Regina Serpas at the ECMH + UDB Design for Mobility display at ICFF.
Many design companies and designers stood out this week at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at New York's Javits Center, but none more so than ECMH + UDB Design for Mobility.
The initials stand for two universities in El Salvador: Escuela de Comunicacion Monica Herrera and Universidad Don Bosco. Last September eight undergraduate students and five professors from the schools teamed with five design professionals and two artisans to design products for use in cultivating coffee—long a major part of the country's economy.
Many of the Design for Mobility participants were on hand at ICFF to show the results of their efforts, all aimed at helping an industry that has literally flourished on the backs of the working poor who make subsistence pay, often enduing great pain and hardship.
"They're so important for the pickers of our coffee," said Regina Serpas, one of the Monica Herrera students and a strategic designer (the Don Bosco students, she said, were industrial designers). "We talked to them and found out that they were suffering a lot of pain because they had to carry so much coffee beans on their shoulders and back for very long distances. It's a process that hasn't changed in all the centuries of coffee picking, because there's no incentive."
First the students analyzed the coffee harvesting process at a plantation in the Salvadoran highlands region of the Quezaltepeque Volcano. Then they devised three products that addressed the coffee pickers' painful struggle in lifting and transporting the 100-pound coffee bean sacks from the plantation to the bean classification area, and their physical discomfort while sitting or squatting while classifying the beans.
They modified a basket used for carrying beans, originally attached to the picker's waist by a tie, by making an ergonomic harness to hold the heavy bean-loaded basket on the picker's back. Denim bags were also made from recycled jeans and are meant for hanging on the baskets, thereby allowing for classification of beans by color (red—which are good—yellow and green) and preventing them from falling out.
As coffee pickers are paid by quantity picked, the designers likewise constructed a wooden frame with straps for carrying the 100-pound (when filled) burlap coffee bags on pickers' backs. Pickers typically just hoist them onto their neck, shoulders and backs for the long, slow and painful trek to the farm from the mountain.
The third product is a portable table to classify beans that allows pickers to kneel comfortably rather than squat over those beans that are otherwise laid out before them on the ground. The table also employs a fabric surface from which the good beans can easily be transferred to sacks for weighing and transport.
Significantly, these pieces were designed to be built by local artisans with existing resources within the coffee plantations communities, which are in the mountain regions of El Salvador where coffee growing is optimal.
"We designed products that the pickers can easily make themselves, since they don't have the money to buy them," said Serpas. "We want to impact their health, and make the coffee farmers understand that happy and healthy employees with a better quality of life make for greater productivity and better coffee quality."
Serpas and her fellow designers were understandably excited to show their work at ICFF. She contrasted theirs with the bulk of the product on display at Javits.
"It's not just a chair or beautiful table," she said, "but something that can change someone's way of seeing things—and change lives."
Coffee pickers will now test the Design for Mobility product, which will then be evaluated by plantation owners in seeking ways for improvement. The design team will then present the results to the National Coffee Council for validation, clearing the way for more plantation owners to learn about the initiative and eventually construct and distribute the finished products.