Functional Works of Art

Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: Pia

Walking into Pia’s showroom in Kulimha, down a lane off Patan Durbar Square, I had just one thought, I wish my house looked like this; this is what I want my living room to look like! Well, perhaps not exactly—no one needs a dozen lamps, after all, but something about the cozy chic combination of things that filled the room gave me a wonderful, warm sensation.
The materials used to make the pieces on display, which are mostly home décor objects, added to this feeling—wood, metal, hand-woven fabrics—when surrounded by these, I feel both the solidness of their presence and their continuity through time. This is what people have made objects from over the years, and it feels so much better, at least to me, than something shiny and modern and plastic.
While there is the above-mentioned variety of materials in use, copper is clearly a big part of what Pia does, and they aim to find and utilize different techniques to present it. Here, there are bottles, trays, and plates in different colors of copper, some of which are beautifully oxidized.
The Nepali game baagh chal (tigers and goats) is on a low table, too, in a chic, sleek incarnation, again completely handmade, and of course, there are the signature Pia lamps; when you see one, you’ll realize there’s nothing quite like them. With models that are stand lamps, wall-mounted, or that sit on your beside table (my favorite ones), these are something special; beautiful, functional art pieces.

When Pia’s founder and designer, Marie Ange Sylvain-Holmgren, realized that talented craftspeople were among the many leaving the country to look for work, she was inspired to try to find a way to encourage them to remain here, while still earning a good living. “I come from a humanitarian background, and I started this because I saw artisans were leaving the country, dropping their ancient skills,” she explained. After the earthquake, many were employed in rebuilding facets of the temples and destroyed heritage, which was both an honor and valued need, but after a while, that work, too, dried up.
Her logic was very simple: while people love the work that artisans are doing and the products they are making, most of us already have bought pots, jugs, and trays. Every Nepali home probably has a puja plate and a set of copper dishes. Her conclusion? “What if we were to use these skills and make other objects, contemporary objects, but luxury objects, things that are functional but also can be seen as luxurious? I think that skills acquired since the 13th century surely can make luxury products. Surely it deserves to be called luxury.” And that was the genesis of Pia.
It’s so true. There always seems to be a market for luxury goods, even during hard times. Marie Ange thinks it’s not fair that Nepali crafts are seen as cheap to some, when you look at the amazing craftsmanship here, on display in exquisite temples, monuments, and statues.
So, she approached an artisan with the idea, which turned out to be the hardest part, because at first he didn’t want to deviate from what he had done really well, and for so long. Eventually, though, they found some who were willing to try, and the journey began. From the start, Marie Ange was adamant that the products should be made perfectly, with no flaws: handmade doesn’t mean bad quality, she insisted, and she did not want the rough parts to be visible. If something was irregular, that should be by design.

Now I’m one of those people who likes rustic art and crafts, but looking at the items on display in Pia’s showroom, I can’t help but be impressed. These are home décor items that would fit right in if displayed in the homes of art collectors and style icons. And particularly if someone does not know Nepal or have any connection here but is just seeing these items in a shop abroad, they will look at the beauty and quality first of all.
“The first year, I took these products to fairs in Europe, Paris, and Germany, just to see what was being done, and also, how our products were received. They were still average, then, but I don’t regret going, because people passing by, potential buyers, told us what the flaws in our products were,” said Marie Ange. From that first foray, Pia has grown slowly and steadily, and this August it will be two years since they’ve opened. They have customers both here and abroad, make contacts at fairs, and the response has been really good. She told me that sometimes they can’t keep up.
Marie Ange clearly has a real respect for traditional work and methods, as well as a uniquely modern sense of art and style, and the company mixes Nepali skill and know-how with designs both local and from elsewhere. “I want to make things you don’t see anywhere else, and for people to look at the product and see the hand of the artisan,” she told me, and I think they have succeeded, because somehow the work on display shows a harmony in diversity, mixing styles, ideas, and cultural inspiration in a way that is both beautiful and respectful to the original art form.

On the wall, a framed line drawing, a whimsical piece that represents their company, strong and fragile, a hummingbird with butterfly wings—the hummingbird is the national bird of Haiti, where Marie Ange’s family, though French, is originally from, and the bird features prominently in the art work, along with many other components, some of which I don’t recognize. “It’s mixed, I like the story of my family, this is how I understand the world—mix and mix.” It certainly seems to have worked. From the skilled artisans to the young team that runs the company in the offices on the floor above us, plus her own vision, they are always experimenting together, trying new things. Creativity, Marie Ange believes, is a renewable resource. If someone should copy one of their designs, they will make another design, but they themselves don’t want to copy anyone else, instead, their goal is to do things that haven’t been done before, and that you don’t find anywhere else. “When you see our lamp, you know that it’s a Pia lamp,” she states with pride.