November 18, 2015

Kreyol Chronicles, our monthly look into Haitian culture as seen through the lens of Haitian photographer Christopher Mitchell, returns with a spotlight on a furniture maker who’s making the most of her country’s discarded goods.

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Christopher Mitchell

Francoise Hazel, the craftswoman behind Haïti’s Ça CartOOne Créations, was a new mother living in Guadeloupe when she met the bookshelf that changed her life.

“I was searching for eco-friendly furniture for my son’s nursery and I came across a recycled cardboard bookshelf at a friend’s house in Guadeloupe,” Hazel recalls. “I’ve been obsessed ever since. A couple years later, I decided to move back to Haïti with this project in mind. When I got there and started talking about it, people wanted to order even before I had my workshop put together. So I had no choice, I had to do it.”

In addition to bookshelves, Hazel produces tables, chairs and iPad holders, all using recycled cardboard found near her home in Petion-Ville. While Ça CartOOne might have its roots in Hazel’s time in Guadeloupe, it is part of a burgeoning culture of “trash” art in Haïti.

“Haïti is definitely a country where recycled material art abounds,” Hazel says. “There is an amazing variety of materials to be found everywhere, from tires to iron drums, cereal boxes, magazine papers, chips packages… We have a real environment problem due to the fact that we are not managing our trash properly. I hope this changes soon but until that happens, we create wonderful art from it!”

The name, she says, is a play on the French “ça cartonne” — meaning  “it works!” or, loosely, “it’s a success!” — and ‘carton,’ the word for cardboard. “The double OO’s are there just for the fun of being kid-friendly,” she says.

At the time of Ça CartOOne’s launch, Hazel was working administrative director of Fondation AfricAmericA, a cultural foundation which promotes contemporary art in Haïti. The job gave her the opportunity to exchange techniques and ideas with local artistans. “It was a rewarding experience,” Hazel says. “But I was getting more and more orders, and had less and less time to fill them.”

These days, Hazel does Ça CartOOne full time, working out of a workshop in Petion-Ville. Her clientele is a mixture of Haitians who come to her looking for furniture made to order, and international customers who buy through her website. Ça CartOOne is also stocked in a handful of shops in Haïti.

“The people buying are those looking for originality and custom-made pieces,” Hazel says. “A lot of them are eco-friendly enthusiasts like me, or parents searching for safe and kid-friendly furniture. Some people just like the practicality of it.”

Now, you are probably asking: Just how tough and long-lasting can furniture made from cardboard, a material generally used for temporary transport of goods, be? Hazel says she uses craft paper, waterproof wood glue and varnish to protect the surfaces from liquid spills. “Furniture destined for the kitchen or the bathroom gets an extra coat of varnish,” she says. While exposure to the elements is not recommended, water and juice spills can usually be wiped away with a towel or a sponge.

“People often ask if the pieces are strong enough to support weight and they also wonder about durability,” Hazel admits. “I invite them to sit on them! Then I tell them about that first cardboard bookshelf I had come across in Guadeloupe all those years ago. It had been given to my friend’s daughter at her birth, she is 18 years old now and the bookshelf is still standing!”