Valerie Barkowski, Belgian textile designer and creative director of lifestyle brand No-Mad, quit her studies because she found the courses too structured and boring, and went on to fulfil her childhood dream of travelling the world. She has jumped continents, drawn inspirations from cultures spanning the globe, and over the years has worked across several disciplines that include textile design, product design, styling and branding.
Valerie’s gypsy heart translates her travel encounters into unique creations that venerate local handicrafts and are perfectly synced with our modern sensibilities.
She is the happiest when working in a workshop, learning new techniques from the local artisans.
Over the course of time, Valerie has successfully spearheaded several lifestyle brands that have garnered worldwide recognition and in recent years has made her mark in India with her work for brands like Bandit Queen and No-Mad. Her intuitive and immersive designs have a cross-cultural flair that are timeless and transcend borders, much like Valerie herself. She is a drifter who weaves multi-cultural designs with a dash of originality.
Here, she talks about why she can’t be tied down to a place or a vocation, blending cultures in design, venerating crafts and its artisans.
You discovered design through travel. Walk us through this journey of self-exploration.
Through travel, I discovered and started my education in the world of crafts. It started probably in Morocco, when I visited the country for the first time and saw all the artisans at work everywhere. I quickly understood that this would be the beginning of endless possibilities for me. The first thing I made was a metal business card in the souks of Marrakech, then I worked for two weeks in a pottery workshop in Safi where I painted one of a kind large ceramic plates. From thereon I never stopped. Even when I was on a holiday in Lamu (Kenya) a few years back I designed a backgammon board and had it made by a local artisan during my stay.
You work across several disciplines – textile design, branding, styling, conceptualising and product design – do you find it difficult to champion all these domains or are they just an extension of your personality?
I have learned all these aspects because I had my own brands for several years and when you are the entrepreneur you need to go through all the departments. Also, I like to work on different disciplines because I need my head to be in a creative state of mind. Working always on the same programs is boring for me and not inspiring.
Your work reflects the local cultures and ethnicities (of different places), yet they are globally relevant and timeless. How do you manage to blend and harmonise the local techniques?
By spending time in the countries and in the workshops. I think it is the only way to learn and move forward.
Tell us something about your work for brands in India – Bandit Queen and No-Mad. What are their individual philosophies and goals?
Both are not my brands, these are two brands I have conceptualised for clients. I have discontinued Bandit Queen three years ago; the brand later was taken forward by my client. No-Mad started with entrepreneur Anuj Kothari, it was launched two years ago and I am still the creative director. We are finalising our new collection currently.
All the brands that bear your signature are handcrafted. Keeping in mind the times where even buildings are now 3-D printed, it would be interesting to know more about your special attachment with handcrafted products.
I love ancestral traditions and to dive into them, to learn and make new developments is very exciting. But, I am also interested by our contemporary world; in some designs of mine for Bandit Queen we used digital printing. I had the idea to make x-rays of flowers and also worked on other digital prints. That is not handcrafted. I like to explore and I don’t mind to work with contemporary techniques as they offer different possibilities. But yes, I prefer craft and the human aspect related to it.
Knowing about a craft’s modalities and knowing about it through the artisans must be a very different experience. How does that factor influence your designs?
When I make products that are handmade by artisans I first look at what kind of skills the artisans have and how they work. From there I take it further. What is the point to come up with designs that are not possible to make? Also, when you work with artisans and study their techniques these artisans are happy for the attention you give them and they are happy to share their knowledge and try to find solutions and new ways to produce our ideas. The bond between the artisan and the designer is strong … it is teamwork.
One craft or technique from India that you haven’t yet worked with and would like to explore…
There are many that I have not explored until now. Ikat is definitely a craft I would like to explore and work with. I am fascinated by these weaves.
Owing to lack of appreciation, the legacy of crafts and arts is gradually declining. As a result the artisans’ community of India is dramatically shrinking. You are doing a commendable job of supporting this legacy; however, what collective efforts should be made to make sure this treasure is not completely lost to us?
People are concerned about artisans but I think they often take the wrong route when they get involved with handcraft. It is always better to start very small and to have a community growing. But this takes time and efforts and people who are concerned and sit behind their desks are not always aware of how it is “on site”, how artisans work, what their mentality is.
India is losing a lot of skills, that is a fact, but there is a consciousness about that and an increasing number of young designers are working with artisans. Also, it is time to understand that handwork has a value and that something that was made by hand has a higher value than a manufactured industrial product. Each consumer is a part of the chain and instead of buying Chinese fabrics I think it is necessary to buy local products. That definitely helps and encourages the local products and craft.
Could you name any of your contemporaries whose work you admire?
Tell us about your boutique property Dar Kawa in Marrakech, which you have designed in collaboration with architect Quentin Wilbaux.
The house was bought in 1996 and fully restored with architect Quentin Wilbaux, whose area of expertise is Arabic architecture and more particularly the medina of Marrakech. The house was built in the beginning of the 17th century, Insaadian style. The house was in very poor condition and it took us more than two years to restore it.
On a lighter note…
One of your pillow covers says, ‘Where do you want to spend eternity?’ … considering your wanderlust, where would you like to spend eternity?
Interview by Shweta Salvi