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Artisans of Michigan: repairing furniture in a throw-away society

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A chair bottom being re-weaved.

When we talked with Babacar Lo of the Wicker Shop, the weather was still warm and Lo was in his backyard in Detroit, working. Under a tent and surrounded by potted plants, he was repairing rattan and wicker furniture, a skill he first encountered in his home country of Senegal.

“I did a little bit of weaving, making rattan and bamboo furniture in Africa just in my spare time,” Lo said.

However, it wasn’t until he moved to the U.S. in the 1990s when he seriously took on the craft. He says he met a man in Hazel Park, Frank Henry, whose business was repairing wicker furniture. Lo worked with him in something like an apprenticeship. When Henry retired, Lo took over the business.

We live in a throw away society. Lo says he used to see chairs put out on the street for trash pick up and he would take the good ones home, but there were just too many of them. He ran out of room in his house.

A lot of those chairs are thrown away because repairing cane bottom chairs and other furniture is not that cheap. (See video below as Lo re-weaves a chair.)

“When I tell people the price to repair and they think about how much they paid for the chair, they’d rather throw it away,” Lo said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Babacar Lo.

The exceptions to that are when the chair is an antique or has sentimental value for the owner.

Many of the artisans in this series have said they like working solo. You can count Lo among them.

During the winter months, he works in his basement alone.

“I’m not that sociable really. When it comes to working, I like my peace and being in my corner doing my work,” he said.

That’s part of the reason he’s not taken on his own apprentice. He told me if someone could quietly stay around, watch, and learn, that might work for him.

Lo says his parents wanted him to be a computer programmer. He went to school in France for it. But, his heart was not in it. He wanted to work with his hands, work with furniture like his Grandfather and his uncle did.

Lo also builds rustic furniture from found wood. You can find photos of some of his pieces in the slide show at the top of the page. He’d like to do more of that art work, but re-caning and re-weaving chair bottoms, the commercial work, pays the bills. 

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. Babacar Lo was a master artist with the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in 1994.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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