Often seen sporting a grey-streaked bob and clad in classic hues of black and white, Nani Marquina looks every bit the polished designer in pictures — and even more so in real life.
In town to host a workshop in conjunction with Singapore Design Week, the award-winning textile and rug designer is perched comfortably in a spacious, naturally lit alcove with lush green plants adorning the feature wall behind her — wonderfully apt, seeing as how she professes to be deeply inspired by the great outdoors. “I am inspired by beautiful things in nature,” the 62-year-old carpet designer says. “For example, I like deserts; [I like] the textures, the colour.”
This clearly shines through in her eponymous label, Nanimarquina, which tends to showcase elements of nature in interesting, varied textures on its carpets. Take Roses, for instance, which features dyed felt cut-outs (made from 100 percent wool) woven into a hand-loomed carpet to create the effect of an entire field of blooms in three-dimension, no less.
To give a sense of her oeuvre, she whips out swatches of some of her pieces, pointing out the ones she particularly loves. Her favourite? The multicoloured, checkerboard Cuadros circa 1996. “This one [features] an antique design, but we added colour, which was a new thing for rugs [back then],” says the 2005 winner of Spain’s National Design Award, proudly.
She also introduces her other collections; a number of which, like Roses, have a distinct tactile, three-dimensional quality to them. Anticipating my observation, she breaks into a knowing grin. “We started out using machines, but that [stifled our creativity] because colours could not be changed, and irregular forms and volumes could not be realised,” she says through her interpreter.
“So we chose to hand-make our rugs,” she says, explaining that it is only through crafting pieces by hand — a process that takes between four to six weeks — that Nanimarquina can achieve the varied patterns, shapes and colours it is so widely known for today.
The dedication to her craft doesn’t end there. In 1993, the Barcelona-based designer relocated her manufacturing operations to India, a country whose culture was completely foreign to her at the time — just so she could further infuse traditional craftsmanship into Nanimarquina rugs.
Language, she laments, was one of the early stumbling blocks. While she was able to rope in an English-speaking Indian national to run the production process on the ground, English isn’t one of her fortes. She gamely admits: “My generation, we learnt French in school, not English”. It didn’t help either that most of the Indian artisans in her employ only spoke Hindi or Urdu.
In short, the move was nothing short of jarring, “but necessary,” she acknowledges. “The locals have a way and technique of weaving these rugs that you cannot get anywhere else.”
While others would have been daunted by such challenges, this feisty designer wasn’t. She even went on to work with Care & Fair (an initiative of the European carpet industry that combats child labour), donating a percentage of the company’s profits to the funding of schools, training, hospitals and healthcare programmes for developing nations including India, Pakistan and Nepal.
In 2008, the rug-maker further extended her company’s commitment to the cause by funding the Amita Vidyalaya School in Bhadohi, a small village in India, where families eke a living out of farming and traditional rug production.
That same year, a design contest for children attending Care & Fair schools was held, and the winning design was translated by the Nanimarquina team into what is now known as the Kala rug. With every piece sold, €150 (S$260) is channelled to the Amita Vidyalaya School. When sales of the Kala aren’t enough to defray the school’s operational costs, the company pumps in money from its own coffers.
“In the beginning, we just wanted to make an attractive product for the global market,” Marquina says candidly. “[Now], we are committed to the school and will make sure it’s funded and running every year. It will be very sad if the children have to stop schooling.”
Without divulging details, the designer also hints that a new collaboration for fundraising purposes will be launched in two years, this time with a Spanish children’s author.
Besides being socially responsible, the label is also environmentally conscious, preferring to use natural, biodegradable materials such as jute and wool in the production of their rugs. Seeing it as a personal challenge to make a carpet completely out of recycled materials, the brand also added Bicicleta, a hand-loomed rubber rug forged from bicycle inner tubes, to its collection.
“We wanted to show that we can use some other material that is not woven and do our part to recycle at the same time,” says the current president of the Professional Design Association. “[It] was just something we wanted to try.”
Breaking new frontiers runs in the Marquina family. Her father, Rafael Marquina, was a pioneer of Spanish industrial design and creator of the revolutionary anti-drip olive oil cruet. Influenced by her late father’s achievements from a young age, Marquina notes that she never once considered any other career path. “My father was one of the first designers in Spain. So I have always wanted to be a designer,” she says, with admiration.
Dad would be proud.
Nani Marquina is available at Space Furniture, 77 Bencoolen Street.