As soon as we stumbled across the unusual felt lighting, and woven rugs, cushions and accessories of Po! Paris, we were taken with their use of material, form and of course colour. When we learnt that the pieces are the result of merging traditional craftspeople of Albania with some of France’s most interesting designers – including the imaginative Nathalie Lété – we fell for them even more. Catching up with one of the two founding directors of Po!– John Felici – we’ve discovered that there are many interesting stories behind the pieces, which gives them yet more appeal. Here, John tells us about the brand’s beginnings, how he’s discovered a generous culture and why talking local craftspeople into experimenting with new ideas, sometimes involves making jokes nobody understands or enduring a hair-raising drive through the country…
Can you tell us more about your positive company name choice?
“Po! means ‘yes’ in Albanian. Albanians shake their heads when they say yes like we do when we say no. When we started this adventure back in 2007 we were regularly asked: why Albania? Albania was still recovering from the social crisis of the nineties, something that came up when emigration, civil war famine, crime or similar topics were discussed. So the real question was really ‘why on earth Albania when so many other places have strong handicraft and export cultures?’ Our answer was simply ‘Yes! Albania’. Over time we’ve realised that we continued working with Albania for reasons bigger than business strategy. We sketched out theories about added value of choosing the wrong place, the wrong material and the wrong people when dealing with design. This was out way of admitting that we had no idea where we were going at the time, but still felt convinced that difficulties and constraints can be an asset when you need to make something new and original, with soul. What really kept us was the welcoming spirit of this small country in the Balkans. More than once when we were there, we’d ask for the bill in a café or a restaurant and hear the waiter say, ‘the bill has been paid sir’ – and it was impossible to know by whom since the mysterious benefactor had left the premises. A man once paid my 10 cents bus ticket. When you struggle to follow a difficult path, small things like this really count.”
What do you view as being typically Albanian colours – or even Albanian attitudes to colour?
“Tirana’s long-serving mayor Edi Rama – an artist who had lived in Paris – dealt with many problems of the capital of Albania: illegal constructions for one, but also the aesthetics of the decaying buildings of the socialist era. He came up with the idea that a coat of paint and murals could change the face of the town and create a positive link between the inhabitants and their city. For two decades Tirana has being painting the run down facades of the poor quarters with incredible colours lighting up the simple lines of an otherwise un-interesting architecture. It is just an example of how in Albania, colour is a simple fact of life. Albanians don’t even really notice how much it defines them. I once met a women in her seventies, weaving every day and selling her products in the markets. She would sell belts to local doctors who used them to help patients with back problems. Thick woven belts in recycled yarn from old clothes. The way she assembled the colours was miraculous, each piece of yarn chosen and woven next to another one with a perfectly matching colour, either in harmony or calculated contrast. When I put together Nathalie Lété’s flowery designs and our group of female weavers, there was never one single doubt that it would work. The ladies assembled colours and interpreted the designs with an instinctive sense for colour I have never really seen before. Of course many countries in the world deal with colour, but with Albania there is something instinctive about it. It’s culturally close to a European sensibility, without being ‘typically Slav’ or ‘tyically Balkan’. For me it’s still a mystery.”
How did you choose the artists you work with?
“Mainly friends or casual encounters. Paris is great place for that.”
What are typical crafts in Albania that you are using for your collections?
“I have been using welding in the past, but we are now focusing on wool, either felted or woven.”
When you are commissioning your makers, do you have a say in which colours you want to include?
“The general outline is decided by the designer (myself, Nathalie Lété, Aurélie Mathigot or Philippe Model), but I know the ladies behind the loom will decide in the end simply because a computer image of a guache painting is not easily translated in woven yarn. More than once the creation is inspired by the original design rather than being a real translation onto a woven material.”
What inspired you to create the felt lamp collection – the use of the material especially?
“The man I first met in Albania was the most stubborn hat maker you can imagine. Working in a tiny workshop in a mountain village lost in the Balkans, surrounded by the same wooden shapes his father had used before him. I was really looking for someone who could make felt as I knew that had been an important tradition in the country, without really knowing what I could do with it. When I saw how light filtered through the thin but well formed traditional felt hats I first saw, I thought lighting was the the product we could develop.
