In a world where mass production and globalization often threaten traditional crafts and indigenous artistry, Aku Zeliang stands as a beacon of hope and creativity. As the founder of Urra Design and Creative Director of Cane Concept, Aku has dedicated his work to the preservation and promotion of the rich heritage of Northeast India. In a recent interview, we had the privilege of delving into his vision for these two brands and exploring his inspiring journey in the realm of sustainable design. Northeast India, known for its diverse culture and profound craftsmanship, has often remained hidden from the global stage. Urra Design and Cane Concept are changing that narrative. The brands are driven by the belief that each product is not just a piece of art but a living story of a community, an ode to the skilled artisans who pour their heart and soul into each creation. Aku’s mission is clear: to create a global community of conscious consumers who value custom-made, quality products with historical significance.
This in-depth interview takes you on a captivating journey through Aku’s experiences and aspirations. From collaborating with renowned designers in the country and engaging in discussions with industry giants like Christian Dior to working with local artisans and indigenous communities, Aku’s story unfolds as a testament to the power of authentic, sustainable design. Discover his insights on integrating sustainability into creative practices and the remarkable impact of his work on both environmental conservation and social well-being. Join us as we explore Aku’s exceptional vision and the future of sustainable design. Celebrate the diversity of Northeast India’s cultural heritage and the artisans who keep these traditions alive. Through this conversation, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the inspiring world of Urra Design and Cane Concept, where preserving heritage and fostering sustainability is not just a philosophy but a way of life.
Foyer: I wanted to start with your story. Can you tell us more about your journey and inspiration for founding Urra Design and Cane Concept?
Aku Zeliang: I’d describe the Cane Concept as a true family venture. It was founded by my mother back in the early ’90s. When I came on board during my university days, I noticed that many of the designs we were working with were still very reminiscent of my mother’s era. To be honest, I found it a bit dull, and I felt a strong urge for change. I also observed that globally, designs centred around cane and bamboo hadn’t evolved much, especially those originating from South Asia. So, I saw an opportunity to make a difference. There were very few innovators worldwide working with cane and bamboo, and I wanted to be part of that change. That’s how my involvement with Cane Concept and Urra Design Studio began, ultimately leading to our establishment in 2014. I noticed that our perception of cane and bamboo often revolved around the traditional image of bamboo huts, and it seemed as if time had stood still. I believed that an intervention was necessary to break this cycle. Our stories needed to be shared, and our designs had to evolve. Having grown up in the western part of India and attended boarding school from a young age, I was exposed to diverse tastes from around the world. I realized that many interventions had taken place even within India, incorporating influences from different cultures not native to this region. So, my journey started, and I speak not only on behalf of Nagaland but also on behalf of our entire region.
F: Got it. So your brand emphasizes timeless designs and traditional craftsmanship in bamboo, cane, and woodwork. How do you balance preserving tradition while creating innovative, contemporary designs?
AZ: It all started with a profound recognition of the existing wealth of skills and talents within our community. People here have a natural inclination and remarkable dexterity when it comes to working with their hands, driven by various motivations. So, the initial step was not to reinvent the wheel but rather to harness these skills and resources and merge them with our traditional techniques. To this day, the harvesting of raw materials like cane, bamboo, or timber is primarily carried out traditionally. Even the intricacies of lunar cycles are adhered to in this process. It’s fascinating because we’ve not only honoured these traditional practices but also gleaned valuable insights from them. The skills were always present, and we simply needed the determination to kick-start this journey. It’s not about following a passing trend; we are striving to define and breathe life into a unique style that reimagines traditional and contemporary designs.
The traditional essence remains a vital part of our approach. However, when it comes to contemporary designs from this region, there’s uncharted territory waiting to be explored. That’s precisely where we aim to define and shape a distinctive identity.
F: Now moving on to your vision, which involves recognizing crafts as a living national treasure and engaging with indigenous craft practitioners, Can you share specific initiatives or projects you’ve undertaken to achieve this vision?
