OZB’s Anda Ene talked with Khalid Inayeh, an architect of Palestinian origin who studied in Romania in the 1980s and has remained here ever since. He is one of the pioneers of social entrepreneurship in Romania. His project, Meșteshukar ButiQ, is one of the most admired businesses of its kind in the world today. The collections of crafted jewelry, households objects of decorative designs all created by Roma artisans have been exhibited at the Romanian Design Week, and also at the Stockholm and Vienna Design Week.
Meșteshukar ButiQ was founded in Bucharest in 2011 with the aim of reviving traditional Roma crafts and as an umbrella for a wider network of socio and economic enterprises in Romania. The brand has indeed succeeded in bringing a new vision to Roma craftsmanship and to launch traditional products that incorporate contemporary design.
Mesteshukar ButiQ is a funny and funky name, is it a fusion between “meșter” (craft man) and “șucar” (cool). It catches your attention immediately. What is the story behind this “brand” and what was your motivation for initiating this project?
ButiQ is more complex than the common sense of the word boutique: the meaning of “Buti” is “work” in the Romani language and “Q”stands for Quality. So, you pretty much understand, right from the name, who we are and what we do.
The story began eight years ago, in 2011, when I had the idea to create an organization to support and revive traditional Roma craftsmanship. I ordered a study and traveled through the country among Roma communities to see what is left from their crafts and their authentic way of life. I realized how poorly understood their culture is and how fragile the link between traditional crafts and people who continue these activities are. Making a good living doing these crafts was virtually impossible, so there was very little incentive for the young people to take up and continue the crafts. There were only three to five artisans or less in each community and they were stuck creating the same objects. Nevertheless, this search for talent revealed a huge collection of beautiful household items crafted by hand. Then we applied for European financing with the project “Romano Cher,” aiming to revitalize these traditional crafts. Our idea was to help the Roma preserve their traditional crafts by making the fruits of their work relevant for the market. This will get a fair amount of money for the work and talent incorporated into these objects so that they could continue to be able to support their family and have the chance of a better life.
In 2013 we won a prize in social economy by the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership. With the support of ERSTE, MBQ [Meşteshukar ButiQ] has revisited many of these traditional crafts and developed updated collections.
When was the first collection of Mesteshukar Butiq launched?
The first real collection was launched in 2014, at the same time as the opening of our show-room, which by the way, was awarded the prize of the Romanian Order of Architects for Interior Design. This year, we did another remodeling of our space and received the “Designer Fashion Week” award for interior design. Soon, hopefully, we will open our cafeteria, where you are invited to have the best Turkish coffee made in a pot entirely handcrafted from hammered copper sheet. A coffee pot and other enchanting, delightful objects, perfect for coffee lovers and those design enthusiasts with fancy kitchens.
This is a very interesting melting pot you have here: designers from Austria, Roma craftsmen, creative and cosmopolitan people and marginalized artisans. Is Romania a fertile playground for such a cooperation? Why?
The merit for this project goes to ERSTE who came up with this idea – to pay a designer to work directly with the artisans. Thus, world renowned designer Nadja Zerunian was sent here and she was supposed to stay with our people for a week. But when that week ended, she asked ERSTE to continue the project. So, in the next two years, she came every month for a week and, together with our artisans, she enabled the transition from the traditional household objects to more sophisticated items. Also, she suggested to extend our portfolio to jewelry, which we did under her constant supervision. Besides collaboration with Nadja Zerunian, Peter Weisz and Glimpt Studio, there were other collaborations with designers from Sweden and also from Romania. They sit side by side with the Roma craftspeople – whether in the bone-chilling cold of the Transylvanian winter or the baking heat of the summer. As Nadja said once: “We’re on the spot when the objects take shape in minutely detailed handicraft. They look at us, talk to us, follow us.” This has been an ongoing journey for almost 3 years and we are proud to present a collection of handmade products, their makers, and their stories.
Where and how do you find your artisans?
We mostly look for them in the most vulnerable communities, to spot the ones who are really in the shadow and not being able to capitalize their work. The others, who have clients and have found their niche, don’t necessarily need our support.
What is your best seller? Are there enough clients and turnover to support the business?
Jewelry is the best-selling item. As reinterpretations of Roma symbolism adapted to the present, the items carry the rich dowry of their culture and artistic identity of all the Roma Crafts. After eight years, we can say that our business is sustainable.
You are probably one of the first associations of social entrepreneurship in Romania, dedicated to Roma artisans. Based on your experience, what do you think is the main challenge of a social entrepreneur?
MBQ is one of the first companies in the social economy and is probably the only one that is
sustainable as a business. We are suppliers for IKEA, being present already with four collections, each of one counting over 10,000-20,000 pieces. This means seven craftsmen permanently employed full time, social and health security paid, a much better care for their families with predictable and good living conditions. One serious challenge is to find the artisans and to optimize the process of production. The rest of our artisans, around 30 people, are working under a collaboration contract. They work from home without a regular program. Some of them are, in the true sense of the word, real artists, and they tend to be quite capricious. But this is nothing new, we all know how difficult is to manage talents! The biggest challenge is to bring something new and to try to be one step in front of the others… again nothing new!!
How many times have you wanted to give up? Can you suggest any do’s and don’ts to consider in order to create a social enterprise that is a sustainable business?
Many times, approximately, once per month. I would suggest to those who want to start to work in the social economy to not be driven by profit when choosing this field. It’s not that you can’t make a successful business, but if you work well, you can expect the profit in about 5 years. In the meantime, you really have to dedicate your heart, your time, and your money to the cause, and most importantly to have patience and to become friends with obstacles.