Pakistan is in the news all the time, mostly for all the wrong reasons. In such testing times, there are people who are constantly striving to show the world that there’s more to Pakistan than what they see in news. One such person is Sana Khan Niazi, the brain behind Paimona, an online design firm trying to showcase Pakistan’s culture and heritage with a touch of modernity through furniture.
It all started as a search for a tag reading made in Pakistan. Explaining how she conceived the idea about Paimona, Sana said, “I used to do theatre before starting Paimona. I was in Dubai for Anwar Maqsood’s Dharna when I went out to shop and stumbled upon this big store and was looking at all these beautiful furniture and home décor pieces when I noticed something odd. There were pieces from India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal but no tag read made in Pakistan."
“So, I scoured the whole store looking for the one price tag that would help me sleep at night thinking there’s something there that’s coming out of Pakistan. But there was none,” she added.
Determined to show the world the beautiful crafts that have travelled through time but losing their worth in today’s world, Sana came back to Karachi and started researching. “I started off from Katchiabadis of Karachi then I went to outskirts of the city, then Hyderbad, Hala, Bhit Shah, Gujranwala, Lahore, Gujrat as many place as I could go to meet the people who are carrying this craft forward,” she said.
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After meeting countless artisans and craftsmen, she realised one thing; they all had the same disappointing story. All complained about the lack of infrastructure and opportunities besides lack of knowledge about how to market their product.
“Though they still have that craft, which they have been carrying forward from one generation to the other, because every craftsman I met had learned the skill from his father, who had learned it from his and so on. I realised that it’s not their fault that they have been unable to move forward, it’s just the situation and lack of opportunity and training that renders them medieval,” the Paimona founder said.
That’s when I thought, what if I could some how intervene, train, educate and design. And most importantly, make them aware of what’s happening out there and help them bring back this (craft) to the mainstream market, especially to the international market, she added.
And that’s how Paimona came into being, she said. “So what I did was I designed furniture that spoke of our cultural values and elements using skills from these artisans. I started working with them to create handcrafted pieces using their skills in a way that would appeal to the global aesthetics.”
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Defining what Paimona really means, Sana said, Paimona, which means chalice in Dari, symbolises the transition of culture into modernity. Paimona takes from the elements of Pakistan’s culture and transform them into modern pieces of furniture that speak of the timeless heritage and history of Pakistan, and of all those things that we don’t pay attention to anymore.
Sharing details about her team, the Paimona founder said, “Right now, we are a team of five people and then there are craftsmen and artisans.”
On how she choose artisans to work with, Sana said she goes to the areas where these craftsmen work, as they usually don’t have access to markets outside of their neighbourhood, talk to them and show them what she wants. “Best way to show them is to get something made from them and start off from there and see what they can do. Then they understand that we really mean business,” she added.
Paimona also trains craftsmen associated with it. Although these artisans have been working for decades, but they don’t know how to use their skills in in accordance with the contemporary style, said Sana. They are never told to take care of the smaller elements. “For example, how to take care of the consistency of the design that they are making, they go agar yeh thora sa off ho jae ga to koi baat nahin. It doesn’t work that way, you have to make sure everything is in accordance with the design.They always welcome the training and the knowledge shared with them,” she added.
Admitting that quality of products has been one of the reasons why Pakistani products are not there in the international market, Sana said, “I take quality assurance as my responsibility, whatever coming out of Paimona is coming out of Pakistan and has to be of the highest quality.”
We use the best material available, employ hands on training and make samples before making a final piece, she claimed. “Every piece, every design undergoes a research and development phase, from idea and sampling to trying and testing,” Sana said.
Transforming piece of art into a liveable piece
Explaining how furniture and home décor pieces created by Paimona are different from other products available in the market, the founder said, “Paimona is a design firm; we don’t make what’s already there. Every piece that is there in our collection is designed by me and has a very unique element to it.”
“What Paimona does is that it transforms something we can relate to into a liveable piece.”
Clarifying that it is not an online portal where anyone can come and sell, the Paimona founder said, “Our business model is different, we create pieces that have both, function and aesthetic value. So we transform the art that these artisans have into a piece of furniture of our own design.”
Providing sustainable living to artisans and their future generaion
Speaking about how Paimona is helping artisans lead sustainable lives, Sana said, "Not only do we ensure market price for their work but also make them capable of expanding it. So, they get a fair price for their work and end up improving quality and craft standards."
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Further, the startup also plans to incorporate a programme for the children of craftsmen working with the firm. “All children of artisans who work with us go to school. That is how we give back," the Paimona founder said.
Responding to a question on how successful her startup has been so far, Sana said, “My product line was launched in May, after my incubation at Nest i/O ended in May this year, but I have been operating for a year now. I started off by making customised furniture and within a year I was at a point where I could launch my product line.”
“I believe so far we have tasted great success, not in terms of numbers and size, but in terms of what we have been able to achieve in little time. We have successfully been able to bring people working with us to a point where their level of skills and quality of work have improved,” she said.
Cultivating an international audience is something we are yet to achieve, the Paimona founder said. So far, Paimona has been selling across Pakistan and servicing a few international clients, mostly from Dubai. “We also have customers at the US consulate. They love the pieces and are always looking for things,” Sana said.
Price is never too high for a piece of art
Dispelling the impression that her products are prohibitively priced, she insists that Rs39,000 for a Charpai Bench is not too high. “Just because it’s called a Charpai, doesn’t mean that the effort that has gone into it is any less than any other piece,” the Paimona founder said.
Handcrafted pieces take a lot of time, effort and patience. And every piece has a part of an artisan's life embedded into it. It’s like someone has spent days and months creating something for you. That makes a huge difference, she adds.
Revealing her future plans, Sana said there is no immediate plan of opening a physical store. “We want to reach the world through technology without actually having a physical store. We have an online store and have plans to incorporate more technology in the future. So they won’t actually have to step out of their homes to shop.”
Paimona is launching a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo on August 25.