Turning the Tide: Fogo Island's Regeneration Through Design
A small, isolated “outport” off the coast of Newfoundland, the Canadian island of Fogo has drawn global attention for its trailblazing approach to community regeneration following the collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. One key player in this renaissance is Goodee’s brand partner, Fogo Island Workshops. Michael Murphy, Vice President of Fogo Island Workshops and Design Initiatives, tells us about giving new life to time-honored practices and celebrating the spirit of the people of Fogo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The wood workshop at Fogo Island Inn.
Fogo Island Workshops operates as a for-profit social enterprise under Shorefast, a non-profit. How does it all come together to make a meaningful impact?
Shorefast was started by Zita [Cobb], a Fogo Islander, who became one of the highest-paid female executives in the world in the nineties and noughties. Following a big merger, she took her earnings back [to the island] and created the charity. A shorefast is a hook and a line that secures cod nets to the shore. So, the name is a metaphor for the work we do: keeping people in their communities, providing them with economic opportunities, and fostering community development.
Shorefast owns three social businesses — the renowned Fogo Island Inn, the Workshops, and Island Fish, a hand-line caught fish business. They’re all for-profits, funneling earnings back into Shorefast, which reinvests in the local economy. This creates an endless, self-reinforcing loop. It's an innovative model.
Island Fish fishermen out at sea / Fogo Island Inn architected by Todd Saunders.
What is the Workshops’ purpose?
The workshops were originally created to cut siding for the Inn. To furnish it, [British designer] Ilse Crawford encouraged us to make things with the resources we had. So Zita invited designers from around the world and connected them with local makers to explore ways of incorporating the area’s cultural history into a new form that would ensure its survival.
The purpose of Fogo Island Workshops is really design in the service of nature and culture. The designer almost has to turn into a cultural anthropologist to figure out what the craft technique, the context, or the experience was for the Fogo Islander. Over the past 400 years, the local people developed this amazing sense of art and design in all they did — a unique vernacular represented in many of our pieces today.
Many, including young families, are now returning because of job prospects that weren't available before. That's got to be a tremendous source of hope for families who now have their loved ones closer to them, giving them a sense that there is a promising future for their children.
What makes Fogo Island so special in your eyes?
The people. Those beautiful but incredibly tough conditions that people had to live in created remarkable ingenuity, innovation, and resilience. Out of that came this riot of design and practical knowledge we were afraid of losing after the collapse of industrialized fishing, as people were at a loss and leaving the island. There was a risk that all of that knowledge would be wiped away.
The quilting workshop - each quilt bears the signature of the artisan who crafted it.
What can you tell us about the design process behind every piece?
[Our work] is very profoundly community-based. It's not just about production; it's the whole process. With every new product development, we try to incorporate cultural insights, whether it’s experience or a material or a technique, and then reflect them back to people in a way that they feel is truly authentic. We have to get acceptance from the community first.
Behind the scenes of the making of the door stop.
Each one of your designs carries a distinctive maker’s mark. Does it have a particular meaning?
FIW, the initials of Fogo Island Workshops, reminded us of the International Load Line. This universal symbol is well-known among Fogo Islanders as it indicates the depth for safely loading cargo on boats. This inspired our maker's mark. It symbolizes our connection with the wider world and our mission to carry our culture across the seas.
What impact have the Workshops and Shorefast had on the community? Have they created hope?
I think they have revealed the value of what people were doing. The woodworkers did their work without recognizing that it was fine carpentry. The quilters and textile makers were just pursuing their crafts as a pastime. But they are as much composers as any artist. Once historians delved into closets and gained the trust of these ladies to get the quilts up and catalog the patterns, once we started putting them together in new ways, with new materials, and then began selling them, I think they understood the value of their design. Today, studios and design businesses have sprung up on Fogo. There's a culture bubbling up of trying to hold on to the skills and artistry of the past.
Fogo Island Inn during Summer - one of 7 seasons Fogo respects due to the weather in the area.
Shorefast also created opportunities to keep people home. Many, including young families, are now returning because of job prospects that weren't available before. That's got to be a tremendous source of hope for families who now have their loved ones closer to them, giving them a sense that there is a promising future for their children.