“The weaving residency programme brings you back to nature and, in a way, forces you to design differently”

Working to preserve the cultural heritage of Portuguese artisans and craftspeople, non-profit organisation Passa Ao Futuro engages in a wide range of projects, programming, and research, and collaborates across disciplines. One of their current projects, running from 2023 through 2025, is the Made In Platform for Contemporary Crafts & Design, where, alongside 10 partners across 6 countries, they are focusing on knowledge exchange, in recognition of the crucial role that crafts play in creating and sustaining local identity, and in contributing to more sustainable production models and more responsible consumption. In the first half of 2024, Passa Ao Futuro is organising five residencies for this project, pairing contemporary designers with craftspeople specialising in generations-old techniques, with the aim of ushering traditional Portuguese craft into the future.

The five residencies organised by Passa Ao Futuro, under the umbrella Plant Based Design Residency, centre around the art of basket weaving in Portugal, each focusing on a different natural fibre and technique. The first of the residencies paired Lisbon-based French designer Sam Baron with craftsman Nuno Henriques of Toino Abel, a workshop located in the village of Castanheira that specialises in handbags woven from junco. Sam and Nuno worked together closely, sharing expertise to find new possibilities for the material and craft, while building a friendship that opens the door to future collaborations.

This is exactly what Passa Ao Futuro looks for when choosing designers and craftspeople for these residencies. Astrid Suzano, co-founder of the organisation, explains: “The initiatives we facilitate are never meant to be a one-time event but rather the beginning of a long-term relationship. [The designers and craftspeople] have to be open to spending time and sharing knowledge with someone they never met before and be interested in being taken out of their comfort zone and willing to experiment with new ways of applying their knowledge and techniques.”

All of the residencies begin with an immersion into the full craft process, starting with the harvesting or preparation of the material, or both. This provides the designer with an understanding of the constraints and possibilities of the raw material and the techniques that the craftsperson employs — vital practical information that drives the design process. Sam Baron was deeply inspired by this phase of the project: “It might seem obvious, but when you need to carry a bundle of dry rush to start the day, it kind of automatically puts you in a special mindset; it makes you look at things differently. Eventually, the material gently imposes itself on you; it almost wakes up all your human senses,” he says. “The weaving residency programme brings you back to nature and, in a way, forces you to design differently. You don’t design a product but you rather think about what you can do with that material specifically. You have to let yourself be seduced by that materia prima, start to embrace it, analyse and understand it.”

This approach aligned well with that of craftsman Nuno Henriques, who shares Sam’s appreciation of the material. “By the second day of the residency, Sam came with some sketches and a few first ideas inspired by the bundle of soft-rush. I am still thrilled about how he saw beauty in the bundle itself,” he explains. “For me, it is very gratifying to pay homage to the work itself, to its materials and tools, and especially the bundled soft-rush, a perfect representation of the transition between nature and our craftsmanship. The soft-rush was picked in the wild and dried in the sun, turned around, dried a few days more, bundled and stored. Each bundle looks like a bouquet of dried flowers that you can hug with both your arms and body.”

Photo credit: Jenna Duffy

Sam and Nuno discussed possibilities to find a direction for the project while harnessing the natural properties of the material and their combined expertise. This stimulated new ideas and ways of working.

“The [rush] bundle comes with two straps, used to water strawberries, to hold and tighten the straws. And Sam Baron wanted that element, those two horizontal black lines. We had to think about how we could technically do that. He wanted a second warp weaved over and under the weft. We have never done that before. Fortunately, we found a way and all the work that we have previously done at Toino Abel, improving the looms and weaving technique, also helped with this craft,” explains Henriques.

“The goal with the home products we created was to fully pay homage to the plant beauty and to the craft savoir-faire that is necessary to weave it — and give a tri-dimensional presence to it. I have been attached to keeping the most natural side of it for its intrinsic beauty but also as a sign of respect and attention to the nature it comes from. The goal is that the piece’s final form has an organic yet very sophisticated aspect which required, in fact, lots of extra care and attention on how to pick, work/shape and twist the material and the technique. We built upon ancestral weaving gestures to add a very elegant detail that is an aesthetic sign used as a link that unites the collection artefacts,’ explains Baron.

Sustainability is a primary concern for all Passa Ao Futuro residencies, so all products must take into consideration Cradle to Cradle as well as Circular Economy principles; they must be utilitarian, use local materials, minimise waste, and avoid the use of toxic chemicals, while honouring the craftsperson’s time, skill, and input into the process. In this residency, by making use of the flowers on the junco, waste of the raw material was significantly reduced. Furthermore, Passa Ao Futuro challenged Toino Abel to avoid the usual use of sulphur to whiten the junco; skipping this step not only expedites production, but is gentler to the environment than the traditional preparation process.

The residency was successful in building upon existing craft wisdom to innovate while preserving history. As Henriques explains: “It is incredible that besides all the inspiration we received, we expanded our technique; we now know more about our practice. I am immensely proud that we went a step further into a century-old craft. To bring innovation into a secular craft — without distorting it — is an incredible feeling. I think, at least technically, we made history here.”

The results of the collaboration between Sam Baron and Nuno Henriques will be exhibited at Lisbon Design Week in May of this year, as part of an exhibition highlighting the work of Passa Ao Futuro.

Further residencies this year partner designers including Christian Haas, Henrique Ralheta, Joana Astolfi, and Toni Grilo with craftspeople including Domingos Vaz, working with cane; Isidoro Ramos, specialising in esparto weaving; Sónia Gomez, working with palm; and Abilio Pereira, working with basket willow. The residencies celebrate the knowledge of the collaborators, and facilitate the understanding of modern possibilities for traditional skills. The goal is to strengthen the future of these crafts and showcase their many benefits, from sustainability to tactility to storied history and connection to place, revealing their place in the modern world. The products created in all of the residencies will be presented in an exhibition later this year.

The results of previous years’ residencies have been exhibited internationally, raising vital awareness of the value of these crafts, and supporting the livelihoods of the craftspeople by substantially increasing the demand for their work. The products are also available to order from the Passa Ao Futuro website, made to order, to further support their creators.

The residencies honour the power of collaboration, both in finding new pathways and solutions and in building friendships and future partnerships. Nuno Henriques shares his experience: “[Sam Baron] was very accessible and easy, humble and fun, attentive, and open to hearing everyone, and we felt this was a construction balanced between all our fields: Astrid Suzano, architect; Sam Baron, Chevalier des Arts and award-winning designer; and me, with a fine arts background working in the craft. We are very happy with the pieces we created; I am looking forward to putting them out there in the world and seeing how people react. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Photo credit: Jenna Duffy

As a Portuguese company with our own atelier of skilled craftspeople, De La Espada have a particular affinity for Portuguese craft, and a drive to preserve the artisanal knowledge of our home country. We have a mutually beneficial partnership with Passa Ao Futuro, engaging in knowledge sharing and problem solving while offering them financial and practical support for their extraordinary work, which is multi-faceted and complex, extending beyond these residencies and involving a large number of collaborators, supporters, and initiatives.

We believe the origin of a product is an important part of its story and its meaning in our everyday lives — the concept and build as well as the history embedded in the life of the materials and the evolution of the craft. We also understand how important craft is to culture, personal experience and livelihood and the meaning it brings to the lives of everyone it reaches. We are excited about the work that Passa Ao Futuro is doing and are proud to play a role in making it happen.

Learn more about Passa Ao Futuro here and here