Interview: Chris Haughton talks creating Fair Trade rugs with designs by leading illustrators

Rug designed by Chemo

Node helps weavers in Nepal get a fair wage through producing rugs with designs by Geoff McFetridge, Micah Lidberg, Jon Klassen, Serge Seidlitz and more.

Chris Haughton is best known – at least to parents like me – as the Irish author and illustrator of two hip pre-school children's books, A Bit Lost and Oh No George. However, more of his time is spent on Node, a company that connects creatives with carpet-makers in Nepal – who are compensated under Fair Trade principles, with additional money alongside their wages paying for a literacy programs, a school and an orphanage.

Node's latest project is a series of 18 rugs woven in Nepal featuring designs created by leading commercial and children's illustrators including Geoff McFetridge, Serge Seidlitz, Micah Lidberg, Lesley Barnes and Neasden Control Centre. Each rugs is available in a limited edition of 10 through the Design Museum shop. It's also the beginning of an expansion for Node that Chris intends to see its rugs appear in high-end stores in the UK and beyond.

One of Chemo's rugs being woven in Nepal

I interviewed Chris on Sunday after a workshop for children based around his books – a swift interview only mildly interrupted by my two-year-old daughter careening around with her new best friend, a hand-made hand puppet of A Bit Lost's Little Owl. I first asked him how he got the artists involved in the project.

"When I saw what they were doing with rugs in Nepal, I thought, these could fly off if we could get these artists involved. I just emailed [each of the designers] and they said yes."

Serge Seidlitz had produced a rug through Node previously, so was an obvious choice. Others were selected by Chris's love of their artwork.

"There were certain artists I wanted to work with – Jon Klassen, for example," he says, referring to the author and artist of another chidren's book popular with the design community (and their kids), This Is Not My Hat. "With Micah Lidberg, I was just looking at his work and thought 'wow, can you imagine that as a rug'."

Jon Klassen's rug

The rugs are made by Kumbeshwar, one of the founder members of Fair Trade Nepal. The company was created by a family from Nepal's lowest caste – Sudra – which had become wealthy two generations previously by setting up a fertiliser business. The family used this money to hire professional weavers to teach other members of the caste to weave. Money made from the weaving goes to paying the workers a living wage, as well as teaching them to read and write, schooling their children, and running an orphanage.

"The only thing their rugs fell short in was design," says Chris. "Their designs just weren't saleable here. I knew loads of designers who would give their right arm to do a rug. I just had to put the two together."

Chris set up Node after a successful career as a commercial illustrator – a career he became increasingly dissatisfied with.

"I was working a lot in advertising," he says. "You're always putting a gloss on some multinational thing. But as an illustrator, it's difficult to do worthwhile work and get paid for it."

Chris discovered Fair Trade fashion label and network People Tree and began producing illustrations for T-shirts, calendars and other items for them – discovering an outlet for his talents that was creative, commercial and helping producers be fairly compensated for creating the tees and calendars.

"When I saw the work that People Tree were doing – which was all non-profit and about helping people – I was like 'wow, I can spend my time doing something really nice and I don't feel bad about it. I've [felt disappointed] when I've created the best image I can and it's just for an advertising campaign – but here was something where I can create and everyone benefits."

Wool used to create Micah Lidberg's rug (above)

The quality of what was being created also gave Chris a great feeling of satisfaction, as the production of the items using traditional hand screenprinting and block-printing really enhanced how his designs came out.

"I thought my designs were really cool – but when [the first project] came back I was like 'wow'," he says. "You can't even get hand screen-printed calendars made in the UK for less than a 100 quid each. We can get them produced in Bangladesh and Nepal at women's workshops. They look beautiful – each one's a piece of art."

The work with People Tree and becoming aware of the rugs produced by Kumbeshwar led Chris to create Node – which he describes as "a point on a network connecting amazing designers with amazing projects". However, it wasn't as simple as just sending designs by email to a contact at the company and getting the rugs sent back – Chris first had to spend time in Nepal working with the company and its weavers on how the designs could be turned into patterns that the weavers would know how to reproduce.

"You need to go out there and work with them, because you can't do this [over the Internet]," he says. "Half of them are illiterate. They're working in very basic conditions."

You also really get a sense from Chris that travelling to meet the workers in Nepal instilled even more of a drive to push the project as far as possible.

Weavers of Serge Seidlitz's rug (above)

Following the exhibition and sale of the rugs, Chris wants to expand the project to sell the rugs to department stores and high-end homewares shops – but realises he needs a business partner to help with the commercial side of Node.

"There's a lot to getting the rugs into shops – and I'm not really the right person to do that," he admits.

If reading this has inspired you to set up your own Fair Trade project, Chris has a simple piece of advice: visit the WFTO website.

"Anyone can search through there and find all of the small producer groups," he say. "If you want to do a rug, you can find a producer there – or whatever [textiles or crafts] you're interested in."

If you want to commission a rug using your own designs, it costs between £250 and £350 per square metre. Full details are here.

Chris Haughton's own rug

Geoff McFetridge's original drawing for his rug (above)


Lesley Barnes's rug (above) being woven

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