As a designer, Singgih Susilo Kartono is driven not so much by a desire to create beautiful hand-crafted objects for their own sake, but more to bring about a dramatic social transformation in which people live in open, connected villages, using local resources and building upon traditional skills to create innovative solutions that enable them to interact effectively with the broader world. For Singgih, life in the village is not so much about a return to the traditional past, but a leap into a new future that offers hope and promise to bright young minds that are looking for new ways to live meaningful lives in a post-industrial society.
As a young man, Singgih achieved the ambition of every young villager, leaving the quiet village of Kandangan in the coffee-growing highlands in Tumenggung, Central Java to enrol in the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology’s highly competitive product design programme. After that, his path should have been clear. Like many bright young people from the village, he could have found a well-paid job or established his own business in the big city.
Instead, he did something remarkable: he went back to his village, to live and set up a business there. Singgih’s overwhelming passion was to prove to the world that he could work from his village to create a high-value, world-class product, using local craftspeople and readily available raw materials from his own village. As a student, Singgih had created an elegant, minimalist craft radio, housed in an unvarnished wooden case, lightly polished with oil to accentuate the grain of the wood and to enhance its natural colour. Now he wanted to bring this radio to the world. After a long struggle to source the internal electronic components, in the late 1990s, he finally launched Magno radio from his workshop in Kandangan.
It was an extraordinary success, receiving acclaim and winning design awards not just in Indonesia, but in America, Germany, Britain and Japan. At first glance, it seems unlikely. After all, in the age of the Internet, the smartphone, and the iPod, who even listens to the radio anymore? It’s almost an anachronism. Modern mass-produced devices are meant to fulfil the role of clock, phone, music player, computer and many other functions, without doing any of them really well. The Magno radio only did one thing. But it did it well. And it was an object of beauty. Unlike a mass-produced electronic device, which is updated and replaced according to an annual cycle, these radios required careful maintenance and loving care. By requiring care and attention, these radios created a relationship between the object and their users. It was a rejection of the consumeristic notions that you buy an object and use it until it breaks or becomes outdated, and then you replace it.
Indonesia has built its economy on the export of raw commodities like coal, rubber, oil, and timber, which other nations use to create valuable products. In the final decades of the last century, Indonesia’s economic planners saw the cities as the country’s future, with large, export-driven corporations adding value to agricultural produce by using cheap labour to manufacture mass-produced objects in high-tech industrial estates near the big cities. Industrialised agriculture would drive villagers to the city, where hopefully they could find jobs as factory or service workers.
Singgih has bucked the trend, using small amounts of locally-sourced wood and other inexpensive raw materials to create an object that sold for high prices on international markets. Not only did Singgih challenge the dominant paradigm through his own example, he passionately encourages other bright young Indonesians to move to the village as a meaningful alternative to life in Indonesia’s dysfunctional, polluted, congested cities. As Singgih says: “In the developed world, people are taking advantage of new technologies to live closer to nature in an environment where community still has meaning, while still remaining connected to the outside world. In Indonesia, where most people still live in village communities, we are actually closer to the future. But most people here still believe in the city-centred industrial paradigm.”
Singgih deplores the brain drain, the loss of the brightest members of the village community to the city. In Singgih’s workshop, of the fifteen craftspeople that he employs, as a matter of deliberate policy, none were born or raised further than six kilometres from the centre of the village. “I want people in the village to realise that they have the potential to earn a good wage by working at a well-organised, local business that uses local natural resources in a sustainable way,” he says.
He has also provided support to young people to set up their own small businesses that operate on similar principles. One young man from the village, Yudo, had worked as a successful copywriter in Jakarta. He hated the city, the two-hour commutes through snarled traffic, the smog and pollution, the high cost of living, the lack of connection with the people around him. “I felt like I didn’t have any choice,” he says. “I thought that was where my future lay.” He says that he read an article about Singgih and his workshop in a magazine, and was amazed that he had never heard of him until he came to Jakarta.
“When I went back to Kandangan, I spoke to Pak Singgih. He encouraged me to follow my heart. I loved cooking and preparing food, so he encouraged me to set up a food stall and catering business. I make a point of only using food that is grown in my own community, by people I know. I often buy the food using a barter system. In exchange for my providing farmers assistance with buying and servicing electronic equipment, they let me use vegetables and crops that they can’t sell or that they aren’t harvesting. It’s not a commercial transaction, it’s about a network of social relationships,” Yudo says. While he admits that he makes far less money in the village than he did in Jakarta, he says he also spends much less. He lives much more simply and feels much happier, he says.
Singgih wants bright young people from the cities to visit the villages, to contribute their ideas and to enrich local communities. In a conscious endeavour to create a brand for his own village, he developed the Spedagi bamboo bike. “I want the bike to be a magnet, to draw people to the village and to become involved in it,” he says. He encourages people who want to buy the bike to visit him in his workshop, to see how it is made and to get involved in the process. Like the Magno radio, the bike uses inexpensive local materials and creates added value through highly-skilled craftsmanship. “The bamboo that I use to produce a single bike frame costs around Rp 75,000,” Singgih says. “I can sell that frame for around Rp4 million. The extra value comes from the time, the care, and the skills taken to produce it.”
To encourage city people to visit Kandangan, to become involved in the village, and to share their skills, Singgih has established a string of small, simple homestays – built, as one might expect, from bamboo, wood, and other readily available local materials. During their stays, visitors can use the bikes to travel the backroads around the village and learn about the community.
Young Indonesians from the cities are beginning to listen to Singgih’s message. More and more young millennials are looking for a new way to live. Singgih met Siska, a woman from West Java from a middle-class Chinese-Indonesian background and also a graduate of the design programme at Singgih’s old university, at the International Conference on Village Revitalisation, held in March 2014 in a giant temporary tent amphitheatre in the middle of a bamboo grove in Kandangan. Singgih told her of his plans to develop Pasar Papringan, a market established in another bamboo glade that would enable villagers to produce and sell the distinctive snacks, cakes and meals of the village to both locals and outside villages. When he conceived the concept, the glade was a mosquito infested slum, used by the locals mainly as an unofficial rubbish dump. Singgih’s idea was that if people in the surrounding area derived some income and other benefits from cleaning the place up, then they would begin to take pride in it. He persuaded Siska to move to the village and take up a position as a community organiser, to motivate the villagers, to encourage them to participate, and to assist in managing the bi-monthly market.
Siska said that particularly at first, it was a challenging task. It took a long time for villagers to believe that outside visitors would be attracted to a market in a bamboo glade in the middle of nowhere. But when visitors came and enjoyed it, they came to see its beauty, too. Now, the place is kept clean, old offcuts of bamboo in which mosquitoes bred have been removed, and children play in a newly-erected playground.
Siska says that her parents and other older members of her family find her decision to live in the village difficult to understand. Why doesn’t she get a good job in an office in the city? How will she meet a husband in the village? It goes against everything that the older generation believed in. But for young people, life in the village is beginning to make sense.