Circular Catalysts: Sustainability, design, craft

In partnership with the Romanian Cultural Institute, the British Council has launched Circular Catalysts, a programme aimed at generating new collaborations between Romanian and UK designers, artists and craftspeople and facilitating fertile conversations around sustainable production practices and processes.

Based on the idea that a pragmatic relationship between people and natural resources in rural Romania can provide a fertile ground for local resilience and sustainability, five UK designers and artists were invited to collaborate with organisations working in rural Romania to explore the intersections between rural and urban, and the role and migration of local materials and crafts in social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Circular Catalysts aims to provide both local and UK models of good practice and develop a European network of people and initiatives that share a set of values aligned to the principles of the circular economy. The programme started with a series of creative residencies in March–April and will continue throughout 2023 with complementary activities for both professionals and the wider public.

Exhibition

The Circular Catalysts documentary exhibition presents objects, texts, sound and photographs captured by Ioana Cîrlig during five creative residencies where contemporary UK artisans were hosted by local organisations working with traditional craftspeople in rural Romania. Through design and interdisciplinary collaboration, the programme, initiated by the British Council Romania and supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, explores the intersections between rural and urban and the potential of craft practices for individual and community well-being.

As part of the exhibition, the Circular Catalysts programme also features a series of community engagement activities such as workshops, podcasts and meetings, with the aim of sparking conversations around traditional knowledge systems and community practices with a role in creativity and sustainability. The programme promotes the exchange of skills and knowledge between the UK, Romania and Europe as part of the British Council’s response to global issues, specifically addressing the climate emergency.

As part of our commitment to sustainability, exhibition design and touring prioritise environmentally friendly practices with smaller volumes, lighter materials and reduced air travel. We also prioritise inclusion, aiming to increase accessibility for people with disabilities through tactile elements and a dedication to welcoming those with diverse bodies and abilities. In both Timisoara and Bucharest, we organised a Quiet Day, together with Superheroes Among Us (Supereroi printre noi ), dedicated to people with special access needs.

Circular Catalysts showcases the potential of creative residencies, photography and dialogue around craft, sustainability and the relationship between people and nature in rural Romania. The Romanian audience was inspired by craftspeople creating change and exploring cultural contexts, traditional knowledge systems and responses to the global climate emergency.

The exhibition was launched during Romanian Design Week 2023  in Bucharest, and could be visited from 12 to 28 May in Amzei Square.

  • AMAIS and Studio Mud organised an inclusive ceramics workshop, where both typical and disabled people could socialise and interact regardless of (dis)abilities. Participants were inspired by the natural materials on display to create a functional object. The collection of objects created at the workshop later became part of the exhibition.
  • As a continuation of the experiments carried out during the Circular Catalysts residency, the Pro Patrimonio Foundation organised a plant printing workshop at Amzei Design Corner with the designers, makers and friends of the design and craft project, Honest Goods.

In July, Circular Catalysts was presented at HEI – House of European Institutes , as part of the cultural programme Timisoara 2023 .

  • Superheroes Among Us organised the workshop ‘DIY– How can we organise an inclusive cultural event?’. Over two days, participants put together ideas, situations and solutions on how to make a cultural event friendly and open to people with temporary or permanent disabilities.
  • Ioana Cîrlig, the photographer who documented the residencies in the programme, was invited to host a workshop on urban photography. Over two days, participants explored Timișoara and were inspired by natural urban landscapes in different contexts.
  • Lola Lely, interdisciplinary designer and Circular Catalysts resident, held a sustainable design workshop for creative women in Timișoara. Together, they explored traditional craft techniques and shared their potential in contemporary design.
  • Andy ‘Sinboy’ Luke was invited to give a workshop on artistic interventions in public space. During the workshop, we invited teenagers and young people from Timisoara to discover Andy’s work and discuss street art and its role in urban dynamics. The challenge of the workshop was to create a non-invasive collaborative intervention in a green area around the historic Bastion.

The Circular Catalysts exhibition was presented in Timisoara as part of the HEI – House of European Institutes project, which is part of the national cultural programme ‘Timisoara – European Capital of Culture in 2023’ and is funded by the European Echoes programme run by the Timisoara City Project Centre, with funds allocated from the state budget through the Ministry of Culture budget.

Residencies

Gareth Neal is an internationally renowned British furniture designer, who has gained acclaim for his innovative approach to combining high-end digital fabrication techniques with traditional craft practices. His work is characterised by conceptual rigour, environmental consciousness, and meticulous craftsmanship, which has earned him collaborations with leading architects such as Zaha Hadid. His pieces are housed in prestigious institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum. During the Circular Catalysts residence in Cincu, Sibiu County, Gareth was hosted by local initiative KraftMade, which focuses on performative objects, unique pieces, capsule collections, restoration and education, particularly in wood and textiles. KraftMade’s practice centres on creating site-specific exhibitions, performative objects and capsule collections that highlight hands-on education and restoration initiatives, with a focus on interdisciplinary approaches and regenerative futures. Their ongoing project, KraftMaking the Future, is a series of workshops and residencies that seek to convey archaic craft wisdom as a regenerative solution for the future. Together, Gareth and Alex Herberth (wood restorer, art-carpenter and archiver of ancient craft techniques in Transylvania) have explored the sources and resources of traditional craft techniques, and tested their contemporary practicality and future sustainability in the slow circuit of design, production, consumption and regeneration.

