hears the story of how the particular object came to be. 

Álbio and Kathy possess a well of stories, and once those sluice gates are released, they’re not easily closed. Luckily their stories are deeply fascinating, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we all eventually had to go on with our days, we could have stayed and listened for hours to an end. 

We found it more interesting to to go to a local village or a museum than to fairs showing the latest designs

We started by asking them what they exactly they mean by “finding solutions with an origin”. They said they’d give us the short version. They lied — thankfully!

[K] We look for cultural traces and try to translate these into new objects — or old objects with new features.

[Á]  It has a lot to do with our history together. We met while studying, and were both very critical of the product design approach to constantly be creating more things. It all felt very static. Why choke people with even more stuff? Through our travels we visited a number of craftspeople, and realized that their products, based on age old techniques, often had much nicer solutions than most new stuff. We found it more interesting to to go to a local village or a museum than to fairs showing the latest designs.

Our interests grew stronger and we started collecting objects and spending entire days with potters and other craftspeople to learn skills that had been passed down from their grandparents and beyond. They showed us practical and technical solutions that made so much sense.

[K] The projects we created following these experiences always ended up being really anchored in the place they were made, and it proved difficult to bring them out of context. Because of this, we came up with the idea of products with an origin. They are more than products made by a craftsperson. It’s about finding originality through origin.

It’s a funny way of working because you often have to step back from your own aesthetics and see how far you can take something that is already there. Often you realize that what you had in mind can’t work.

So, you work with these artisans to invent new techniques, or using old techniques to make new products. Can you describe the process involved in doing this?

[Á] It comes very naturally. We don’t usually arrive with a design or an idea for a product.

[K] We understand the vernacular and work with them to see what we can do and how far we can go with already existing techniques. Using pottery as an example, we see the beauty in someone who can only do one or a few different shapes perfect, as well as someone who is able and willing to push the medium further. Two of the craftsmen we collaborate with, Ricardo and Francisco are perfect examples of the two approaches.

[Á] Francisco is around fifty years old and a traditional potter who makes sturdy, heavy objects that he sells at markets. With a garage filled with pieces from his grandparents and even further back, he knows more about pottery than museums and archeologists. With him it’s all about research and learning, and not so much about experimentation.

Ricardo, whom we’ve worked with for many years was originally studying biology, when he suddenly changed his course and decided to become a potter. He moved around to Japan, China, and France to learn how to be exquisite at his craft. He’s young and doesn’t have the same roots in tradition, but is in love with red clay. With him we really experiment and push the way the clay reacts and we’ll have discussions like “how can we push terracotta in the direction of porcelain?” or “How can we give the material a new dignity”. With Richardo we created the set of incredibly thin clay that was able to get like that because it was fired at way higher temperatures than what is normal. Most potters would never go there, because at these temperatures the clay starts to melt.

[K] It’s a funny way of working because you often have to step back from your own aesthetics and see how far you can take something that is already there. Often you realize that what you had in mind can’t work. It’s a great way of testing and you can prototype very quickly as you go.

[Á] In the industry this type of prototyping takes years, but the way we work, we can test instantly.

We refuse to be part of one grey mass — to all be the same. It’s a reaction against cultural flatness

Can you explain further how a new product comes about. 

[K] Most of the time it happens directly in the workshop. But now, after building long relationships with these people, we know how they work and what we can expect, allowing us to arrive with plans and ideas as well. The process is a combination between working here in the studio and coming up with and idea and then developing it there, and sometimes it all happens there, on the spot.

[Á] With Ricardo, we’re a team and we often discuss ideas with him on Skype. But because our projects have to do with identity and origin, they need to physically happen there.

An example is an ongoing project we started with him, using natural materials collected from the areas, like nuts, beans and seashells, to replace the spatula you use to shape the clay on the throwing wheel. By eliminating the hand and creating new shapes using things found in nature, the project became a homage to the area — like a primitive essay. Funnily enough, Ricardo ended up liking these new tools even more than the traditional tools he already had.

How do you find your craftspeople?

[Á] Some we research ourselves and some we meet through larger projects. In 2010 we went to Portugal for a year, commissioned by the EU to carry out a project to develop new products with craftspeople from the region. It was an amazing opportunity for us and a chance to finally get paid doing exactly what we had been wanting to do all along — and were already doing on a smaller scale. Because it was government funded, we had open doors everywhere and all the provinces had to provide us with lists of all the craftspeople in their area. We spent three months visiting over a hundred artisans and out of them we picked eleven to spend the next nine months with. Ricardo was one of these eleven.

That sounds like a dream projects!

[K] It was “our baby” and exactly what we had been talking about theoretically for so many years. We finally had a chance to put our theories into action, and this became a milestone for us. That project has made it possible for us to do other things like that.

[…] the clay is what glues it all together. There’s an element about it that the human spirit connects with

You seem to work mostly in the south of Europe. Are there any other areas you’d like to explore in the future? 

[Á] Yes, everywhere!

[K] It’s easier in the southern parts of Europe because craft is still happening on a smaller scale. But, right now we are actually working on a project in Berlin; Collaborating with a metal smith just down the street who has a really nice, old workshop and does metal spinning, we’re making lamps from old molds that he has lying around his studio.

[K] In the south you have more domestic craft, separated from industry and rooted in tradition and history. In northern Europe there’s a much larger industry involved and the connection to tradition has gotten lost. Because of the climate there’s also a stronger relationship with the environment and nature in the south. Here in the north, because our methods are more “developed” it makes it harder to try these one-off experiments on the spot.

