Photographed by: Katie Jameson | Interview of: Sarah Contrucci Smith, founder of Ara Collective
How did you get started?
In college I studied business marketing and art and, although I wasn't sure how those two things could go together, I knew I loved both the creative and strategic thinking. I did a variety of marketing jobs my first couple years out of college but longed to apply good design and business-mindedness to improving impoverished communities. My childhood was spent in the jungles of Indonesia and that experience shaped my love for adventure, exploring cultures, and caring about those that have been marginalized by social injustice, geography, and access to markets. As I started to work on my masters in International Development I still didn't know how these things could go together into something with my skill set but I was keeping my eyes open. My graduate program included summer residencies in Uganda, East Africa and that is where I first introduced to designing for social businesses. For three years, I worked for a handful of projects in East Africa in designing, skills training, and production management. I learned a lot about being creative with limited resources to design and produce products with high enough quality to be sold in the United States. I don't think I'm an amazing designer but I do think I'm good at working with what I can find and with the local talent to create something beautiful and meaningful. I love seeing the power that has to provide a good job, steady income, and a better quality of life for those who have been trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.
During a month-long backpacking trip with my husband in Central America in 2014, I realized that there was so much talent and skill already in the area but, without market access and the knowledge of trends in the US, they were struggling to make a good income from their work. These people didn't need skills training or new designs, they just needed some updated color palettes, the right dimensions for pillow inserts, and access to the global marketplace. That's when Ara Collective was born.
What influences you? / Where do you get your inspiration?
Right now I'm inspired by modern-exotic Moroccan style, minimalist Scandanavian design, and the vibrant symbols depicted in Latin American textiles. (Especially from Peru, where our newest design collaborations are coming from!) I'm always collecting pieces that inspired me in my travels, so once I come home, I can play with them and re-imagine how they can be used to create relaxing and meaningful spaces.
How do you balance your personal time + work? / How do you create separation?
Ara's studio is on the first floor of our three-story home so finding a work/life balance is hard. But I'm not sure I believe balance is possible or necessary. We all need rest and work ethic, alone time and a social life, but I think it's more about seasons than balance. In some seasons I really need to bear down on a project, put in long hours, sleep less, and leave the laundry to pile up. But in other seasons work isn't as demanding or important as my family, rest, or supporting my husband in his busy season. And that's okay. Every season passes and, I find, the more I embrace the seasons the less they're stressful, guilt-ridden, or exhausting.
What keeps you motivated?/ Why do you love doing this?
I love designing, partnering with makers, strategizing, marketing, and building Ara Collective for a million reasons. I love traveling and exploring cultures, ways of life, and ways of seeing things. I can't control myself around textiles and think the markers are absolutely extraordinary artists, storytellers, and bearers of their heritage. And I believe these talented craftsmen and women, as with all human beings, have value and the right to freedom. I think good business, that is done differently and values both profit (sustainability) and people, can make good changes in the world that empower others, open up global trade, and allow every person to build the future they want. Poverty is crap and has got to go. At the end of the day, I'm motivated by them. Not as a charity but as holding up my end of the deal. The weavers I work with are extraordinary artists with high quality goods. I have the market access to connect their goods with buyers and to tell their stories with dignity. I need their excellence and they need my excellence. We’re in this together and we’ll succeed or fail in this venture together.
Where do you see yourself in 2-5 years? / What’s next for your brand?
In 2-5 years I want to expand Ara's home goods to include a variety of woven collections from Southeast Asia, North Africa, Southern Africa, and the Middle East. I'm captivated by the textile art in those regions and already have some really exciting collaborations in the pipeline. As we expand our retail line, I'd also like to create custom lines for interior designers. And I'd love to open up a Ara Collective showroom and design house in Austin so people can come in and physically experience the textures and complexities of the textiles.