Catalonian crafts: checkmate in three games
Handicrafts enjoy a storied tradition in Catalonia, a place of many workshops, like that of Rechapados Ferrer, which produces chessboards, or Luminosos Villoro, which produces neon signs, facing a daily battle to preserve the ancestral wisdom that has been passed from generation to generation and to those who continue shaping the trade with their own hands.
By: Jara Atienza and Borja Rebull
Chess was born as an instrument of war. At least, that is how it is described in one of the legends that the Persian poet Firdusi set down in the 11th century. It was in his epic poem Shahnameh (Book of Kings) that he explained that, during the war for the throne between two brother princes from India, one died suddenly and the queen, inconsolable, accused the victor of having had him assassinated. Intending to clarify the situation and to demonstrate his innocence, the surviving son decided to recreate the battle on a board with figures made of marble to represent the four divisions that comprised the army in those days: the infantry, the cavalry, the elephants and the chariots. These are the modern-day pawns, knights, bishops and rooks. It is not known whether the prince achieved his aim. Similarly, it is unknown if this is the true origin of the game Firdusi called chataranga – considered the direct ancestor of games such as draughts, shogi or chess. What is known with certainty is that one thing is needed above all others to fight a battle: a battlefield. Or, in other words, a board.
The appearance of its chessboards in the award-winning Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit in 2019 marked a turning point for the artisans at Rechapados Ferrer.
For half a century the Rechapados Ferrer workshop has devoted itself to preparing these playing fields, producing bespoke handcrafted chessboards. The business, located in the small Catalonian town of La Garriga, was started in the 1950s serve a town of around 16,000 inhabitants with a strong tradition of furniture making. A decade later they began to produce chessboards ‘almost by chance’, explains David Ferrer, the workshop’s manager. The factory now has 14 employees who select the best wood, cut, arrange and assemble by hand each of the 64 squares (and the rest of the parts) that make up a board.
For years, the workshop has been an international leader in a relatively small sector. However, explains Ferrer, the appearance of their boards in the award-winning Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit in 2019 marked a turning point. ‘Though we would normally produce 20,000 boards per year, in two or three months we received orders for around 40,000’ says Ferrer, who represents the third generation of artisans. Rechapados Ferrer was created by his grandfather, who taught first Ferrer’s father, and later him. He shares a trade with them, but also an enthusiasm for what he does each day. ‘Since I was small, I have always liked working with wood, it’s a job that I am passionate about’, explains Ferrer.
The fact that family tradition and a passion for handicrafts go together is no anomaly. For Manuel Driesde, president of the Federation of Trade Artisans of Catalonia (FAAOC), these two elements tend to follow those who dedicate themselves to creating and moulding with their own hands. ‘Within the handicrafts trade we have something – I’m not sure if it’s good or a bad – which is that we love what we do so much that sometimes we place the craft before the economics’, he confesses.
Leo Villoro, propietario del taller Luminosos Villoro, comparte esta visión. De pequeño aprendió de su padre a fabricar todo tipo de piezas y rótulos de neón en un proceso que, asegura, es totalmente artesanal. «Mucha gente cree que el neón se hace con máquinas, cuando en realidad no hay máquina que pueda hacer este trabajo», subraya. En su local ubicado en pleno corazón de Barcelona, es el que se encarga de dar forma al neón, que viene en largos tubos de cristal rectos de distintos colores que luego él debe dar forma soplando cuidadosamente con un soplete y creando curvas en el cristal. Lo hace siguiendo minuciosamente las directrices de su padre quien, ya jubilado, todavía se pasa de vez en cuando al local a echar una mano. Sin embargo, Leo reconoce que la utilización de nuevas tecnologías, como una máquina de trazado gráfico moderna que le permite diseñar planos, le ha facilitado una labor que ahora intenta enseñar a su sobrino.
Leo Villoro, owner of the workshop Luminosos Villoro, shares this vision. From a young age, he learnt from his father how to make all kinds of pieces and signs from neon in a process which, he notes, is totally artisanal. ‘Many people think that neon lights are made by machines, but in reality there isn’t any machine that could do this job’, he emphasises. In his shop situated in the heart of Barcelona, he is in charge of shaping the neon, which comes in straight, long glass tubes of different colours which he must shape by carefully heating them with a blowtorch and creating curves in the glass. He does this meticulously, following the directives of his father who, although retired, still passes by the shop from time to time to lend a hand. However, Leo recognises that the use of new technologies, such as a modern graphic tracing machine which allows him to design plans, have helped simplify aspects of the job, which he is now trying to teach his nephew.
As in Leo’s case, the story of the Castañer business is also a family affair. In 1927, Luis Castañer and his cousin Tomás Serra opened a small workshop producing espadrilles in the Catalonian town of Banyoles, in Girona. During the Spanish Civil War, the business supplied soldiers with this footwear made from esparto grass, and, years later, espadrilles made the leap to the catwalks of the 1970s alongside Yves Saint Laurent, and started to be seen on the feet of celebrities all over the world. One example was even displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2017.
‘We love what we do so much that sometimes we place the craft before the economics’
Today, the company has more than 700 points of sale throughout the world, but the essence, according to the current creative designer, Rafael Castañer, remains the same as it was almost a century ago. ‘All of our espadrilles are hand made in Spain, with natural materials and the same process’, explains Castañer, one of the four brothers who currently direct the business. Paradoxically, to preserve the aspects that have made this espadrille workshop unique, the business has opted to adapt to modern times. Or, in other words: to new technologies. ‘We have tried to move forward into the future, but without losing our essence’, emphasises the artisan while explaining that, currently, e-commerce is becoming a key part of the business with an annual growth of over 30%.
Castañer is not the only company to opt for this new way of selling: according to the latest study from the EOI business school, jointly with the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, around one in three Spanish artisans sell their products online. The efforts made by different levels of government to improve digital connectivity throughout the country have been a key driving force behind the commercialisation of artisanal works.
The distinguishing traits of these firms are, firstly, tradition and family, followed later by digitalisation. One example is Castañer, where the company has not allowed the digital revolution and its resulting international reach to overshadow the element that has formed part of its identity since the start: the city of Banyoles. ‘The fact that people relate our origins, the place where the first espadrille was created, with Banyoles, our home town, is the best legacy a brand can have’, concludes Castañer.