Anoushka Cole, a maker and material researcher based in South London, participated in the second residency of the Circular Catalysts programme held at the Golescu Villa in Câmpulung Muscel at the beginning of spring. Anoushka, with her focus on sustainability and craft, gathered herbs and flowers from the Romanian hills and infused natural fibres with their essence alongside a team from the Pro Patrimonio Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the conservation, rescue and reactivation of cultural heritage. Anoushka’s philosophy aligns with the Foundation’s view that tradition is not rigid, but rather a source of identity, culture and critical thinking about modern life. The residency provided an opportunity for hands-on experiments in natural dyeing processing and printing, using the surrounding nature as the main element to obtain natural pigments, creating block printing patterns and printing flowers, leaves and petals directly onto materials. This connection between modern design techniques and ancestral ways of processing fabrics exemplifies the fusion of tradition and innovation in craft. The residency’s results showcased how sustainability and craft can intersect within the art and design sector, and invites visitors to appreciate the beauty and significance of local tangible and intangible cultural heritage in a contemporary context. Listen to the RDW Talks podcast in which Anouska spoke with Mihai Gurei from Black Rhino Radio. For more details about the Botanical Explorations and Prints Workshop organised by the Pro Patrimonio Foundation as part of Circular Catalysts @ Romanian Design Week visit the Pro Patrimonio website.

Annemarie O’Sullivan and Tom Mcwalter from Studio AMOS embarked on a journey to explore local crafts and traditional ways of living and making. During their stay in Cincu, hosted by KraftMade, the UK-based basket artisans had the opportunity to exchange knowledge and techniques with local basket weavers from Sibiu County. They also discovered that the practice of cultivating willow for weaving, which they do in the UK, has been lost in Romania, and craftspeople here collect wild willow instead. However, Annemarie and Tom identified a plot in the village where willow might have been cultivated specifically for basketry, proving that locally sustainable craft is waiting to be rediscovered and grown back into a flourishing culture. This discovery is a testament to the importance of knowledge sharing. As Annemarie puts it, her work has always been a conversation with makers who have come before her, passing techniques from one generation to the next, and her visit to Romania is a powerful experience that she is keen to draw on. Listen to the RDW Talks podcast in which Annemarie O’Sullivan and Cristiana Tăutu (Head of Arts at British Council Romania) talked with Mihai Gurei from Black Rhino Radio.

Lola Lely is a highly skilled designer/maker who utilises traditional craft techniques to produce distinctive and desirable products and artworks for private clients, galleries and retailers. Lola’s unique process frequently involves collaborating with artisans and communities outside of her typical professional environment, enabling her to learn from and engage with skilled craftspeople both in the UK and abroad. Lola’s work often includes a degree of social engagement and some of her most fulfilling projects have involved working with marginalised or under-represented groups. As a designer, Lola has a proven track record of taking inspiration from craft traditions and transforming them into well-considered, practical products and collectable artworks. Patzaikin is a Romanian fashion and lifestyle House founded in 2011 by architect Teodor Frolu and Olympian Ivan Patzaichin. The Patzaikin ecosystem, inspired by Ivan’s connection to nature and water and the Danube Delta, is a collaborative entrepreneurship between artists, architects, designers and passionate craftspeople. Guided by their creative experience and distilled through contemporary design, they promote the transfer of both material and immaterial resources from local rural heritage. Lola Lely embarked on a trip to the village of Mila 23 to immerse herself in the unique landscape of the Danube Delta and learn about the local customs. Patzaikin will also build a rural cultural centre dedicated to the memory of Ivan Patzaichin. Following her residency, Lola participated in a collaborative workshop with several artists and artisans, part of the Creative Traditions network, sharing her knowledge about circular production processes and contributing to the concept making of the next Creative Traditions exhibition at the Peasant Museum in Bucharest. Listen to the RDW Talks podcast in which Lola Lely spoke with Mihai Gurei from Black Rhino Radio.

Carol Carey, the Creative Director of Somerset Art Works (SAW), recently completed a creative residency in Cluj, hosted by Remarkable Romania. Her aim was to explore opportunities for collaboration between Somerset artists and Romanian craft practitioners by scoping for a Romanian partner to set up a craft residency in Romania. SAW is dedicated to developing the visual arts in Somerset and offers a range of services to a broad range of clients and partners across the county, including project management services and education and community engagement programmes. The rural community in Somerset faces operational obstacles and limited resources, which can lead to social isolation. However, SAW is committed to creating new opportunities for artists to carry out research and to develop opportunities for collaboration, in order to achieve excellence in the community. They also focus on environmental sustainability, local craft heritage and the role that arts and craft can play in shaping and sustaining our lives. Over the last ten years, SAW has raised the quality of craft in Somerset by engaging craft practitioners with a track record of excellence and creating education resources to enable young people to develop making skills. Remarkable Romania is a project by the Cluj Cultural Centre, consisting of a network of small settlements in Transylvania investing in culture and heritage as local sustainable development. They support their member settlements to give new added value to their culture and heritage, for the sustainability of the community and the region. Through this residency, Carey was able to explore potential partnerships and collaboration opportunities between SAW and Remarkable Romania, which could benefit both Somerset and Romanian artists and communities.

Upcoming Residence

Rosamaria Kostic Cisneros is a dancer, Romani studies scholar, Dance historian and critic, a Flamenco historian, sociologist, curator, and peace activist. Rosamaria grew up in and received her education in the US, she has lived in various parts of the world as a professional dancer, choreographer, sociologist, and qualified teacher. Rosamaria has devoted her life to dance and education, she uses dance, history, activism, and education to communicate, share, and inspire others in their own development and creative journey. Rosamaria uses her heritage to have empathy, passion, compassion, and a critical eye to the world around us. Rosamaria has a B.F.A. in Dance from the University of Wisconsin, an MA in Dance History and Criticism from the University of New Mexico, and a PhD. in Sociology from the University of Barcelona. She is currently a research-artist at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research, and also works as an independent artist, dancer, curator, and teacher.