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Itza Wood handcrafted candle holders that double as vases, a design collaboration that came alive with artisans in Guatemala.ray-les/Handout

The visitors from North America sat in a semi-circle staring intently at a handful of drawings, preliminary inspirations for a new line of light fixtures. Some of the sketches were of a single image: a stalk of bamboo, a grid of linked circles, beaded strings that showered illumination like rainfall. Others were clustered illustrations that shared similar qualities – a series of rounded shapes, for instance, that included giant eggs, arches and oblong capsules.

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During a recent trip, the design process sparked the idea for rough-hewn wood and fibre lamps inspired by traditional Guatemalan toys.Christine Lieu/Handout

They were still rough ideas, the results of a brainstorming session with makers and artisans who’d be responsible for making the lamps. But the timing to develop them into workable designs was tight. These visitors – a group of design-focused professionals from Canada and the United States – were here in Peten, a remote, densely forested region of northern Guatemala, for only 11 days, and by the time they left, they hoped to have developed plans for at least a couple of viable products.

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Prototype lamps.Christine Lieu/Handout

The group had travelled to Guatemala with CoDesign Abroad, a Toronto-based social enterprise that offers “travel with purpose” trips for creative-minded professionals. The participants on this trip were working with Itza Wood, a small local business that aims to create jobs in Peten by selling handcrafted wooden housewares and, more recently, woven items. It had identified lighting as a category it wanted to move into, and invited CoDA to work with its weavers and woodworkers – most of whom hadn’t been involved in designing products – to come up with ideas.

By now it was late on Day 3, and though meetings with the makers – a group of about 16 woodworkers and fibre weavers – had been productive, plenty of problems needed working out. The bamboo concept had promise, but how and where would the light come out? The oblong shape could be difficult to produce consistently. And the rainfall: maybe a little cliché?

One sketch the CoDA group kept coming back to was a hanging fixture with a string of playful shapes inspired by trompos, the brightly decorated spinning tops that Guatemalan children play with.

That’s fun, someone said. You could do something nice with colour, and the materials they’d be made with were gorgeous: sustainably harvested woods such as teak, mahogany, tigerwood and granadillo.

“Yeah, but don’t forget how heavy tropical wood is,” said Ben Durrell, a designer, educator and craftsperson based in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The off-the-shelf socket fixtures the group was working with probably wouldn’t support the weight, and they’d only accommodate a design that had the trompos stacked on top of the lightbulb – a look the group didn’t like.

Everyone was silent for a minute. Someone sighed. They’d been hoping to start prototyping by the next day. But things have a way of falling apart in the jungle.

The group had arrived in Peten with a couple of goals: to introduce the Guatemalan artisans to the process of “design thinking” – the iterative, problem-solving approach to innovation used by many contemporary designers – and to bring Itza’s two maker groups together. The woodworkers, almost all of them men, operate out of a machine shop, while the weavers, all women, work from their homes. Breaking down the silos that separate them could lead to productive collaborations, the CoDA group decided, so they focused on designs that included both wood and woven elements.

To get to know the Guatemalans and how they work, they began with some icebreaker sessions that ranged from group tortilla-making to detailed interviews. Conducted with drawings, hand gestures, an interpreter and the help of a few Spanish-speaking participants (I was one of them), this discovery phase provided useful insights. When someone asked how long it takes to make a basket, the weavers laughed. It could be a few hours, one said, or it could be a few days if they didn’t have the fibre they needed. “When we don’t, we have to go to the jungle and get it.”

What that meant became clearer the next day, when they brought the CoDA group into the thick tropical forest to harvest massive vines that hang from the trees like twisted, knotted snakes. The weavers wore rubber boots and dresses and carried long machetes, which they used to hack down hard, skin-prickling pimienta, with its scent of pepper and allspice, and spiny, palm-like bayal. Then they stripped the tough, unusable bark with the unruffled confidence of Michelin chefs peeling parsnips.

By Day 4, prototyping began. The CoDA group made cardboard models to test different shapes, and the woodworkers and weavers began producing elements to piece together. As they worked, new designs emerged, including a cylindrical lamp the group nicknamed Daniel in honour of the shop worker whose sketch inspired it.

