Craft meets crowdfunding: halting a rural brain drain in the Balkans

A Serbian social enterprise links skilled craftspeople with modern designers in a bid to reboot the beleaguered rural economy. Could a crowdfunding campaign scale operations up?

Traditional makers and modern designers are joining forces in the Balkans in an effort to halt a brain drain of young talent from local rural economies.

Centuries-long traditions of craftsmanship are being lost from the eastern European region as a result of modern mass production and limited economic opportunities. Young people are migrating to cities in search of better opportunities.

Those at Belgrade-based design network and co-working space Nova Iskra think they might have an answer. They launched a social enterprise called Folkk in 2015, which connects experienced craftspeople with emerging designers to collaborate on projects. The idea is then to give makers access to new markets, with the hope it will lead to interesting careers that will encourage them to stick around, and provide more stable incomes.

The Balkans is one of the most exciting regions in Europe, but unfortunately some of the traditions are being forgotten

“The Balkans is one of the most exciting regions in Europe,” said Marko Radenkovic, co-founder of Folkk. “With the ongoing development of the countries, there are great opportunities for local people; but unfortunately some of the regional traditions are being forgotten, like local products.”

He and his team have so far forged links between three makers and three design studios in Serbia. They have used locally sourced materials, including wood and wool, to create simple, sellable objects such as cutting boards, serving plates and patterned cushions. Striking hand-woven rugs have also been produced, using a technique that dates back to the sixteenth century. Each product has in common the fusing of traditional knowledge with modern design.

Serbian designer Tamara Svonja

Folkk is midway through a 30-day Kickstarter campaign, which the team hopes will allow them to scale things up: expanding operations to the wider Balkans region; bringing more designers and makers on board; and reaching new markets. Those involved in the project, they say, are either small, struggling family businesses, or social collectives that offer support to marginalised groups in their respective communities.

One example is Užice, an all-female social enterprise in western Serbia. All employees have either been made redundant or are partially disabled: a fact that has made the already-difficult task of finding employment even more tricky.

Ćilim workshop in southern Serbia

But the region holds a wealth of skills on which to draw. The Balkans’ rich history of crafts has been boosted by being heavily reliant on local materials until the mid-nineteenth century. Items from spoon handles and chairs, to front doors were traditionally ornately decorated. Sitting at a cultural crossroads, Balkan, Oriental and European knowledge all influenced the area’s craft techniques and designs.

Milan Blagojevic, a woodworker form western Serbia, works with Folkk. “Serbia was extremely rich in old crafts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” he said. “What connected me to wood was the knowledge that travels from generation to generation.”

What connected me to wood was the knowledge that travels from generation to generation

Two-thirds of Folkk’s revenue goes directly to makers, while the remaining third is reinvested in developing new products.

So far more than $8,000 (£6,600) of Folkk’s $20,000 (£15,800) goal has been pledged. The project will only be funded if the target is reached, and ends on 12 July.


Featured image: Woodworker Milan Blagojevic in his workshop

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