Bhutan is a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas where the gross national product (GNP) is happiness (GNH). This concept captured the imagination of designer, typographer, publisher and editor Peter Bilak, whose Works That Work magazine I’ve discussed before in a few articles. Now he has devoted an entire issue to Bhutan in conjunction with a documentary film he’s been producing. It just so happens that my colleagues at SVA MFA Design have also made exploratory visits to this isolated but sophisticated nation sandwiched between China and India. The idea is to develop an exchange of ideas and arts. I asked Bilak, who found his own way to Bhutan, why the country and its traditions have been so alluring to him.
What brought you to the isolated but fascinating country of Bhutan to do a film and issue of Works That Work?
It is the search for alternatives. When the Occupy Wall Street movement started in the middle of the financial crisis, or perhaps even long before, people looked outside of the usual economic models. Small places are able to try things in small scale (Bhutan’s population is smaller than that of San Francisco), and the country challenged the idea of perpetual economic growth, or that GDP is the main measure of development of the country. Bhutan is a developing country, but it is leapfrogging traditional industrialized powers in a number of areas.
This nation sits between China and India and is impacted by both. What did you learn by this that surprised you?
Bhutan is the last Himalayan kingdom. Tibet was annexed by China, and Sikkim by India. The fact that Bhutan exists as a sovereign country is an achievement of itself. We looked at what role design played in the survival of this country. The architecture, fashion, art and language plays an important part in definition of its national identity. While Bhutan is an example of how national policies affect the country, we were most surprised by how individuals defy the odds, and despite a lack of training or funding develop their unique practices. Often we thought that the seeming limitations were turned to advantages. For example, there is no established film distribution in Bhutan, so filmmakers tour with their film around the country, usually for a year, or longer. This may be the only country in the world where the director may personally know all his or her film viewers. The other reason for this unusual film distribution is that they make the film available in a single copy, and this is a way to protect it from piracy.
The cover of WTW has one of the many penis paintings that appear on many homes and buildings. Why is this?
Penis graffiti can be found almost anywhere in the world, but Bhutan may be the only country to have elevated it to religious art. Buildings across the kingdom are decorated with large, lovingly rendered phalluses in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes, all painted by playful local artists. The penis depictions are believed to ward off evil spirits and bring protection, and can be found on residential buildings, but also in restaurants, shops, etc.
The country is certainly not a lost Shangri-La, but it is remote. What did you find that makes it 21st century?
It is the interest in the long-term development that resonated with me the most. While we always look at the next quarter, or next year, in Bhutan one plans beyond one’s lifetime. Perhaps it is inspired by the Buddhist believe in reincarnation—but when one plans on a long term, it very much affects all actions. Bhutan may be one of the rare countries that is leaving its extensive coal reserves in the ground and focusing on renewable energy sources. The Bhutanese constitution mandates that 60% of the country remain covered by woodlands forever. Not only that, Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon-negative, absorbing three times more carbon dioxide than it emits, and Bhutan pledged to remain carbon-negative forever despite is fast economic growth.
What is distinctive about the design?
I consider Bhutan one of the most designed countries in the world—not in the way the Netherlands is designed (in a very visible way, from its passports to road signage or designed actual landscape), but in a sense of wider understanding of design. You won’t see any Western advertising, no backpackers, not much foreign influence. It is the absence of things that we are used to that is remarkable about this country, which is a result of Bhutan’s policies. While Bhutan is one of the fastest-growing economies, it’s trying also to slow down the speed of change.
You have a story on their stamps, which are miniature records. What’s the story here?
It is a story that started with Burt Kerr Todd, am American entrepreneur, a personal friend of the Bhutanese royal family, and one of the first Westerners to visit Bhutan back in the 1950s. He proposed issuing postage stamps to be sold on the international market as an unconventional fundraising method. Issuing stamps served a double purpose, raising foreign currency while also raising international awareness of the obscure mountain nation.
Over the years Todd was able to produce the world’s first 3D stamps, first textured brushstroke stamps, first stamps printed on gold foil, first on metal, first on silk, first on extruded plastic, first scented stamps, first miniature one-sided record stamps that can be played on a turntable. By the 1970s, Bhutan’s greatest source of revenue was its postage stamps, an incredible story of how design can help development of the country. Sales of the stamps funded Bhutan’s infrastructure, hospitals, schools.
Have you been as interested in any other country in the same way?
We traveled to Norway, beyond the Arctic circle, to study how people adapt to life in extreme environments, and produced an issue researched on location. Works That Work magazine is about surprises, about constant learning of things that we didn’t know, and we bring unusual locations to the magazine. But it is not a recurring theme, as it would defy our interest in the “unexpected.”
When will the film be ready?
We have the first edit, but I expect that final version to be ready in early 2017. It is the first time I’ve worked on a documentary film, so we are not rushing, and slowly editing and improving the film. While the magazine tells the story of Bhutan in 96 pages, the film is a more accessible way to bring it to the audience, and looks at the role that design played in the development of Bhutan.
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