AZ: Let me shed some light on our process in this particular aspect. I’ve always made it a fundamental practice to actively involve rural artisans in my creative journey. Over time, we’ve even established clusters in specific rural areas, often in the countryside. Whenever we embark on the development of a new design sample, I make it a point to be present in these areas during the initial stages. These regions hold a treasure trove of beautiful craftsmanship and unique creations. For instance, there’s a renowned village called Choklangan on the fringes of the Burmese border, which is renowned for its weaving indigenous fibres. We’re currently exploring opportunities to collaborate and bring their artistry to the forefront. Regarding the financial aspect, transparency is a cornerstone of our approach. We firmly believe in offering fair compensation to our artisans for their exceptional work. There’s no conventional wage system in place; instead, trust plays a significant role. By providing these talented individuals with better remuneration, particularly in remote areas, we are taking small steps towards establishing a sustainable model.
F: And when you say you made these clusters, are these only in Nagaland or across Eastern Asia and Eastern India?
AZ: Yes, our approach involves the development of artisan clusters in various regions. In addition to Nagaland, we’ve established clusters in Assam, with a particular focus on this area. We’ve also extended our efforts to create smaller clusters in places like Tirupura. Meghalaya is known for its distinct shken bamboo. The heart of our unique practices, particularly in basketry and wood carving, largely originates from Eastern Nagaland but also from the rest of the 7 sister states. This region boasts an incredibly diverse and rich heritage of traditional crafts and practices.
F: When you say you pay the artisans on a trust basis, what does that mean exactly?
AZ: I profoundly believe we are paying very well, and the motivating factor here is not the traditional salary system but rather based on their output.
F: So, in essence, it’s about truly appreciating and compensating artisans for the dedication and craftsmanship they pour into each creation.
F: I want to know the role of these communities in the production of this sustainable furniture, including how you ensure the involvement and also provide details about the materials you use and how they align with your sustainability goals.
AZ: Our approach begins at the grassroots level, starting from harvesting raw materials. It’s a well-known fact that there’s a global shortage of raw materials, and this holds for Rattan as well, which has an extensive gestation period, often exceeding two decades and more. Therefore, it’s crucial to emphasize the harvesting aspect. When we discuss sustainability, it’s because we procure our raw materials from various communities. Winter is the season when we purchase raw materials from different communities, and they, in turn, impose bans on harvestation for extended periods, sometimes spanning 10-15 years. As a result, we have to continually shift to different locations to source these materials. India, specifically the eastern part, boasts exceptionally high-quality Rattan, but it necessitates moving to various areas periodically.
With our extensive experience in this field, we encounter minimal issues. Yes, we do have insights into where these hidden sources are located. Sometimes, I even make it a point to visit these locations, which can be challenging but incredibly fascinating. Regarding furniture production, it’s not something we undertake in these clusters. The creation of furniture requires a specialized skill set that is typically not found among the artisans in rural areas. These are more commercial endeavours, so we manage furniture production in-house. In these rural regions, our focus predominantly centres on handicrafts.
F: Easier for transportation as well?
F: Do the kinds of norms that you have affect the way you design your products?
AZ: Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and let me clarify the situation. In this part of the world, textile weaving has traditionally been a skill passed down through generations, specifically among women. This practice continues to this day, and there’s a significant reason behind it. Textile weaving was predominantly reserved for women, while weaving handicrafts, on the other hand, was primarily a male domain. Let me delve into the historical context to explain why.
Back in the day, men were often tasked with venturing outside their communities and beyond their relatives to harvest raw materials for their craft. This required them to travel to areas that might not have been entirely safe for women. So there was a practical division of labour. Now, let’s get to the interesting part of our journey. We embarked on a celebrated collection known as the Hutu Collection. “Huh Tu” is a term from one of the local dialects, which translates to “tattoo.” The inspiration for this collection was rooted in the fascinating world of traditional tattoos found in this region. As we delved into our research, we discovered that women from this region had significantly more intricate and extensive tattoos. It’s important to note that our collaboration involved working exclusively with women artisans from this particular tribe. This experience was not only creatively rewarding but also carried a deeper significance.
