Like the principle of yin and yang, in which seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other as they interrelate, so it is with Pepe Heykoop and Tiny Miracles. It was a mere two years ago that Heykoop and his cousin Laurien Meuter combined energy fields, causing him to partake in an ambitious project involving the conducting of a design workshop for the locals in a very poor community in Mumbai, in direct parallel to running an exclusive design practice in the Netherlands where he purposely does quite the opposite.

When young Dutch designer Pepe Heykoop gradu- ated from the Eindhoven Academy, he looked for a way to produce high-end design less expensively, without having to deal with dirty trade. Not easy. Fortunately, his entrepreneurial cousin Laurien Meuter came along – she wanted to set up an ambitious project in India. One thing led to another, and since 2012 the duo has been operating the Tiny Miracles Foundation, with Heykoop simultaneously running a company in the Netherlands that produces innovative, artistic, durable design.

Pepe Heykoop and the craftswomen he has been working with in his Tiny Miracles project.
During the last Salone del Mobile in Milan, the pair presented the latest Indian-made retail collec- tion produced through their Tiny Miracles project (among other items, their brand new Paper Lamp), and the paper vases that had previously won the imm Interior Innovation Award, receiving lots of enthusiast feedback. "We don’t want to create ‘fair trade’ stuff: things you buy simply because they’re fair. We prefer it the other way around: consumers buy our stuff because they genuinely like the design and the product, only to later nd out that it was made in a fair way. What we do is actually beyond fair trade.” Between the two of them, they not only train the locals to make design, they also organise schools for the kids, healthcare, lessons on how to deal with money, and workshops on self-con dence and empowerment. In addition, Heykoop and Meu- ter pay their employees 10 times the normal rate (“not more, otherwise we would seriously disrupt local society”). Their workers are mostly women who were originally basket-weavers in a Mumbai slum. The workshop is located in the red light dis- trict; another component of the project is to help women keep their daughters out of prostitution. Or moreover, to send them to a good school (not a given in a culture where the joy of having a baby girl is usually accompanied by heavy sorrow about the dowry you’ll have to assemble).

Heykoop and Meuter started with 20 people in 2012; they now work with 70 mothers whose 105 children attend school. The ambition is to shift this small In- dian community from ‘very poor’ to ‘middle class’: by 2020, the duo wants to have lifted all their workers out of poverty, as fully independent, self-supported earners. Thus they all require the corresponding edu- cation and healthcare relevant to a middle class hu- man being, and an income of at least eight euros per person per day (instead of one dollar). “We’re working hard to make ourselves completely dispensable.” Not a simple aim for two Westerners in a contem- porary, multilayered, traditional, yet rapidly changing India, amongst impoverished people with very little schooling who often suffer from horrible diseases like TB, and in some cases are victims of incest, etc. It’s a titanic amount of work – or rather, it often feels like Sisyphus pushing a huge stone up the hill. "You have to resolutely abandon your Western standards or you’ll go crazy”, says Heykoop, who admits that he sometimes feels very much like pulling his hair out, out of frustration and misery. “How to make pa- per lampshades that should be folded into 74 pieces, with people who, for starters, cannot count?” Another challenge is to create interesting, beautiful, innova- tive design products within such a project, and then to launch these into the market at a smooth, com- petitive price. But, hey: after only two years, they’ve been quite successful. Meanwhile, Heykoop still very much enjoys freaking-out every now and then in his Amsterdam studio, where he deliberately creates pricey one-offs and indulges in exploring the artist in himself. Perhaps it’s an antidote?

This article appeared in DAM44. Order your personal copy.