Gorgeous Artisan Gifts! Q&A With Kakaw Designs Founder Mari Gray
If you’re on the hunt for artisan gifts this year and feel called to support small businesses, you’re in the right place. Kakaw Designs is one of the first brands that came to mind when I was considering which gifts to feature on the blog this year. This vibrant artisan business has everything you need to brighten the home and add a burst of optimism and creativity to your everyday surroundings.
From gorgeous textiles to ceramics and apparel, the gifting potential is vast! So if you’re looking for the perfect gift that supports artisan communities and encourages creativity, check out founder Mari Gray’s recommendations below. Today is the last day to order Kakaw Designs products and receive them by Christmas Eve, but don’t worry! There are digital gifts that don’t require shipping as well.
Also, keep scrolling for an incredible Q&A session, where she shares more about the journey of Kakaw Designs.
Explore Kakaw Designs Artisanal Gifts
Introduced by Mari Gray.
One of the positives of this pandemic, I think, has been the shift of perspectives and behaviors. Getting creative and trying new artforms is one of those ways. I love backstrap weaving because it’s a simple pre-Colombian technology with so much global history.
It’s also easy to try at home and take with you inside, outside, wherever you’d like, and once you’re used to the steps, it’s quite therapeutic to repeat them. We have three different kinds of looms available on our site, and backstrap weaving classes with master weaver Doña Lidia via Zoom (I’m also there as the moderator).
I’m a huge fan of wool. From a sustainability perspective, I love the use of this animal fiber, and I love that every step of the way, these rugs we have sourced from a town in the highlands are handmade. Shearing, cleaning, carding, spinning, weaving, cleaning some more – you name it. I’m hooked on the whole wool cycle, and the way the fiber keeps me warm in winter, too.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten more and more into quality coffee and tea this year, since I couldn’t go to my favorite cafés. With that in mind, we prepped a coffee roasting experience that combines a pre-recorded virtual tour led by coffee farmer Manuel and a live roast-along session where we all roast green coffee at home together, along with Manuel.
I love this experience as a gift for potentially non-textile people (it’s hard to believe, but the world has some of these). Maybe for dads and uncles – I mean, I always have a hard time finding a good gift for my dad! And everyone can use a handmade ceramic mug, right?
We can never source a large quantity of local organic cotton in Guatemala. We work with one family at Lake Atitlán that grows and harvests their own, and this year we were able to make very small mini-batches of a few handwoven products using these fibers.
I love these throws because the fibers are so soft – the spinning process by hand keeps the fibers looser, and this is just such a cozy and luxurious feel. Doña Marta and her daughter Dominga did a great job with these pieces, and I love supporting this handmade process as cotton spinning is a tradition that has mostly been lost in Guatemala.
We’ve been having a lot of fun with ceramics recently, with hand-painted textile designs. We started with running stitch espresso sets, then made cappuccino sets, and then Asian-style bowls with ikat-inspired patterns.
I think ceramics really help me feel at home, and eating good food is important for me to be cozy, too. No matter where I go, I have certain foods I travel with, and udon noodles is one of them – this was my comfort food growing up in Japan, usually prepared by my grandma, and of course I had to design a proper vessel to do this feeling justice.
While you’re shopping, get to know Mari in our exclusive Q&A!
Mishka: Hi, Mari! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me this holiday season. I’ve been a fan of your brand for years and it’s exciting to see how you have evolved. Can you tell us a bit about the vision behind starting Kakaw Designs, and where the brand is now?
Mari: Thank you so much, how sweet of you — it’s true, we’ve been in touch for a few years now!
Kakaw started as a way for me to get creative on product design, focusing on working with small artisan groups in Guatemala. I grew up with artist parents, and surrounded by handmade traditions and beauties. So supporting local artists and artisan traditions were ingrained in me as essential from a young age.
I was born in Guatemala, and when I went back to live there as an adult, I found a niche where I thought I could be both helpful and happy, and this was a time in my life when I was seeking purpose.
I think I found it in this artisan-made world, having knowledge already on many different techniques, traditions, and even talented artisan groups and individuals in Guatemala. I knew that design and reaching broader markets were both challenging for rural artisans, and those were the focus points when we started.
This year, we’ve pivoted more drastically than ever before, given new challenges with covid. We were approached by our artisan partners who were seeking places to sell their independent handmade creations since there were no local sales with both international tourism and retail stores abruptly shut down.