For us, the most satisfying aspect of this project was the opportunity to challenge and break stereotypes. Initially, there were some apprehensions among the women about weaving handicrafts, considering some lingering social taboos. However, as we progressed, we found that we were able to comfortably address and dispel these misconceptions. So, while certain social beliefs and practices still exist, we’ve played a pivotal role in redefining them and promoting women in male-dominated sectors.
F: Other than these societal norms, in your commitment to sustainable design, particularly to value the painstakingly developed designs, what other challenges have you encountered along the way?
AZ: Manpower is indeed a recurring challenge that we grapple with in our line of work. It’s important to understand the dynamics at play here. The younger generation, in particular, seems less inclined to embrace these traditional practices. It’s worth noting that weaving, for instance, used to be a mandatory skill for women in our society. It was considered an essential part of one’s skill set. However, with the advent of the modern age, a significant number of people from rural areas have migrated to urban centres in pursuit of more comfortable and well-paying jobs.
Now, I must emphasize that we aren’t here to criticize those choices, as we are in a privileged position. To address the challenge of diminishing manpower in a way that’s realistic and aligned with the times, we are focused on creating a sustainable ecosystem. This involves acknowledging and adapting to the ground realities. One practical approach we’ve explored is the concept of a circular creative economy. The idea is to bridge the gap between traditional practices and contemporary demands, all while supporting the livelihoods of local artisans. In addition to manpower, another pressing issue we face, especially in recent times, is the shortage of raw materials. While there’s still a supply of raw materials, the process of retrieving them has become more challenging. To put this into perspective, if someone were to start a venture like ours in India today, they might face difficulties in sourcing raw materials compared to what it used to be in the past. This is why I believe that initiating controlled plantations of rattan in India at this point presents a promising solution to address the raw material shortage. It’s an exciting opportunity and a proactive step to ensure a sustainable future for our craft.
F: Absolutely. My follow-up is that you talked about a circular economy. So how do you go about maintaining that when it comes to, let’s say, you are in a certain part of the country where you have a lot of restrictions in terms of products, manpower, or whatever? So how do you go about maintaining the circular economy for the long run?
AZ: It’s a truly fascinating journey, and for me, the “aha moment” that sparked the idea of a circular economy was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, I consider COVID-19 to be a blessing in disguise. When the pandemic hit and the news was dominated by its far-reaching consequences, my immediate concern was for the well-being of our artisans. With restrictions in place, nobody could move in or out of our centre, and the future seemed uncertain.
That’s when the concept of a circular economy took shape. I assured my artisans that, regardless of the circumstances, there would be a continuous stream of work, ensuring their hands remained busy, pandemic or no pandemic. This pivot marked a significant shift in our business model. We transitioned from primarily being export-oriented to serving the domestic market and engaging directly with individual buyers. This strategic change not only sustained our operations but also allowed us to provide better compensation to our artisans. Thus, the entire journey toward a circular economy was set in motion.
F: Can you tell us about your vision for Urra Design and Cane Concept and how you plan to build a global community of conscious consumers who value contemporary, custom-made quality products with historical significance?
AZ: At Urra Design and Cane Concept, our vision is firmly grounded in the preservation and advancement of indigenous crafts within Northeast India. We hold a profound belief in the art of storytelling through the products we create. These brands serve as a vital link, connecting the rich tapestry of traditional craftsmanship with the discerning global consumers of today. Our overarching objective is to cultivate a community of conscious consumers who prioritize authenticity and quality over mass-produced commodities. We aim to raise awareness among these individuals about the historical and cultural significance embedded within the products they choose to bring into their lives.
F: It’s great to hear that. Could you share any specific initiatives or projects that you’ve undertaken to collaborate with local artisans or indigenous communities in this pursuit?
AZ: Absolutely, we’ve taken proactive steps to engage local artisans and indigenous communities in our initiatives. A remarkable example would be the Huh Tu chair, which was shortlisted last year as runners-up for the EDIDA (Elle Deco International Design Awards) 2022; however, we did win the “Young Talent” category for the same.