[Á] But, there is a change in mindset happening…

[K] We just did a porcelain project in Poland, which opened up for new opportunities in the east of Europe. That’s a whole other culture again, and new techniques to be explored.

Many of the techniques we use cannot translate to mass production. Big producers would say that our products were not possible to realize

You touched on the concept of overproduction in the beginning, and again on the idea that there’s a change in mindset. People seem to be moving back to the hand made and placing more value in craft. Why do you think this is? 

[Á] Did you see this exhibition, The Whole Earth? We’re now starting to view ourselves increasingly from the outside. With globalization and traveling, we realize that we see the same shops no matter where we go. Large brands are always the same everywhere. Realizing this, we yearn to go back and look for origin and identity. We start trying to set ourselves apart and be different in a homogeneous culture.

In places like Portugal you see that people are moving out of the cities and back to the countryside and buying farms. Due to globalization, we’re all the same, prompting us to search for something different

[K] It’s like, we all have Ikea everywhere and we will continue to, because it’s cheap and yet pretty good design, but if you put one different thing in the middle, everyone will look at that. [Demonstrates by placing a handmade ceramic cup in the midst of the generic Ikea glasses we’re all sipping water from]

[Á] We refuse to be part of one grey mass — to all be the same. It’s a reaction against cultural flatness.

[K] The same thing happens here in the showroom. We had an old lady Italian lady come by the other day and she recognized some shelves on the wall from something her grandmother used to have. That’s how it starts. We always have people who come in, drawn to objects that remind them of home or of traveling.

Your products bring out feelings of nostalgia as well?

[K] Somehow there’s this genetic knowledge is ingrained in our genes. Something like porcelain is something we will always like because we “know” these types of materials. Clay is the same… the tactility of it does something to us.

[Á] Richardo also gives workshops to drug addicts and “problematic” children and he always finds that the clay is what glues it all together. There’s an element about it that the human spirit connects with. He’ll arrive and start talking, but the moment they put their hands on the material, a feeling of zen emerges — they reconnect and re-center — connecting with the earth. Even if you’ve never worked with clay before, you know intuitively how the material will respond, whereas with plastic you have no idea what it will do, unless you’re already familiar with it.

If you just want a clay bowl, and you don’t care about its origin and history, then go get your clay bowl somewhere else!

How do you go from prototyping to production of the objects you create?

[Á] Most of our objects were not created to be sold, as they are part of a project and not created for production. Not everything can be reproduced, but some can. Through tests we understand what can be produced in higher quantities. Some things are way to cost intensive to be reproduced.

[K] Selling to shops mostly doesn’t work as it’s not cost effective. The labor intensive process doesn’t allow for the regular mark ups you find in stores. Also, it’s hard to convey the stories of the objects in large shops. These are all reasons why we started selling the objects ourselves. Here the customer gets the story right away. We also don’t have a large stock of objects, which is why we decided to start doing pre-sales. This makes it easier for the producers as well. Now, when we have 30 sales, it makes sense for the craftsman to fire up the ovens. This way we save on shipping as well. We’ve found it’s the only way to sustainably do this.

[Á] Our problem is that we don’t want to be selling products full time. This is only a small part of what we do. We started making products available to buy because people saw what we do and wanted to buy. The requests continue, and it’s a pleasure to see people using these things.

We just set up a showroom as part of our office and put some stuff in here — and it all disappeared. Sometimes when we have very little left, we’re reluctant to sell them…

We are seeing more and more of the pre-sale model online…

[Á] It’s a reaction from the design industry itself. Designers want to realize their good designs without compromise, and in a sustainable way.

[K] Many of the techniques we use cannot translate to mass production. Big producers would say that our products were not possible to realize.

We had a collection for sale in the store at Moma in New York. They totally got what we were doing and it was great. Then we tried to sell at a larger department store, and it was hell. It didn’t work and they didn’t understand the process that went into it.

[Á] The industry is very aggressive and it doesn’t fit for our products. It’s too fast pace. Consumers don’t have time for the full message and the history of the objects. If you just want a clay bowl, and you don’t care about its origin and history, then go get your clay bowl somewhere else!

Speaking of that, the first time we came into the store, we had a pretty funny experience with you Álbio. It was almost as if you didn’t want to let go of your products. It struck us as a very unusual sales approach, but we found it so endearing that it made us want your objects even more, so it worked on us.

[We all laugh, while Kathi shakes her head and mumbles “Oh Álbio…”]

[Á] You came on a day when we had been discussing the business of selling and running a shop, and I was really worked up. Every now and again we have people walk in here and browse like we’re H&M or something, without saying either hi or goodbye, just looking for prices and then leaving.

And that’s the thing, we’ve always been more interested in sharing, and never set out with the intent of being shop owners. We just set up a showroom as part of our office and put some stuff in here — and it all disappeared. Sometimes when we have very little left, we’re reluctant to sell them, because we never know when or even if we’ll ever get another one.

So you’re attached to your objects… 

[Á] Yes, and the two of us are attached to different things. When Kathi is not here I hold on to certain things. And she does the same with other things that she is more attached to. [laughter]

[K] So we’ve finally decided to give it a chance with the pre-sales and hope that it will work out!

Álbio and Kathi, thank you so much for your time and your stories — we can’t wait to come back for more!

You can find out more about The Home Project on their website, and get a hold of a selection of their objects through their online store.
Photos by Sima Ebrahimi
Story by SemiDomesticated