Unless you live in the neighborhood or were killing time strolling before theater, you might not be aware of one of New York’s best kept, open-secret/sources for gifts. Having discovered the intriguing bastion of curated goods, the warmth and integrity of the shop’s owners, loyalty is organic. More than 50 percent of DOMUS’ stock is made up of artisanal pieces created by foreign (predominantly women’s) co-ops, intrepidly sourced and fair trade purchased-in-person. Every item has a story. Ask.
Italian Luisa Cerutti and Californian Nicki Lindheimer were avid world wanderers who respectively arrived in Manhattan mid 1990s. Luisa had a corporate job as fashion merchandiser, Nicki was a chef. Having much in common the two started to spend time, but found they had opposite hours. When 9/11 happened, Luisa and Nicki had an epiphany opting for quality of life rather than money. “I thought, people were nesting, we like nice things, to shop and travel, why don’t we do a store?” Nicki recalls. Her father had been a retailer, Luisa had owned a boutique. DOMUS was born.
Inventory was initially sourced in Western Europe (as well as here), but both women were itching to travel so decided to go further afield with shopping in mind. Prerequisites were warm weather, good food, affordability, and safety. Months of research revealed outposts of indigenous craft. First stop in an exotic country are museums. Luisa and Nicki need to understand what they’ll be looking at and get a gauge for quality. “I have a textile back-ground and Nicki has a playful eye,” remarks Luisa smiling.
The women have gone where they were the only white faces and sometimes, though Luisa speaks four languages, are in need of a translator. They hire a driver and undaunted strike out into the mountains, through a jungle or desert.
In Peru, Luisa and Nicki found themselves four in the backseat, three in the front. The windshield of the beat-up vehicle had been smashed. When their driver stopped for gas, he couldn’t turn off the car for fear it might not start again. With the engine running, a young kid handed him a bucket of gas and funnel. They watched the “guide” pour with a lit cigarette in his mouth, then traveled on narrow, curving roads with crosses intermittently planted alongside “for those who didn’t make it to their destinations.”
In Chinchero, a woman teaching the ancient technique of dying wool with bark, leaves, and flowers instead of chemicals, then spinning it by hand, had started a cooperative. Luisa and Nicki were delighted.
Mexico is one of the very few places they deal with men. Besides bead work, and talavera pottery, the ladies buy Oaxacan Alebrijes wood animals. These are imaginary creatures that combine parts of different animals such as dragon bodies, bat wings, wolf teeth and dog eyes. Colorfully painted in multi-patterns, the sculpture was originally made with papier mache but nowadays are also wood carved. The partners buy from students of acknowledged masters as cost would otherwise run into thousands of dollars.
Vietnam is a favorite destination. Their first trip, the women headed north into the mountains. Sixty-five ethnic minorities whose ancestors came from China 200 years ago make their homes there in agrarian communities. They grow the hemp to make clothing and indigo to dye. Ho Chi Minh apparently granted them independence making the emigrants even more separate. “There they were plowing the fields in these amazing hand-made, embroidered outfits,” Luisa recalls appreciatively. “We carried everything. There’s often no duty on crafts. It’s illegal to bring a Buddha of any material out of Thailand. We just follow the rules.”
Luisa and Nicki were headed to a market for local ethnic minorities to exchange their crafts and provisions. Because there had been heavy rains and landslides on the mountains, the non-English speaking driver didn’t want to risk taking them. “We had to force him to navigate the roads and take us to the market village,” Nicki tells me.
Finished with business, the women were taken to stay with a series of families in the countryside, occasionally meeting like-minded travelers. Luisa and Nicki like it best when they can get to know nationals. Curious, respectful, and non-threatening, they appear as trustworthy as they in truth are, staying in touch with a great many people in the course of non-traveling months.
Ten years later, they found one of the places they visited had been wiped off the map by a new dam. Villagers were relocated, but didn’t want to move because ancestors were buried in the old village – much like our American Indians. Suddenly there were hotels. Parts of the country were over traveled. Some of the craft had disappeared.
The partners brought along an assortment of reading glasses for older embroiderers and a portable printer. “A lot of these people had never had a photograph taken,” Luisa says. “What we thought was going to be a few minutes taking and printing pictures went on for days! It was just so much fun.” From Vietnam, they buy soapstone boxes, lacquer, embroidered textiles and pillows.