Another example I would like to highlight is the Angkha Collection, which is inspired by the bright hues of traditional Naga jewellery. This won us the EDIDA award in the “Outdoor Furniture” category in 2023. These collaborations serve a dual purpose, allowing us to craft distinctive and culturally infused products while also extending exposure and prospects to local artisans. Our approach centres around bridging the divide between local craftsmanship and the global marketplace. Through these meaningful partnerships, we aim to spotlight the extraordinary skills and narratives of artisans hailing from Northeast India, sharing their remarkable stories and talents with the broader world.
F: That sounds like an incredible journey. Aku, as a leader in sustainable design, what advice would you give to emerging designers or entrepreneurs looking to integrate sustainability into their creative practices and businesses?
AZ: I have two-fold advice for budding designers and entrepreneurs. Firstly, I’d urge them to revel in the diversity and cultural wealth that different heritages bring. Northeast India serves as a prime example of this diversity, and our success story is built on embracing it and telling your own story through your lens. Secondly, I’d emphasize the significance of authenticity. If you aim to genuinely infuse sustainability into your creative endeavours, begin by narrating your own stories from your distinctive viewpoint. Instead of merely following sustainability as a passing trend, make it an intrinsic part of your design ethos and into a lifestyle.
F: Thank you for that valuable advice. Can you also share how you measure the impact of your sustainable design efforts, particularly in terms of environmental conservation and social well-being?
AZ: Evaluating the impact of sustainable design holds significant importance in our work. We view sustainability as a timeless style rather than a passing trend. When it comes to our achievements, I take pride in the transformation of our artisans, who have evolved from beginners to accomplished craftspeople. We’ve made substantial investments in training and employment opportunities, particularly for the region’s young population. In Nagaland, where employment prospects are limited, we’ve successfully provided full-time positions to several skilled artisans.
Furthermore, our engagement with female artisans has been a pivotal initiative. By enabling them to work from their homes, we’ve allowed them to maintain their existing livelihoods and generate income while preserving traditional crafts. This approach has played a crucial role in improving lives and fostering social well-being in the region.
F: That’s truly inspiring. Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share or discuss about your work or the future of sustainable design?
AZ: Our journey has been nothing short of remarkable, and we remain committed to crafting designs that strike a chord with the global community, all the while safeguarding the invaluable cultural legacy of Northeast India. To manifest all this, my mother, Jesmina Zeliang of Heirloom Naga, and I have recently set up a design centre of excellence, Heirloom Naga, to promote arts and crafts from this part of the world. The outlook for sustainable design appears exceedingly optimistic. With an increasing number of individuals recognizing the significance of conserving traditions and the environment, there will be a surge in the desire for products imbued with historical importance and authenticity. We are thrilled to be actively involved in this transformative movement and eagerly anticipate our continued contributions to it.
F: Thank you, Aku, for sharing your insights and experiences in sustainable design. We appreciate your dedication to preserving indigenous crafts and wish you continued success in your endeavours.
In our interview with Aku of Urra Design and Cane Concept, we’ve delved deep into the heart of sustainable design. Aku’s remarkable journey reveals the power of celebrating diversity and embracing authenticity. It serves as a reminder that sustainable design is not just a trend but a timeless style, a way of life that connects us with our roots and the artisans who keep those roots alive.
The impact of Aku’s work extends far beyond the creation of exquisite products; it reverberates in the lives of local artisans and communities in Northeast India. Through training and employment opportunities, especially for the youth and women, he has not only preserved traditions but also improved lives and promoted social well-being. As we look to the future, it’s clear that the demand for products with historical significance and authenticity will continue to grow. Aku’s journey is a testament to the promise of this movement. The story of URRA Design and Cane Concept is one of resilience, dedication, and passion for preserving heritage and fostering sustainability.
We extend our gratitude to Aku for sharing his insights and experiences, and we wish him continued success in his endeavours. Aku’s work stands as an inspiration for all those who seek to bridge tradition and modernity, empower artisans, and cultivate conscious consumers. Together, we can craft a sustainable future, where the beauty of indigenous craftsmanship thrives, and the stories of our heritage live on. As we conclude our interview with Aku, we encourage you to explore the enchanting world of Urra Design and Cane Concept and be part of the global community that celebrates and values the artistry of our diverse world.