There were hitches along the way. Some of the CoDA participants were design nerds who see Noguchi lamps in egg-shaped blobs and obsess about the stability of three-legged furniture (it’s all about the overhang). A few of the Guatemalans, meanwhile, couldn’t read or write, and would probably never have a chance to see Poul Henningsen’s iconic artichoke lamp – or even the Ikea knockoff. The CoDA project was a delicate dance between what the North Americans envisioned – items they could imagine selling in the high-end boutiques Itza Wood targets – and what the Guatemalans created based on their own tastes and culture preferences.

Language issues complicated things further: Maynor Ba, Itza’s assistant shop manager, looked doubtful when I tried to translate CoDA director Kirsten White’s idea for attaching two pieces of wood together. (It didn’t help that I didn’t know the words for “peg” or “glue.”) But when she pulled out her pencil and drew it, his worried face cracked a smile. “Si,” he said.

By Day 5, promising wood-and-fibre collaborations were emerging, and the weavers had become comfortable marching into the woodshop to deliver instructions. But the CoDA participants, some of whom had extensive production experience, worried that a couple of the designs might be hard to reproduce. For one lamp, they’d been aiming for a shade with a loose, open-grid weave, but stray fibres and inconsistencies in some of the early attempts concerned them. They wondered whether they should abandon it.

But that evening, Marina Mandic, a market research consultant with a keen eye for art and design, flicked on her iPhone flashlight and placed a fibre bag that she’d bought in Guatemala over it. The makeshift lamp created exactly the look the group had hoped for: The square weave softened the iPhone’s glare and sliced it into gorgeous cubes of warm illumination. They decided to keep working on the lamp.

By Day 9, time was running out. The designs hadn’t progressed as far as the CoDA group had hoped, and the weather was making everyone sluggish. It was 37 degrees even without factoring in the jungle’s intense, collar-sticking humidity. The relentless heat – and the Jurassic Park roar of howler monkeys in the forest – made it hard to concentrate.

With only a couple of days left, the group focused on two lamps: the Daniel, with a woven cylindrical shade that sits on a wood base, and the Volumen, an open-ended oblong lamp. (Neither had the loose weave of the makeshift iPhone light – it was hard to produce – but they hoped the Guatemalans would keep experimenting with it for future products.)

The rain shower concept had fallen away (“too 1970s”), along with several others, but Trompo had been resurrected, this time as a mobile. It was still heavy, but the designers had lightened it by incorporating fibre pompons. They’d also added trays to the product mix, based on additional designs the weavers produced over the course of the week.

It was clear from a few raised eyebrows at the final product presentation that the designs had evolved in ways some didn’t expect. But the Guatemalans said they liked what they saw. Woodworker Juan Chavez said it was exciting to see how many ideas could emerge from a single concept. Herminia Chiquin, one of the weavers, nodded with satisfaction when she saw the products, which included a tray with a wooden base and woven handles that one of her creations helped inspire. “Beautiful,” she said. “All of them.”

Eliza Barbarczy, the Guatemalan American who founded Itza Wood and has worked with CoDA once before, said the visit helped spark an interest in design among Itza’s workers. “I can see the difference it’s making for some of the people here,” she said. “They’re getting how to become designers.”

Quick facts: Travelling with CoDA

CoDesign Abroad (CoDA) was founded in 2016 by Kirsten White and Connie Chisholm, Toronto-based designers, educators and community facilitators. Trip lengths vary from 10 days to three weeks, depending on the project and location (previous destinations include Guatemala, Tanzania and India). The cost is typically $3,000 to $4,000, and includes ground transport and most meals and accommodation. Participants are asked to fill out an application form so the organizers can ensure the right mix of skills for each project.

Food and accommodation also vary. In Guatemala, the CoDA group stayed in comfortable private rooms in a house with shared bathrooms. Food was plentiful and mixed local dishes such as tostados, chicken pepian (stew) and hibiscus flower tea with international fare.

While most time is spent working on design projects, trips also feature additional experiences and excursions. On the two-week Guatemala trip, this included an overnight visit to Mayan ruins, and time in the colonial city of Antigua.