You’re on a fascinating looking street market, staring at an array of items, from ashtrays and teapots to colorful earrings. These tourist souvenirs maybe hand-made, but are also mass made. I wonder what happened to the unique handicraft items! And where are the craftsmen? I spoke with Jan and Aanyoung the founders of Doing Goods – a veritable treasure trove of home ware, textiles and curiosities from local craftsmen.
Jan and Aanyoung live in Amsterdam and both have a passion for traveling. Five years ago, this passion was translated into what is now known as Doing Goods and it has just been growing ever since!
How our journey started
Their story started from a trip to China. Aanyoung explains “I lived in Beijing for a year and would run into all this beautiful furniture that I just wanted to take home with me. Eventually, I couldn’t resist and decided to ship 5 little cabinets back to The Netherlands. Everyone loved it and the responses were so enthusiastic! That was our first ‘import’ experience.”
Then they had to move to London, where Jan had a job at a bank and Aanyoung worked in fashion. After two years Jan decided to quit his job and the two returned to The Netherlands. Back home they still had a lingering feeling of the import experience, and were itching for more. It was something worth repeating!
Jan went to Asia and started shopping. “I visited markets, talked to people in little shops. To be honest I really didn’t think it through. It was a real adventure. I never shop! I bought all these things on nothing more than a gut feeling.”
About Doing Goods
The idea of Doing Goods is very simple! Aanyoung and Jan explore Asia for attractive products with a story. Unique items or small production items, and sell them in The Netherlands. They collect mostly furniture, but also fabrics and home decoration items. How does such a trip go?
“We start with markets, we always start with markets,” says Aanyoung. “On a market in Delhi we might encounter a craftsman with wonderful carpets who will then tell us that he has many more of those, but you have to go to a tiny warehouse in Northern India. So we go there. In Bali we ride around on a scooter, Jan drives and I’m on the back so I can look at everything.”
Jan adds, “You have to let it happen and always keep your eyes open. We never go to wholesale stores. Instead, we buy our products directly from the people who make them. We visit workplaces as well. We want to know the source of the creativity. It is important to see it for yourself and to be transparent to the people you’re selling to.”
The profits from Doing Goods partly go to a foundation that helps kids go to school, though they are quite discreet about that aspect of the company. “Truth be told, we’re not trying to be some philanthropist or something. We’re doing what we love to do and we feel good doing that. Donating something that is so little to us, but can make such a difference for others, is a relatively easy choice then”, says Jan.
Having a good experience in fashion, Aanyoung feeds the craftsmen with ideas and creativity. “I prepare my trip by thinking of what I would like to do. I actively think along with all the people I encounter. We look at possibilities around all the different things we find. Using a traditional painting pattern on a teapot for example. They really appreciate new ideas and the best part is they can make anything you want.”
To Jan and Aanyoung the best products aren’t the ones that are ready and waiting for you on a shelf in a large store. “We go to the manufacturers directly, not a lot of people dare to take that step,” says Jan. Aanyoung adds, “The locals who make all these beautiful things are looking for someone they can trust, someone who doesn’t use their skills for mass production. We cooperate and feed each other with ideas to create beautiful new things.”
Jan shares his experience from travels in India. He says, “Our agent in India came to us. We went traveling with him and it is great to build relationships like that. We love the part where we can have a peek into their lives. You can’t do that by email. Just a few months later, his wife went from sowing pillow covers to coordinating a team of sowers. They are a little company now. It is great to see others grow with us.”
For Aanyoung it is exactly the relationship that matters. “We have built many relationships through the years and connections we cherish. Doing Goods to me is about the partners, about the local family that still practices an old school technique, like that of wicker work. We have just begun, there is still so much more to explore and that’s the best part of it.”
Aside from consumer goods, they also have a workshop where old wood is given a second life – Wonderwall Studios. Jan mostly runs the show here. He explains, “We make wall panels from wood, mostly for architects and interior designers. The wood comes from everywhere, old houses, railway sleepers, production surplus, whatever you can think of.”
They have a Wonderwall Studios workplace with 120 full-time employees in Indonesia now, which they visit once or twice a year. Next up might be a Local Foods initiative, because both Jan and Aanyoung consider eating as their biggest hobby. However, nothing is certain yet!
How to find the jewels among the souvenirs
But what about travelers who are now very inspired to explore every market they encounter? How do they keep them from buying mass produced stuff to take home? How to find the jewels between the souvenirs, how to separate the handicraft items from the grand manufacturers?
Aanyoung: “Always go the markets first, that is the place where everything comes together. Let go of what you’re used to. When you’re at a market, try going into the little shop behind the stand. And make conversation; ask people where they keep the ‘old’ things. Things they often keep in the back are the ones they don’t even consider selling to tourists. Those are the jewels amongst souvenirs.”
Jan: “Remember, you will never be a local. But you can take a bus instead of a taxi, or take a look in that other street, the one next to the main one. You have to really look for it. It’s not easy, but flexibility and humor will always get you a long way. As will a little feeling with the culture.”
Hannah is a freelance copywriter, admirer of the world, explorer, and a dreamer. For the I Like Local blog she shares her own travel experiences and delves into the travels and wonderful initiatives of others. Read more about Hannah and see her work on www.hannahellens.nl.