Helen Punton and Matthew Butler created the Zaishu project to unite design, creativity, culture and sustainability into a socially active event. It has involved people of all ages and backgrounds, organically evolving and hosting over 100 exhibitions around the globe.
When one product has helped emerging artists around the world, supported causes that give back to children in impoverished communities and to the environment, it’s always tricky to know when to call time on it. But having achieved international success with creative and individual Zaishus, and shown that eco designs can be stylish at events such as New York Fashion Week, there’s nothing better than bowing out at the peak of your success. This is the decision both Helen and Matthew made in a bid to pursue other ventures that await them.
Speaking to Sublime about her Zaishu journey, Helen reflects on the experience and achievements along the way.
Sublime: What was the vision when you started out?
Helen Punton: It started off as a collaborative art project rather than a business. Artists got involved, and put their own stamp on the object through stencilling and painting. Soon there were exhibitions, and people wanted to buy them. That’s really when it turned into a product.
S: Why a Zaishu?
HP: It was driven by the public. We found that people loved the product and the combination of designs.
S: You mention on your website the aim to ‘unite design, creativity, culture and sustainability’. Do you feel you have achieved this?
HP: Definitely. It’s really exciting, what we were doing. At one point we had homeless kids painting panels that were exhibited and sold. They were seen as chic designs. What’s really great is that these kids created something unique, and it was interesting to see how they interacted with design.
S: How would you describe the experience of working with such a variety of artists?
HP: The most exciting part has been to see how different artists have used the canvas and put their mark on it. We’ve been able to have such a variety of opportunities to work with a range of artists, and that’s been great too.
S: How has the ability to personalise the Zaishu contributed to its success?
HP: It’s definitely a strong contribution to its success. There’s not only the opportunity for people to buy something unique and sustainable, but it’s also given artists a chance, and more exposure.
S: Do you think you would have been able to generate the same buzz with a generic, mass-produced design?
HP: It would have been different. It would still have appealed if it was mass-produced, but it would have appealed to a mass market, in that case.
S: How did you generate such a huge buzz when it came to creating the exhibitions?
HP: Although I’m a graphic designer, I do marketing too. It’s really through meeting people, having good contacts with magazines and word of mouth, as well.
S: After being featured at New York Fashion Week, do you feel attitudes are changing when it comes to sustainable furniture?
HP: Things have changed a lot. We thought, why create something that’s not sustainable? But recently sustainability has hit the mainstream and people are taking note. They’re aware that climate change is happening, and we’re starting to see the physical effects. In Melbourne, Australia a third of homes have up to three plasma TV screens, and of course people complain about the cost of electricity. Inevitably it’s going to soar if you’re powering up to three screens, but some people choose to ignore sustainability because it means making changes, and losing the quality of living they’re used to.
I do feel, though, that the next generation of emerging students and university graduates has the energy and enthusiasm when it comes to big issues such as climate change, and knowing this puts the world in good hands, as far as I’m concerned.
S: Now that your journey with Zaishu is over, what’s next for you?
HP: We’re looking at alternative products. There’s a recycled plastic sheeting, and even though it’s expensive, we would like to make a product for a larger audience. It’s quite an exciting time working with new bio products. We’re at the stage now where we’re ready to licence our designs and work with a larger company, too.
S: Are you pleased with the overall response to Zaishu, and the note on which you’re leaving?
HP: Absolutely. I still get emails asking if we have any left. They’ve been very successful. We kept a few that we liked, and I have a little collection at home, so if we ever decide to have an exhibition there is a small number still around.