Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, a weekly column, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perch in the design world.
When it comes to corporate social responsibility, Tel Aviv–based brand Iota Project is both talking the talk and walking the walk. Philanthropist/activist Shula Mozes founded Iota in 2014 with the idea of hiring textile workers from marginalized communities in order to encourage upward social mobility. In the time since, Iota has commissioned many Bedouin women and, more recently, Syrian refugees to hand-make their goods. Surface spoke with Tal Zur, Iota’s co-founder and creative director, to learn more about the brand’s origins, ethos, and the way in which it changes its workers’ lives.
Tal Zur: Iota was founded in 2014 by Shula Mozes, a social activist and philanthropist who had a dream to utilize the craft of knitting, which she loves, into a socialventure. Made aware that there are countless communities of women worldwide who are unable to work outside of their natural habitats, she felt an urge to make a difference and envisioned a brand based on knitting that could potentially offer employment for such women. Ms. Mozes then reached out to me—an industrial designer with an inclination for craft and textile—to be the creative thinker behind the project.
A week after our first meeting I was traveling to Spain, taking the famous Camino de Santiago trail. Walking through the landscape, everything I saw reminded me of knitting:the fields of flowers we passed on our way, the succulents growing everywhere—I envisioned them all as three-dimensional knitting elements. Shortly thereafter I visited the exhibition “Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and was tremendously influenced by it. I fell in love with the idea of creating soft knitted furniture that promotes a social agenda and together, with Ms. Mozes, who funded this vision, we started to build the brand that is Iota.
What was your first product, and how is it indicative of your brand’s ethos?
Our first product was the Enchanted Forest Swing. Initially, we didn’t work with sketches or drawings. I was playing with the idea of knitting the shapes you find in nature, influenced by my trip to Spain. I also focused on finding a way to create products with a tolerance for mistakes. Usually, designers look for the best professional you can find: the best carpenter, the best painter, the artist who will make no mistakes. The challenge with Iota was to design something that [amateur textile weavers] can knit but would be pieced together to create a beautiful piece of art and that would be true to the design. Our final design of the Swing is made of 186 elements that could potentially be knitted by different people and would still present a high-end product when it’s done. One of the things I love about the swing is that it usually corresponds with people’s happy childhood memories and, therefore, often makes them smile while swinging.
How, if at all, does Israeli influence manifest in your products?
Tel Aviv, the “White City,” is known for its Bauhaus influence. But it is also a mix of cultures that present themselves in diverse cuisine, fashion, people, et cetera. It is also known for its innovative high-tech startsups, as well as for its contemporary style. I feel that [Iota’s] design mirrors that with the myriad techniques and colors that is very much like the city we work in.
The main concept in our design is creating innovative products from a traditional starting point and changing the perception of what can be done using this technique. The products have a tactile nature which calls to create playful contact and combinations between shapes, colors, and textures. We try to make the traditional contemporary. In that sense, it’s much like the city we live and work in, in that it brings different techniques together and represents many cultures.
If you would ask me if I am an Israeli designer, I would say that I am a designer from Israel. Our goal was to design something that will not be folkloristic, but that would be relevant for many places, beyond boundaries and—hopefully—timeless.
What product or aspect of your company are you most proud of?
At Iota, we make sure that although we support a social agenda, we do not compromise on quality of design and materials.We control everything about our products, from design to the manufacturing of the yarn and we hold it to the highest standards. We take pride in that and we feel that aspiring to achieve it makes our productsoutstanding. The threads we use for our textile are woven according to our specific needs and manufactured specifically to match Iota’s color scheme and design, made from the finest threads available.
Another aspect I take pride in is that we teach people, mainly women, traditional craft techniques. We believe that the process of creating and knitting a product is as important as the result and that it is rewarding on its own. The reward is in creating a unique, one-of-a-kind element that is the creation of the knitter. Becoming an expert in craftsmanship is also empowering as a human being and we use it to empower the communities of women we work with.
How do you find the people that stitch your textiles?
Surprisingly we met some initial contacts through Facebook! Once we were introduced to some key people within the Bedouin community, we quickly started to interview potential woman that were interested in learning how to knit and started to work with us. We meet with our community of Bedouin women regularly in Hura, where they live, usually out of their houses at the local community center. The women gather their knitting elements, share ideas, techniques, and advice, socialize, and help each other with their craft. This is another fun aspect that is introduced to them as they work for Iota and is usually outside their culture, where most women stay indoors with their immediate family.
Please tell us how you go about sourcing the materials to create Iota’s yarns.
Our yarn is manufactured specifically for us, here in Tel Aviv, and we import all the basic material needs for it, mainly cotton and polyester.We use different traditional techniques and the outcome is unique in shape, construction, and coloring. By using different materials to create our fibers, we are able to preserve the strong qualities of each of the components and create the precise assembled thread combining both fine texture and construction strength.
Our yarn became part of our language and is associated with our products in style and quality. We specialize in creating different tones of colors—the outcome has a “zoom effect.” If you look at the item from a distance, you will think it is made in one color, but when you get closer and closer you will find a variety of different colors in each thread.
Let’s discuss the social responsibility portion of Iota. Was the brand always predicated on the idea of helping others?
Absolutely.As I mentioned earlier, the basic motivation in creating Iota was to be able to influence and improve the employment statues of underprivileged communities of women. We work with people with no prospect for employment, giving them opportunities, as we invest in their training and mentorship. We give the women who knit for us the option of working from home and compensate them with fair pay, all while creating a sense of community and empowerment. Our production process is completely transparent, and we absolutely condemn child labor and sweatshop environments. We now see that Iota affects our workers’ lives in ways we couldn’t foresee: we provide them with a cell phone so we can communicate with them, [but as a result, the ability to] access the internet opens new channels of information for them. In addition, just by the mere fact that they are earning a salary, they are entitled to use their voice more clearly within their households and express an opinion, exercising the right to choose for their children not just clothes, for example, but also to influencetheirchoice of university or profession.
With that in mind, we’ve chosen to start working with Bedouin women living in the Israeli Desert, and we are now also working with Syrian refugees out of Turkey. This idea contains a social responsibility and a way to maintain traditional arts by enhancing the importance of knowledge and skills. Knitting is an international language, with global terms and signs, permitting us to overcome distance, culture, and language barriers, and allowing us to create an equal identical starting point for our team. The women who knitted the elements for the collection needed no prior knowledge in knitting but were taught the technique in a short course given by Iota that allowed them to specialize in it. Finally, the majority of profits from Iota’s product sales are invested in welfare and educational programs worldwide.