At the heart of one of the country’s largest creative communities, designers and artisans work together to create unique pieces
Local design and authenticity are the driving force behind the project Loulé Criativo (Creative Loulé), created in 2014 and which aims to preserve the region’s identity through different art forms and traditions. In just five years, the initiative has already produced one of the largest creative communities in Portugal. This urgency is easily explained by the need to protect the savoir-faire that was quickly vanishing with the loss of the last craftsmen who, through generations, harnessed precious knowledge.
“There is no one working on a project like this and with this dimension in Portugal, focusing on identity and territory and with so many features,” explains Dália Paulo, municipal director in the municipality of Loulé, the entity behind Loulé Criativo. “We work to empower artisans on the field. This is not a municipal project, but rather an initiative that we sponsor, mediate and facilitate. It’s the freedom of our partners that gives it density. We don’t interfere with creative decisions, we simply allow the artists working here to enjoy the facilities, equipment and workshops,” she states.
Henrique Ralheta studied design and is the director of Loulé Design Lab, one of the branches of Loulé Criativo. According to him, at the moment, there are 22 artists from Loulé involved in the programme. There are also another five workshops spread around the historic town centre, managed by 19 artisans who can be found working on unique pieces on the spot: the coppersmith’s, the watchmaker’s, the luthier’s, the palm weavers’, and the pottery shop. According to Henrique, these workshops are “attracting art-loving visitors to Loulé [and] have really revitalised the area and help develop the local private economy”.
At the coppersmith workshop, Analide Carmo, one of the region’s last coppersmiths, crafts a wide range of items, from jewellery to cataplana dishes, centrepieces, lamps and bowls. One of the most unusual requests he has ever received was a cataplana dish measuring almost a metre in diameter for the kitchens at Vila Vita Parc resort, in Porches. The weavers’ workshop released a lamp collection, which allows clients to customise their pieces with different sizes and colours. Several rural tourism units and hotels have fallen for the works from the artists at Loulé Design Lab and use these unique pieces to decorate and furnish their rooms.
“I feel people want to breathe in all this local production. By visiting workshops, people can personalise their pieces. Usually, they ask for the final piece with variations they like, something that isn’t possible at a store,” Henrique explains. According to Dália Paulo, the project was inspired by a question from the municipality.
“How could we revive a town that, from 1950 to 1970, was so popular for its quality products? Loulé Criativo was the answer”Dália Paulo
Thanks to the initiative, visitors can now watch as artisans work closely with young national and international designers, side by side and sharing the same space.
In June 2019, the project found its home in an emblazoned palace, an old manor house from the 18th century, which was extensively restored to welcome this thriving artistic initiative. There are three different branches operating from the palace: projects for creative tourism with activities and training workshops; the Space for Knowledge, Crafts and Arts (ECOA), with artistic residencies and workshops; and Loulé Design Lab, which aims to support and attract a new generation of Loulé artists, with strong connections to the town, local products and that follows the principles of sustainability.
Over the last few years, collaborations between designers and artisans from these different branches have led to the development and release of countless unique and handmade pieces as well as collections with their very own time and handicraft details. The project has attracted contributors from all over the world and different artistic areas. “It’s very interesting to see how new businesses and dynamics are being created and that transcend our fellowship support and incentives,” says Dália Paulo.
The municipal director believes that what truly sets this project apart is “its ability to understand the entire value chain of what makes a local economic development project, with various stages, creating the conditions for people to spread their wings, boost their business, and make a living in Loulé”. Dália Paulo also highlights the significance of Loulé Criativo for the preservation of the local handicraft identity: “We are rebuilding and strengthening our character while helping revive the brand of a region that has a very unique identity. The luxury of these works is in the time invested in exclusive, handmade pieces, with all the details and love that goes into making them.”
Henrique shares her opinion and adds: “A few years ago, the design of a product was closely linked to its usage and efficiency, but now customers are beginning to look for something else — the quality and attractiveness of the items as well as responsible and sustainable production methods and even the story behind a piece. They look at the process of ordering, manufacturing and selling of a product, they want to know where it comes from, its history, those who made it and even be involved in the development. The whole tailor-made experience that allows for this process of ordering and having direct contact with the craftsmen, and the time involved in creating the piece is different, because it’s possible to watch it live and understand all the manual dexterity involved.”
The director of Loulé Design Lab believes these particularities are not inherent to classic luxury but of other things we see as valuable: “A genuine, bespoke product made with time.”