Bright new days ahead

Cimi. An energetic man. His father was famous for his resistance to change, a hero defending a tradition so old no one thought it would even be past over to next generation. A superficial observer would have mistaken that “resistance” with a somewhat negative attitude towards life.

None of that. When it comes to felt , in the family either you have it their way or you don’t and, as it happens, this is often the only way.

Cimi has that same energy, even though he seems to use it also in other dimensions of life apart from felt. When driving it feels an independent bandit is being chased both by Naples’ police and “camorristas” at the same time. He might even make it safe home. Energy. It simply runs in the family veins.

I’ve been told Cimi has had it so strong since childhood. At the age of six he felted Auntie Violeta’s hen with a bar of soap he’d found on a wall near by. Luckily this did not affect her eggs, even though Violeta’s legendary  “Vez dhe limon” soup has since been thicker than previously recorded.


His energy is truly astounding to this day.

The felting process requires a great deal of energy.

Felt is the result  of energy transferred from a hand to wool.

At first it’s just heaps of sheep’s hair. Then a fluffy cloud is created from the carefully washed bundle, spread and dried naturally. “Opened”, using a primitive kind of bow made of a piece of wood and string, it becomes light as a feather. It is then roughly shaped with water and soap and left to rest. It is fitted on a shape made in a very, very special wood and rubbed thoroughly with soap till if becomes a thin regular felt. Again it is left to dry naturally on the form.

A lot of energy. A lot of time.

Cimi’s hands have a very clean, smooth and soft skin.


Since the first days of our business relation with the family, we have been working to persuade them to make different shapes.

In Hysen’s days me managed to alter the diameter of only a couple of centimeters. The wood seemed to have been a major obstacle at the time. A special wood of course, very special, only from a tree we could not understand the name in archaic Albanian language. Any man of experience hearing the name would look to the ground and repeat “vështirë” -difficoult- shaking his head.

The wood was found in the end, on a hillside close to the village. It was nearly  burned as firewood because of an ancient unresolved dispute between  four men. We were lucky enough to help clear the dispute during a meeting in a “Kafe” just outside the “pazari i vijetët” before it was too late.

Cimi got down to work and we were overwhelmed with the result.


There are rumours there might be colours coming up.

We’ll wait and see, hoping Cimi has forgotten about Gjorg’s disrespectful glance he gave the family cat when he chew the geraniums.

Gjorg owns the shop next door. He sells and grows flowers and plants one can use to make colours.

A member of his family was once late at a meeting with Skenderbeg, some say one of the reasons behind the defeat of the Albanian resistance to the Turks in the 16th century, but that’s another story.




The right strategy

Continued from business-meeting-with-style

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the large room in the botanical garden in Amsterdam, where the group of “experts” debated about the future of design in a relaxed atmosphere, all the participants focusing in a stimulating conversation.


“Is this off the record?” the moderator politely asked one of his guests, an Englishman representing a French firm from Paris.

Even though some might question his choice of footwear, Steve P. is widely respected for his “savoir faire” and elegance.

“I mean, do you want me to use that wording?”

The group expectantly looked at Po! Paris’ representative, all still trying to understand if it had been en expression of British humour and now expecting the punch line: “What did I say again?” he fumbled, trying to gain time.

“you said precisely:” answered Steve, patiently reading through his notes “wrong place, wrong people, wrong material, that’s the right strategy. -Is the wording convenient?”

Wrong place, wrong people, wrong material.

Some could indeed not consider it the ideal starting point for a business. Tolerant as we are at Po! Paris, we fully understand any doubts our audience might have had at the time. Explaining the details of our philosophy to experts in development can be a challenge one might want to spare for a more informal setting, but it was too late now. The experts were waiting for an explanation, if not outright denial, so we delivered what we could.

In few words we will try to do it again here.

“Why Albania?” I have been often asked, followed by “Where is Albania? I never heard anybody working with Albania…Have you considered India?”

“Vous avez dit d’où?” is the standard question arising when you tell French people about our new projects in Uganda. “Ce n’est pas francophone n’est-ce pas?”

Uganda, Albania, indeed, not the first places one thinks of when sourcing handicraft.

Albania has proved to be an arduous territory for any organisation trying to start development projects with government backing or private donors. The end of authoritarian collectivist regime left the society deeply traumatized with generations struggling to understand the mechanism of free economy. The proximity with Italy and the EU market ended up in more imports than exports and very high emigration rates. A red light for any tiny privately funded company.