But there seemed no way I could have some form of variation of those shapes to make lamp shades. The man would simply say ‘no’ each time I came to see him. Then, one day, I organised a meeting with someone who had the right wood to make new shapes. Then another man came by. He had links to the Bektashi community in Turkey, and was looking for someone to make a hat for the religious meetings, as that tradition is now lost in Turkey. It is a long tall hat vaguely resembling the Pope’s tiara. That was the spark that was the beginning of a new era: we could at last start doing something new. Since then we have been making new shapes with his son and nephew. A waning tradition is now a lovely way to make a living. It’s hard work of course, but also a source of pride and hope for better days ahead.”
Your blog features some lovely insights into your inspirations – eg street tiles leading to the rugs – can you explain more about what things inspire you now?
The whole idea of our Brand is that we bring distant worlds together. I meet a designer and try and understand who they will fit together with. We work as a match-making business like this. Nathalie Lété loves flowers and animals, but how is that going to be woven with thick yarn? We talked to our group of weavers and came up with the idea of mixing flat woven and knotted techniques so the tufted (knotted) pattern can stick out from the flat woven background. Philippe Model loves colour and for his pieces, we work with the workshop to produce three combined colours in one twisted yarn. Aurélie has a different approach again, mixing crochet and embroidery and many materials in her creative process. So we research all the techniques we have at our disposal and see how we can bring them together.
Sometimes a customer can come along with an interesting idea, and even if we don’t really understand what they mean, something superb happens in the end. Right now we are working on integrating 10 or more weaving techniques on one single woven item.”
“Nathalie is redecorating a home she bought near Fontainbleu and is literally making each piece to her taste. I saw some of these stones in her workshop she wanted to use to decorate the ceramic lamp shades she was making. I loved the idea and started playing around with her shapes in my own workshop. I then asked a friend, Claire Hecquet Chaut, who makes ceramic jewellery, to develop the colour range. People can simply pick and choose the colour and the shape as they want, mixing colours and shapes to their taste.”
How else have Albanian traditions influenced what you create and sell?
“Albanian traditionnal craft is not really what I like most about Albania. Kilims have geometric patterns that I am not fond of. But the weavers have learned to weave in the ‘Fabrike Artistikë’ of the socialist regime – they know how to weave so they can do anything that is technically feasible. Since businesses are tiny, you are always dealing with someone who knows his job, not a marketing director. That is what I like.
Traditionnal knotted rugs are made with symmetrical flower patterns and a limited choice of colours. But they are made one by one and the yarn is from local wool we can colour as we wish. All you need is to convince the weaver to do things the wrong way. You need to sit next to her and after some light talk and jokes neither of us understands as we do not speak the same language, we can start experimenting.
The hat maker has an impossible character and his driving is appalling. But once you go for a ride and explore the country with him we can get down to work on new ideas and he will do it with extraordinary energy. These are the experiences that we treasure. It may be a tradition, or simply Albanian identity, an Albanian way of approaching life.”
Is there a place where any of the pieces have been installed that you’re particularly proud of?
“We deal with distributors, generally independent stores and rarely with the final customer. We were flattered to be at Bergdorf’s, we were touched when Sue Fisher King came to order. We were excited when our first giant felt lamp mobile was to be the centre piece of the large salon of a brand new Villa in Menorca or even when Dock B [club] in Paris asked us to make a 50 lamp chandelier in time for their opening ceremony. But we are really touched when anybody manages to come and see us in our dusty Paris workshop to choose a piece for their personal space.”
What’s coming up next for Po! Paris?
“God Knows! We want to grow and our producers to grow with us, continuing to create collaborations between distant worlds and mentalities. We will be merging more materials in one item such as our lamps in felt brass and Albaster. We will be mixing more weaving techniques with Nathalie and Aurelie. We also dream that the formula can travel and multiply elsewhere, maybe Africa…?”