Fabrizio Urettini is behind Talking Hands, a project and atelier that works with artists, carpenters, designers and migrants and refugees to give those escaping horror in their home-countries a chance to tell their story. In Italy, one of the European countries most affected by the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ – and also one that has majorly chosen to ignore their needs and bet on a right-winged, racist, xenophobic government –, things are hard, but Fabrizio and his team shine a light of hope on humanity. 
We were first introduced to their solidarity through Altaroma, Rome’s fashion week, where designers and brands showcased their talent and latest novelties. However, there was a strong focus on initiatives that make the world a better place; in the case of Talking Hands, by helping those in need by providing them with a place to stay, a purpose in life, a paid job, and most important of all, hope. After occupying a building that has been transformed into an atelier to weave clothes – like jackets or shirts – or rugs, as well as build furniture and other decorative objects, Fabrizio and the team behind Talking Hands works alongside asylum seekers and migrants to promote social inclusivity and a sense of community and belonging. Today, we speak with him about the reasons that made him start this risky but beautiful project, how has it changed his life, and how does he help improve the life of others.
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For those who have never heard of Talking Hands, can you describe the vision of the brand?
Born in 2016, Talking Hands encourages participants to use the project and manual activities as a form of narration for their background, places of origin, journeys and their dreams. Over the past two years, Talking Hands has also become an important tool for social inclusion. Not only do we teach new skills and trades that can be used in the future, but we also provide opportunities to work with recognized designers, produce and sell furniture, and participate in initiatives related to solidarity within a network of associative people and other groups.
Who is behind Talking Hands? There is Anthony as a designer patternmaker and Annaclara as a textile designer. How have they become involved in the project and how do you feel they contribute to Talking Hands?
In the first two years of the project, Talking Hands shaped itself according to the needs that emerged. The project initially was created with the intention of removing at least some of the people in ‘hot spots’ in Italy through a process of social inclusion, strengthening and empowerment. The first phase was mainly composed of asylum seekers housed in the Centri di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary Reception Centres); today, the situation has changed, and most of those attending the atelier are outside of the international protection program due to the expiry of the terms provided in the current legislation on the right of asylum or for obtaining refugee status and humanitarian protection.
Design and visual communication have proved from the beginning to be a powerful and expressive means for sharing knowledge and for building a common path of cultural education. However, this had to be supported with actions more specifically aimed at the needs of the participants. The project was therefore enriched in a mutualistic sense with immediate responses to problems such as food shortages, access to education, to the national healthcare service, to legal assistance and legal support.
When do these designers come into play then?
With these developments, design has become a characterizing element within a network of territorial solidarity, where dialogue and collaboration between pluralities of people engaged in the reception front tends to guarantee equal rights and dignity to participants. The design approach, therefore, does not stop at the laboratory activity court but uses design as a tool for the creation of relevant networks that favour the birth of communities, of synergies with local entrepreneurship, and interaction with the area. A collaborative model that goes beyond the ‘form’, which exposes itself and takes stances, which places the care of the individual at the centre of its daily activities. In this context, collaborations were born with professional designers such as Clara and Anthony.
But then, among the collaborators, there is also Zanellato Bortotto Studio, with whom we are creating a collection of seats and furnishing accessories in wrought iron and fabric We also worked with Matteo Zorzenoni at the dawn of this experience and created a collection of micro-domestic architecture for children with the evocative name of Rifùgiati, it was enough to move an accent to stimulate a reflection on the notion of home, on the natural need we have as children to sometimes seek refuge, a comfort zone.
External designers are equally important as the other people participating in the project. In the companies in the Veneto area, there’s a saying usually repeated by the ‘padroncini’ that goes: ‘everyone is useful but no one is indispensable’. For us, it’s just the opposite: no one is useful – in the utilitarian sense – and everybody is indispensable. The workgroup is composed of about fifteen people who work daily in the various activities there are, ranging from tailoring to small carpentry and joinery, to taking care of the atelier or organizing/recycling the waste.
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The key to the brand lies in inclusivity. In what ways do you work to promote inclusion in the community and connections between refugees and locals?
