May 1, 2008
Craft on the Dial
Looking to create sustainable jobs for the skilled workers of his hometown, one Indonesian designer produces a handmade radio.
With its toylike dials and unvarnished surface, the charming Magno transistor radio is enough to make you nostalgic for a time when you didn’t feel compelled to buy a new iPod every year. The two-toned gadget, which comes in three sizes, has been drawing praise in the design world for its appealing mix of retro and modern stylings and its use of sustainable wood. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the most compelling part of the radio’s story: the designer, Singgih Susilo Kartono, began his business to improve the economic conditions of his Indonesian village and school its residents in the ways of environmentally responsible production.
Kartono, who grew up in Kandangan, left home in 1986 to study product design at the Bandung Institute of Technology, in West Java. He visited his family once or twice a year only to find that his village’s way of life was quietly eroding. Farmers had abandoned their traditional methods to raise genetically modified crops, subsidized by government loans; others had begun selling their topsoil for brick-making, stripping the land of valuable nutrients; and some had left town altogether seeking opportunities in cities in Indonesia and abroad. When Kartono returned home to settle down several years after graduation, he decided to start a business using a craft-based production model that would maximize two of the area’s most abundant resources: wood and available labor. Contrary to expectations, teaching new employees the required basic carpentry skills (Kandangan has no inherited craft tradition) and assembly-line manufacturing proved relatively simple. “From my experience, even the most difficult trick can be taught in less than a week,” Kartono says. “The greatest challenge is to build a professional work ethic and mentality.” Today his company, Piranti Works, employs some 30 workers, who make up to 150 handcrafted radios a month.
Kartono’s sense of stewardship extends to the environment. Last November he converted the plot surrounding his workshop into a tree nursery with the goal of replacing every tree he cuts down. He will soon begin giving away saplings to villagers to replant on their own land, and by the end of the year he plans to buy and reforest another five acres. Just as he feels obligated to replenish the trees he uses, Kartono expects those who buy his radios to maintain them. It’s the owner’s job to service his or her radio, whose uncoated surface must be oiled periodically to protect the wood. “The built-in fragility is aimed to encourage [the] user to be deeply connected with the product,” he says. “Perhaps in Western culture it is equivalent to a childhood memory of a grandfather’s clock or a gramophone.” And if you’re still wedded to your iPod? Not to worry—Kartono has equipped his radios with MP3-compatible inputs.