In Guatemala, the cooperative with which DOMUS does business is made up of wives of those men that had been disappeared. “The women were not able to make a living, but they had this fabulous skill,” Luisa informs me. “They realize the strength in getting together as artisans.” Hand-embroidered huipiles (the traditional garment worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to Central America), textiles, jewelry and beadwork are secured here. Holiday ornaments from Kazakhstan are created by a group of women rescued from the sex trade.
Luisa and Nicki figure backwards from a selling price and make an offer, rarely having to negotiate. “Their aim is to sell and this is a new market,” Luisa notes. “Sometimes it goes the other way and we say, ‘are you sure you want to sell for so little?!’ Big chains go and dictate low prices. We never do that. They have to make a living. What’s important for us is to showcase these wonderful artisans and to tell the stories of their creations.”
Several Zulu villages in Kwa Zulu Natal near Durban, South Africa are also sources. “Houses are thatched roof huts. You can actually smell the smoke of their huts when boxes of merchandise arrive! It takes us right back to Africa,” Nicki happily extols. Luisa shows me concentrically colorful, tightly woven bowls made out of the wires from inside telephone cables! Other South African pieces include ebony wood carvings and beaded animals.
Here the pair was told by whites not to stop at red lights or pick up anyone on the road. “But that’s not how we live,” Nicki remarks frowning. One day driving in the pouring rain they saw a lone woman walking. “They walk everywhere, for miles,” Luisa comments. “We hadn’t had much interaction with locals and missed it so we decided, screw it, we’re gonna pick her up. She was awesome,” Nicki adds. It seems the woman (who spoke English) knew they were foreigners because white South Africans would never have given her a lift. Nor would she have gotten in the car were it not just two women driving.
“She went into this long story that people offer a lift and murder you for your organs. We didn’t know whether she was making things up, but the next day, newspapers had a story of busting a ring of people who offered the homeless meals, drugged them, and took (pre-sold) organs.”
India was problematic. (They haven’t been back.) When Luisa and Nicki were disappointed by some carved boxes, a cousin was recommended elsewhere. Their driver, however, was asked to stay behind. Naively, the women agreed and were kidnapped/driven from artist to artist for some seven hours before being returned to the hotel.
In a second unnerving instance, Nicki reached into her bag to gift some children pencils and paper. Before she knew it dozens of grabbing little hands were pulling at her. Luisa points out her friend was rescued by a passer-by who then insisted he would be their guide. In India they found cut-work bed covers and embroidered shawls.
“If you’re a backpacker, they leave you alone because they know you don’t have money. If you’re traveling in a group, there are guards to protect you. We fell into the category between…it’s a culture of desperation,” Nicki notes. “We had never seen people so poor they didn’t have dignity because dignity costs money,” Luisa adds. Neither woman makes a big deal out of situations that could’ve been extremely dangerous. They’re grounded, resilient and optimistic. When I ask whether they’ve gotten sick, the grinning response is, “All the time.”
Luisa and Nicki found rugs in a little shop in Morocco run by a woman called Fatima. When the credit card machine didn’t work, they promised to return the next day. Nicki then got really sick so the ladies hadn’t been back for days when Fatima somehow found them. She said she knew there must’ve been an important reason to keep them away, then returned with local medicine.
When Nicki got better, Fatima called her boss who owned a country-club restaurant that looked like a Swiss Chalet. He invited them to be his guest for dinner and regaled them with stories of the rugs’ makers. They paid for the merchandise there.
In Morocco, the women bought vintage Koranic tablets (decorated when students were finished as a kind of graduation exercise), wood carvings, and textiles made from the agave plant. Other sources include Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Laos, Sri Lanka, Columbia, Europe, and the USA. Pieces are often one of a kind. New York artists are also represented. DOMUS is selective, but open. (There’s also glassware, ceramics, toys and stuffed animals, candles, soaps, table linens/decorative tabletop items, socks, scarves, some special books, cards…)
“We have to search harder these days,” Luisa tells me. “The world is becoming more and more Americanized. We’d like to go to Bali, but January (their traditional month away) is the rainy season. Kenya is also on our list.” A few years ago a planned trip to Kenya was cancelled when political violence erupted. The partners find artisans for whom creating traditionally is a way of life. “Similar to us,” Nicki comments, “If this was a business, we probably should’ve closed years ago. We just want to keep it afloat.”
Two remarkable women who are, as Joseph Campbell would say, “following their bliss.”A remarkable store. AND you can shop local. I recommend going in person if possible. There’s only a selection on line and you’ll miss the stories!
All photos courtesy of DOMUS
DOMUS 413 West 44th Street between 9th & 10th Avenue Or online at https://domusnewyork.com/