I believe that the art of arranging is part of a culture that is deeply rooted in many of the countries bordering the Mediterranean basin. This trait has led to the emergence of many experiences born in the last five years. These practices have spread, particularly in Italy, Spain and Greece with all the difficulties of operating in a context of crisis – not only in an economic sense. These experiences can restore dignity in a design culture that was beginning to lack some fundamental aspects.
One of the challenges is having to think and plan ahead without the certainty of a solution and to develop new models of community work to create a form of micro-income in a cooperative sense. As experiments, there are not always legal and administrative solutions in these experiences; if they existed, their experimental nature would fail. I believe it is also important to start design forms of remuneration for those who mobilize for the creation of social ties in their cities because, in their daily actions, they play a fundamental role.
Why do you say that? What role do you think they play?
They create solidarity among the inhabitants, a function of great public utility because when crises situations arise, not only economic, we realize that we are able to withstand the shockwave only if we can reconstruct the social bond that no longer exists, and this can only happen through dialogue and solidarity. For this reason, a central theme is the right to experiment and create devices capable of accompanying these experiences also from an economic and administrative point of view.
I understand that mainly the refugees, as they’re living in the worst conditions. But who benefits from Talking Hands and how?
At the moment, the only beneficiaries of the project are the migrants. Fifty per cent of the profits go to the people who take part in the atelier's activities, and the rest is put in a common case and is used to purchase materials for the workshops, for the transfers and to cope with the numerous daily emergencies – ranging from the purchase of drugs to guaranteeing legal fees for appeals in cassation, and the purchase of foodstuffs. In certain exceptional cases, even to send a small help to families in difficulty in the countries of origin.
We are well aware, however, of the need to overcome this scheme and to try to put in place an economic model that can guarantee reimbursement of expenses even to professionals who work with us. In the long term, it is not sustainable to ask designers for involvement only on a voluntary basis. In this sense, we are evolving to become a social enterprise, also to guarantee those who take part in the activities of the ateliers continuously a contract, which sometimes can facilitate the legal process of the asylum application.
“I believe that the greatest benefit that the Talking Hands participants receive from the project is a notion of not feeling alone but also of trying to collectively deal with many of the daily problems.”
Employing and elevating migrants and asylum seekers are goals at the heart of Talking Hands. What has been the most gratifying experience you've had while being involved with the project?
To hold together a very heterogeneous community of individuals such as in Talking Hands has enabled them to find a place where they can express themselves or where to value skills, competences and trades, as well as a reference community with which to share the many problems that asylum seekers face every day and refugees have to face in trying to build a new life in our country. The problems range from the housing issue to access to medical care, finding a meal, finding a warm place to take refuge in the winter months, legal orientation, education and access to school support and first literacy courses.
Design, in this sense, was certainly an element that characterized the project. It was a formidable tool to tell one's story and create a different narrative in respect of how the phenomenon of migratory flows is currently being discussed in Italy and Europe. But the project itself would not have lasted a single day if a series of actors had not been involved who, with specific competences for each area of intervention, related to us. A society is civil to the extent that people are able to build what Habermas calls a “world of social life”. By this, we do not mean the simple sum of the particular worlds of life, but the discovery that our differences are important ways of embodying a common human dignity. I believe that the greatest benefit that the Talking Hands participants receive from the project is a notion of not feeling alone but also of trying to collectively deal with many of the daily problems.
I'm sure you've changed many lives through this initiative, but how has it changed yours?
I am happy that you ask me this question because many people believe that what I am doing is a sort of sacrifice, which is word typical of religious language. Working together with migrants for a designer is instead an extremely enriching and even fun experience. I receive much more from this experience than what I can give both in terms of design and from a humanitarian point of view.
How did you come to create/found Talking Hands? What led you to initiate such a project in the first place, and what other reasons have made you continue despite the hardships you must endure?
The Talking Hands experience was born as a result of an assembly moment during which the questions that seemed most obvious to me were: what can you do, what do you want to do and how can we put it together? The idea of a multi-purpose organisation was created from this mapping of desires that managed to hold together several areas of intervention; a project that combines different design plans ranging from fashion to product design to problem-solving education.