Uganda is of course a beautiful land, with extraordinary wildlife -the gorilla amongst others- and is also home to the legendary source of the river Nile; but has sadly risen to international fame for the terrible dictatorship led by Idi Amin Dada Oumee and a civil war in the north of the country, devastated by cruel doings of the Lords Liberation Army, a violent group lead by unscrupulous warlords. Uganda also held Africa’s record of the highest HIV infection rates.

There again, a “no way” sign bars the entry for the newborn independent entrepreneur.


So why Uganda? Why Albania?

Why not China or India, two countries offering a wide range of qualified and affordable labour costs, high quality raw materials and, furthermore, are well connected to the global market. Why not France or, as a matter of fact, anywhere else but Albania and Uganda?

Those other destinations, argues the well informed business adviser, would be a far more reasonable sourcing territory for a small company with great ideas for new designs.

Yet here we are, starting small businesses in Albania acting independently or with the help of local Ngo’s in Uganda.

The answer to that question could be that at Po! Paris we simply don’t know to do it any other way.

And the wording is accurate.

The offer of hand made products for interior design is overwhelming in today’s globalized markets, but how much of that offer is really original? How much of that offer do we really need, and is a relatively low price worth the social costs behind some sectors of the manufacturing industry in developing countries?

Last  but not least, what new will you find sourcing for products and ideas in areas where other people have already been exploring for decades and craft is well trained to respond to you precise demand? Or, even better put, what can happen in such a place if you have no idea of what you want, let alone a precise demand? In the best of cases you would probably be politely asked to take a seat while the personnel fetches for a doctor or security.

There is in fact a particular way of doing design at Po! Paris that is upside down.

Unquestionably, if you have a precise idea of what you want, then, once you have it on paper, you go and look for the “best place, the best people and the best price”. Steve P. would not have challenged that strategy. But Po! Paris would not be Po! Paris.

The question we try to answer is not “where and with who do we make this object” but rather “what object can we make in this place and with these people?” – knowing that if you do come up with an answer in the end, the solution has many chances to be a successful design.

On one occasion a producer from India came up to us and said “Sir, we like your chairs, let us do those same chairs for you! We guarantee quality and price!”

“Do you work with car bonnets?”

“Sir, we have very good quality steel in India! Why use car bonnets? If you wish, Sir, we can make them look like car bonnets”

This is the very answer to our question. It makes no sense to make chairs out of car bonnets in India, but it does in Albania, simply because Albania has no real offer in steel, apart from low quality material generally imported from Turkey.

The encounter with two brothers back home in Albania after five years working for a hand made metal furniture firm in Italy, sparked our desire to make something with them. Their devotion to design and perseverance told us we could come up with new ideas, even though we lacked the main ingredient: the right metal.

At the time scrap yards were all along the country’s main roads. Once our driver stopped by at one of them, looking for a replacement part for his legendary BMW so we started visiting the premises and found it was the perfect place for inspiring discoveries such as car bonnets and motor parts. The scrap yard handed over the missing ingredient and the idea for tributes to design from the Balkans, now sold worldwide.


When we were asked to come up with something in Uganda to help a group of women victims of the war in the late 90ies, part of a HIV health program, the matter was indeed complicated. They were -and still are- producing necklaces in paper beads for the local market and sold through a militant fair trade network in Italy . No machines, no visible experience in trade and production for design, but an outstanding quantity and quality of energy, possibly the most important key factor for a start-up development project.

Finding the right material and help are just a matter of time. In that case possibly less than a couple of hours, in fact, when a lady from the far end of the hall raised her hand during a meeting about local materials, and said: “barkcloth!”.

Finding the local solutions to transform a traditional manufactured article in something new, setting up a workshop and training the new entrepreneurs all require, of course, time, energy and perseverance. But finding a new material was possible because of the lack of obvious solutions, and that is one of the essential ingredients for a new product: the originality of the material and the way it is used.


Of course a small company cannot open new ventures in all parts of the world off the beaten track, especially when there are obvious reasons for those countries to be uncharted territory for trade.

Our adventure in Albania was made possible through our own financial investment and the relative proximity and size of the country. It is a small welcoming land where people are willing to help find solutions, where producers are eager to find new markets. It would certainly not be the same in a larger and more distant country.

Of course in Uganda nothing would have happened without financial and logistical help provided by other organisations. This is particularly true when it come to creating a new company only with victims of warfare and AIDS.

This is where we believe that, on top of making design the wrong way round, in the wrong place, wrong material, we can also choose and alternative business model by asking the actors of the international solidarity organisations to work for Po! Paris, instead of being asked to work for them for their programs.

We believe in fact that the private enterprise can truly help by leading projects and by having the non profit sector help in turn with expertise, networking and, when needed, funding for the producers. The private actor will contribute with his ideas and his market. Together, they can manage a self sustaining program.

