In the mid-1990s, the Portuguese government’s employment authority put together a series of books cataloging its traditional artisans, from leatherworkers to palm frond weavers to ceramicists to jewelers specializing in gold filigree. At that time, Portugal was still home to tens of thousands of craftspeople specializing in skills that had long died out in most other European countries, even such artisanal powerhouses as Italy or France.
Portugal’s reputation as a hub for handicrafts still held such sway that when Fatima Az-Zahra Durkee, an American architect and former model, moved from New York to Lisbon in 2016, she was peppered by requests from designer friends back home to put them in touch with Portuguese craftspeople who could take on leather-working, embroidery and other projects.To suss out artisans who might fit the bill, Az-Zahra looked to the government handbooks and started dialing up those listed in it. The results were disheartening. The artisans had either gone out of business, retired or died - nearly invariably without having passed on their skills to the next generation. “I was amazed at how quickly these traditions were going extinct,” said Az-Zahra, 38, a statuesque redhead with a shock of fiery curls who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in New Mexico and worked as an architect in NY.
Az-Zahra and her Portuguese partner, Astrid Rovisco Suzano – age 37, and also an architect by training – set out to help save the country’s threatened savoir-faire. The problem, as they saw it, was two-fold: Not only were artisans dying off, but because of the relatively recent arrival here of mega home furnishing chains like Ikea, demand for their skills were also falling precipitously. Globalization had hit Portuguese artisans hard. But, Az-Zahra and Suzano had a hunch that the same forces of globalization could, if properly harnessed, also be Portuguese artisans’ salvation.
And so, the pair founded Passa ao Futuro, a not-for profit aimed at establishing an open-source database of Portuguese artisans still working in such traditional crafts that run the gamut, from embroidery, lace-making, weaving, basket-making, metal and leather-work, glass-blowing through the popular needlepoint rugs known as Arraiolos, after the town they originated in. The first challenge was simply to locate the artisans. Old non-working telephone numbers, moves, retirements and deaths make tracking the ever-dwindling number of active craftspeople a nightmare. And Portugal’s ongoing rural exodus, which has transformed many villages – once handicraft hotbeds - into near ghost towns, has further complicated matters.
So far, the pair has managed to contact 311 of Portugal’s estimated 2,200 remaining artisans, and interviewed 30 of them. Standouts include the sole remaining weaver of the once-famed wool blankets of Mértola, a town in the southern Alentejo region, near the border with Spain, and the final basket weavers in Guarda, the town in northern Portugal that was once the capital of the country’s thriving basket industry. Their average age was 73.
The idea is that once they’re duly identified, Passa ao Futuro can help them make the leap from artisans to entrepreneurs by sending them consultants specializing in everything from marketing to design to product development. While these are terms that most of the designers had never even heard of, Az-Zahra stressed they’re crucial to allowing the crafts people to tap into international markets. “We’ve got to make sure they’re able to deliver orders on time. We’re not going to come in and manage them but we’re going to share the tools they need to manage themselves.”
Other key objectives of the project include fanning interest in and respect for handicraft traditions among young people – who widely regard these traditions as too antiquated and poorly remunerated to be of much interest professionally – as well as pairing artisans with contemporary designers to jointly develop new products, as well as new applications for traditional techniques.
While so far the project has largely been a labor of love for Az-Zahra and Suzano, the two have secured corporate sponsorships to help pay for a residency program aimed at bringing together designers and artisans. They’re also seeking seed money to allow them to develop the database with all 2,200 Portuguese artisans. “If no steps were taken to save this knowledge that was passed down for generations, the future would be very bleak,”said Az-Zahra.