We decided to dedicate time and energy going over these handmade beauties and listing our favorites on our website. We have been updating our offerings on our Artisan Direct page almost every week since then.
It’s wonderful that your sustainable partnerships with artisans in Guatemala allow more people to purchase these works of art while supporting the weavers and embroiderers. What’s your favorite thing about working with your talented partners?
I have to say, it’s not always easy, and more often than not, things don’t come out as I had hoped or imagined. But that’s just part of the handmade process, especially when our goal is to create something truly new.
And this is also what makes it so satisfying to get something right — I just know, when I look at the result and it is something special, something I’ve not seen done in the context of the artisan world in Guatemala, it brings me so much joy.
And working with our artisan partners who also get excited about trying new things! This is truly the best. When we can nerd out on the new natural dye hues or threads or patterns or overall product ideas.
To feel the enthusiasm from our partner artisan leaders, this is really such a fun exchange of energy and creativity, it feels like a true partnership. We’re growing together, and the tools we gain are applied also outside the realm of our work together.
As a female small business owner, you undoubtedly overcome unique challenges daily. Can you share a recent or overall lesson you’ve learned about running a creative business and maintaining a sense of personal balance?
Ha! The challenges of work-life balance are real, and I can’t say I’ve yet found a happy balance. For one, I came out to Austria at the end of October this year, and am here waiting out the second wave of the pandemic with my boyfriend (he is Austrian).
This makes things more complicated because of the drastic time difference between Austria and Guatemala. By the time I should be off my computer and enjoying dinner, the workday is just starting in Guatemala and my WhatsApp is bursting with messages from our artisan partners. But I’m not sure this is related to my gender, just the circumstances of 2020.
The key, I think, is having a team. In this sense, we are doing really well because we have a wonderful manager on the ground in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s been and still is a process for me to let go of many aspects of the business and ask for help.
We’ve just grown so much that we have enough work for me to manage things digitally and for Evelyn to manage production and all the logistics involved on the ground. And then more, as we’ve launched into the online experience world, we have someone else on the ground helping facilitate our backstrap weaving classes.
As far as running a business as a woman in Guatemala, I actually think it’s an advantage for working with textile artisans because this is predominantly a woman’s world in Guatemala. And I so enjoy connecting with the weavers on a personal basis, learning about their families and cooking recipes and other things traditionally considered part of Woman’s World. It’s fun to be able to connect this way.
And the fact that I am ethnically ambiguous-looking (I’m half Japanese), well, I think that’s an advantage, too. I am able to fit in much easier than a blonde woman in rural Guatemala, and this is also such fun.
The textiles you offer are stunning and add so much artistry and beauty to the home! What advice would you give to someone who is just branching out into decorating or accenting their home with rich colors and textures?
With lockdown basically all year for me, first in Guatemala and now in Austria, I’ve been drawn to cheerful colors for home in a way that’s so new to me. Before, I think because my work has always been so colorful, I preferred a more toned-down cozy home. But with the emotional rollercoaster of 2020, I just really wanted my home to feel as happy as possible. I wonder if you can relate.
If you’re looking for cheer, too, I’d recommend starting by adding small bursts of color. Little accent pieces at the table to use as centerpieces or creating a colorful nook at your table/desk where you work. Dedicating a little corner of your home for a beauty shrine, adding your favorite objects there, and then changing things up once in a while. A colorful planter with a lush house plant, a vibrant textile under it, some grounding ceramics to help make the best of being at home. Enjoying the little things.
Oh, and rugs! How a rug can change the feel of a room. I have a few I treasure here in Austria, even had one sent here from Mexico waiting for me as a little gift to myself when I arrived, something to get excited about. I switch them around from time to time and have fun changing things around in the little apartment home here.
What’s your holiday wish this year?
Since I’m away (I consider Guatemala and California to be my homes) and don’t plan to travel just yet, I guess my holiday wish is to find a good way to stay connected with my friends and family virtually.
We’re so spread out, and I’m not the best at keeping in touch, but one thing I’ve learned in 2020 is how to use Zoom—and what a useful tool it is for keeping in touch! I like doing things together, an activity together, so my boyfriend and I are prepping some holiday shipments of little fun crafts we will physically ship, and make together on Zoom with some of our friends far and near.
Remember: Today is the last day to order Kakaw Designs products and receive them by Christmas Eve, but don’t worry! There are digital gifts that don’t require shipping as well.