Certainly, the initial push was characterized by a certain dose of naivety, an indispensable state of mind which characterized the first phases of this experience. We entered into an occupied space and cleaned it up, painted it and made it functional at the beginning. Having taken an active part in a process of re-appropriation of a public space, abandoned and neglected, and having taken part in a process of self-construction has created a feeling of home, a space to which people had free access immediately. I'm not saying that the whole path has always been linear; we had to deal with very complex problems, but always with spontaneity.
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Did you start producing collections right after the space was adapted?
Between October 2016 and Christmas of the same year, we presented the first collection within an exhibition of independent design; I remember the overflowing enthusiasm. Many of the people who took part in that foundational phase today have taken other paths. Some continue to come and visit us during work breaks and I think it is a source of pride to see that their work has served to create something long-lasting, which is continuing to live thanks to the contribution of new resources, of migrants like them. Here, what I hope can always remain is that enthusiasm that has characterized this experience right from the start.
Being based in a rather xenophobic area, what are the challenges you face with employing and elevating refugees and asylum seekers? What effect has Talking Hands had on the surrounding community of Treviso?
Let's take a concrete example. One of the many problems we’ve had to face is access to the city; a sort of fault line has been created. A part of the town is accessible to migrants but there’s another where they are subjected to repeated identity checks on a daily basis, even several times a day, with humiliating emptying of baggage on the road. This happens in the commercial areas and in most of the historical city centre.
That’s hard to hear… Is there anything you did or are doing to fight this?
Our action did not stop at the mere denunciation of what was happening in the name of an obsessive security paranoia; we started to deliver our products at home. This practice led to ‘neighbourhood walks’, where we carried some of our artefacts by hand – especially our colourful children's houses, which didn't fit into a car. Going around the city with multi-coloured micro-architectures on our shoulders allowed us to learn more about the place we live in, talk to people who are curious and even promote our products in the city.
On the subject of the right to the city, we transferred the embroidery workshop to a public park where, for the whole duration of summer 2017, every Thursday, a large blue indigo cloth was spread on old disused ping pong tables and embroidered en plein air. The first time, we were looked upon with suspicion by the community of people who frequented the garden, made up mainly of ladies who walk their dogs, students and pensioners.
Many times, after having been intrigued, these park-goers have approached us. This approach was mediated by the practice we brought within that context, and especially the elderly ladies were fascinated by the work of embroidery and crochet. Because of this, there’s been an exchange of opinions, of knowledge (of different techniques, for example), of practices, and thus has boosted the involvement in the community project in the neighbourhood.
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The combination of European craftsmanship and style with traditional African patterns and shapes creates a meeting point of cultures without the exotification of the designs. How has the brand managed to uphold this integrity within the designs?
One of the reasons why I believed it was important to involve professional designers from the very beginning was precisely to avoid that exotic imaginary that characterized the ethnic craft of fair trade – the legacy of colonialism, a fascination with the different that in fact does not correspond to reality. The people who attend the atelier are in effect the product of a globalized culture. They have access to modern communication and information tools, they imitate cultural models such as the North American and listen to the same music as their Italian peers. Why then should we sell wooden elephants produced in China or wearing ceremonial djellabas in the markets? Why wear straw skirts and play drums when a new scene of afro-beat producers is one of the most interesting new elements on the global record market?
Without asking for permission, hybridisation continues to take place, sometimes creating a change of course from the path we had imagined, sometimes making it a little more difficult, but bringing it back to that natural dimension that has always characterized human history, making us understand the sense of common dignity, which we strive to represent.
Each piece is entirely unique, with no fabric ever being repeated on the same style. The integrity of each item is that no two pieces are the same, much like those involved with Talking Hands. What does the individuality of each piece speak to the way Talking Hands operates?
Each project is organized within a small production chain that seeks to involve the greatest number of people possible with different degrees of experience and abilities so they all progress and learn skills in various disciplinary fields. Here’s a more concrete example: to make one of our wooden artefacts, a specialized carpenter works and is able to cut all the constructive elements in a safe way. Then, there will be a person who assembles them, another one who takes care of the finishing touches and sanding, and then a last one in charge of the ‘graphic makeup’ that characterize our collections. All these activities equally contribute to the good realization/production of the product.
