Recycling. Innovative design. Cultural preservation. Income generation. Weave these threads together and you get the Pet Lamp project, one-of-kind pendant lights made from plastic bottles and naturally dyed palm tree fibers. Debuting this fall in striking clusters at furniture and design fairs throughout Europe, it’s easy to forget that the Pet Lamp originated as a response to a growing environmental disaster throughout Colombia’s Amazon region and beyond.
In the summer of 2011, Hélène le Drogou, a Colombian activist, convened a gathering in Bogotá of designers, artists, local NGOs and environmentalists to brainstorm ways to curb contamination of the rain forests and waterways from plastic waste. For Alvaro Catalán de Ocón, a Madrid-based industrial designer, the solution naturally took the form of re-invention. He was especially struck by the incongruity between the durability of plastic bottles and their fleeting use. What new form might they take? What else might they be used for? In a stroke of creativity and ingenuity, Catalán de Ocón re-imagined the bottles as ceiling lights. And then, taking the spirit of the project a step further, he looked to Colombia’s indigenous weaving traditions for design inspiration.
Catalán de Ocón experimented with ways to synthesize local weaving skills into his project. But he found himself stymied by how exactly to fuse plastic and natural fibers into a single unified object. The solution came from a crafts tradition rooted in yet another culture and material: a traditional bamboo tea stirrer used in Japanese tea ceremonies. The stirrer is made from a single piece of bamboo, with one end used as a handle and the other cut into dozens of strips, fanned out to form the flexible tines of the whisk. The Pet Lamp’s construction relies on a similar technique. The neck of each plastic bottle remains intact, but the sides are cut into strips, forming a warp onto which artisans can then weave their weft. The transparent bottle neck houses the components for hanging the fixture and hardwiring the light bulb. The plastic slats allow the artisans to graft onto the bottles woven designs of their own choosing. For Catalán de Ocón, retaining and exposing the neck of the plastic bottle serves both form and function. It reveals the lights’ repurposed, mass-produced origins and stands in contrast to the individual handiwork of each shade.
With a design prototype in hand and funding provided by Coca Cola, Catalán de Ocón returned to Bogotá in 2012. With the help of the Artesanías de Colombia, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Colombian crafts, he tapped the skills of two local Indian groups, the Eperara-Siapidara and the Guambianos, to produce the shades. While both groups share in common displacement from their native region of Cauca by guerilla warfare, the two represent vastly different weaving traditions and techniques. The Esperara-Siapidara, who come from the tropical zone of the Cauca region, use the fibers of the plentiful papa tetera palm tree as their material of choice. Their weaving often takes the form of basketry. The Guambianos, who reside in the colder mountainous zone of Cauca, weave textiles of wool and cotton. Together both groups add to the authenticity, diversity and richness of the Pet Lamp designs. In turn, the artisans, dislocated from their homes and traditional livelihoods, are earning much needed income while preserving their cultures’ artistic heritages.
The happy end result of Catalán de Ocón’s collaboration are hanging pendants lights that read like glowing, multi-hued straw hats suspended in mid-air. As Catalán de Ocón likes to sum it up: just as each plastic bottle bears its own unique barcode when it comes off the assembly line, each woven pendant bears the singular artistic vision of the artisan who crafted it.