In Albania we have financed a local Non Profit Organisation till we managed to assist the foundation of a new Social Business that produces for Po! Paris, amongst others, and now employs up to 19 people.

We are following a similar path in Uganda where we have set up a small business and workshop, employing  today  7 people for the first year.

“Yes, definitely, we will keep the wording” said Po! Paris’ representative, and poured himself some more coffee.

 Po! Paris

Denial and chairs


Denial: the word is unheard of in the Balkans.

If you happen to mention it, the listener goes dumb “Eh?”

It’s not easy to deal with ancient practices. They are rooted in the minds of both simple and sophisticated people. In some intellectual circles they are defined as being part of a greater scheme often tagged as “culture”.

Those who practice denial regularly, following ancient habits, rarely know they are acting though cultural schemes. In fact they have know idea what this is all about.

Nor do we as a matter of fact.

When Edmond appears, he is wearing a Greek expression. Or at least, an expression on masks used in the theatres of Ancient Greek.

Edmond stands contemplating a large pile of car bonnets in his yard, hoping someone will start the talking about the Blue Alfa Romeo he had to dismantle to make a chair. Edmond has his nostalgic moments.



His face has been around the Balkans for thousands of years. No one knows exactly what the expression stands for, but it generally draws respect.

Of course Edmond would deny that his face has anything to do with Greece, and with him a long list of ancestors. And ancestors are important in the Balkans.

Denying the very existence of a nation, as it is for example in Macedonia’s case, is a fact only some bureaucrats in Brussels could come up to terms with, renaming a territory so not to offend the ashes of Alexander the great and it’s legacy, and, at the same time, satisfying Greek national pride .

While Greece denies the very existence of Macedonia, Macedonians deny the existence of the ethnic Albanians living on it’s territory. And they, in turn, deny the very notion that there is a problem at all. After all, they argue, Macedonia is part of Albania, as much of Montenegro and Greece. According to a number of respected experts in classical literature, even the Roman Empire was fundamentally Albanian.

“Why  do you say I am late? I am here, and there are your chairs”

“Some of my customers have been waiting six months…”

“You people keep talking of the past. It has been raining, you know perfectly well how things work here, now the sun is shining and the chairs are there”

Logic. Strict logic, with a touch of Balkan wisdom.

We have the chairs. There is no denying that.

And meanwhile, a large number of those chairs has left Paris for Abc New York.

Po Paris


Heroes, unexpected, from the land of eagles

He called from the cabin of the truck, Gogol Bordello singing it all out in the background.

The soul of the balkan man is complex. He lives to achieve heroic deeds. He can’t help it, he needs an impossible mission or he will not survive the burden of time. That’s when someone like Alban ends up being chauffeur.

An impossible job these days. Crossed the Adriatic sea and the Alps, drove though Germany tugging a load full of Albanian treasures- and his bodily envelope, packed with feelings he will never understand. He is  a superhero, a bit like this poster hanging behind his seat in the cabin, with the addition of a weak spot he’s ignoring and anyone else can see.

We meet at customs nowhere in particular.

He’s tired, his burning cigarette hanging from his dry lips. The sound of Gogol Bordello’s pains is still yelling angrily all that is wrong with him without mentionning what it is and when it happened.

His gentle smile shines through the curtain of fatigue and God only knows what else. He’s made it to France, misty and cold France, the freezing drizzle decorating his hair with tiny pearls. He opens the back of the truck and this is what he has brought, making it look like someone from his family, his sister or even his mother, has made with their hands. There is always something personnal about his truckloads. This one he is particularly fond of.

“Bukur!” he says admiring the carpet he could imagine of having crawled on as a baby exploring that bed of roses – it was  cold tiles instead.

He let’s a sigh escape under his wiskers, brushing his trousers trying to shake off the memory of some ancient pain off his delicate knees, and turns to a pile of cushions: Shikoni Ketu! Fantastike! Acoma Obama më Xhacsoni

Bidonat mini-bar!

Me Karrikë perqafoj…

më Llamarina! Bukur po? Per clubi, locali…

Plot më Karrike!

Most of this load is leaving for our distributor in Sweden,  in Brazil, Abc in New York…Alban a bit sorry I’m not keeping it all for my family. He would like it to know he did something for me personally. Those Americans, he’s happy for them, but he has never met them.

We share these thoughts over a Turkish coffee contemplating the crowd gathering for the friday prayer in the mosque opposite our studio. The pilgrims look respectfully at the pile on the pavement, wondering if it is an act of God and where this is going.

Then, with no more words, he climbs back in the drivers cabin and he’s off on a new mission, Holland this time.

Po! Paris