In the tailoring atelier, however, the attitude is a bit different because tailors love to be involved in the entire process – from the choice of the pattern to the selection and cutting of the fabrics or even the packaging. It’s interesting to observe how the final result reflects the different sensitivities and personalities of each person, with infinite hues within a similar stylistic model.
Designers are involved in every step and field. Their role is atypical, and they’re asked to be involved with the workgroup horizontally. In that sense, the designer is required to have the necessary time to establish a relationship with the group and to be able to focus and balance the different levels of skills, tools and materials available. And above all, to identify the abilities and capacities of each one so they can improve them. In more general terms, we say there is an element of co-design in which Talking Hands also participates. 
Talking Hands encourages participants to use the project and manual activity to tell their story through their hands. How do these stories shape the designs and products? Where does the consumer see the story?
I believe that every Talking Hands product is able to convey an idea of dynamic identity. The recognition of the brand takes place through a process, a journey in which people and cultures meet and can intertwine and influence each other. Recognition, in this sense, acts on a different level with respect to a more traditional, solid-corporate approach – that of the logotype, institutional colours and managed by a system of rules contained within the coordinated image manual.
The Talking Hands brand certainly offers a unique and unrepeatable product whose design process involves both fix and variable elements. This process doesn’t intend to be the glorification of handmade products because we mustn’t forget that design as a discipline was born with the birth of industrial civilization. We don’t want to be ‘regressive’, but rather to define an open project process. However, I do not exclude this in the future. The traditional industry can also be involved – understanding it as a standardized production system.
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The factory where you produce the clothing started in tough conditions. You’ve been improving it little by little, and you’ve even been able to create a space for a few people to sleep so they don’t have to be on the street. How else do you expect to expand both the space and the brand?
When we started, we didn't have anything at all: we had no money, no sponsors, and many of the kids didn't even have papers and lived in an endless waiting state that could last over four years. They lived in the Grossi Centri di Accoglienza (‘big reception centres’), which opened as a ‘temporary’ solution during the 2015-2016 humanitarian crisis and became the model on which hospitality in Italy is based today. It is in all effects an industrial model. We have witnessed a gradual erosion of all the main services and rights of the people in the name of a semi-prison model that simply provides the migrants with a meal and a bed.
The latest guidelines of the Italian Ministry of Interior and the reduction to 25 euros of the daily expenditure budget per capita from which the management company benefits for each resident in asylum have resulted in the exit of the reception system of anyone who believed possible the construction of a good welcome/reception to Italy. This belief was based on a widespread and ‘non-concentrationary’ idea. Cooperatives with a long experience in the hospitality field that had been working together with local governments rented apartments where families up to five or six children could live together and then begin a process of social inclusion accompanied by trained and expert staff. But Matteo Salvini's Security Decree has instead favoured the hospitality industry, where the private companies that manage them are making very big profits.
This is terrible, especially if you take into account that these people are desperately in need.
The biggest problem is that this system is based on the deactivation of the individual in institutions that are irregular and impermeable to the outside world. The private companies make profit from the managing body in the hot spot for the entire duration of the legal process, which allows the obtaining of some form of protection, but subsequently falls on local communities when on average, after three or four years, the migrant is expelled from the field and catapulted into society without having the linguistic and cultural tools to relate and coordinate in order to become autonomous.
In this context, some experiences were born in Treviso. Talking Hands was born as a spin-off of the Palestra Popolare del Centro Sociale Django (Popular Gym of the Django Social Center), which for two years guaranteed morning gymnastics courses for asylum seekers. Or the Caminantes voluntary association, also born within a path of urban regeneration after years of operating through street intervention and guaranteeing nine beds for the homeless in the coldest months, has deliberately chosen to go out from this drugged logic of emergency, which more often than not justifies the unjustifiable, and has just opened a house – an open place that can guarantee not only a bed but also a place where one can take back one’s destiny within a system of relationships that allow the person to be and do.
Here, in the meantime, Talking Hands wants to convey another message saying that even if you believe you no longer have anything and that your life has lost its purpose, there is a wealth of opportunities so large that it can’t be measured and that comes from our history, our eyes, our sensibility and from our lives, and certainly from our hands.
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