words Lesley Jackson
Depending on who you ask, craft either occupies a netherworld somewhere below art and design, or is an evil blight on society that ought to be stamped out entirely. But not only are such prejudices based on meaningless distinctions, some of the most successful young designers happen to be craftsmen.
If I say the word “craft”, what is your instinctive reaction? Do you snigger at the image of massed corn dollies at a village fete? Cast a satisfied glance towards your Tord Boontje chandelier? Or rant on about the preposterous decision to award potter Grayson Perry the Turner Prize? It’s the curse of the dreaded “c” word. Most of the population think of craft as some kind of harmless hobby, whereas us highbrow types get all hot and bothered about something we call “contemporary craft”, and argue about whether it’s as good as art or design.
Why is there so much confusion and nervousness about – and in some cases blind prejudice towards – the concept of “craft”? It’s not just the contemporary art world, although it is by far the most shameless in its contempt; many people within the design community seem suspicious of, or openly hostile towards, craft. It’s as though they fear contamination, and feel it would be safer to set up an exclusion zone. One recent graduate from the Product Design course at Central Saint Martins told me that in her department “craft was a dirty word. The tutors didn’t want anything to do with it. For them, design is logical and rational; it’s about tackling a problem. They say that craft doesn’t respond to anything. It’s mere decoration.” But, as she points out, with the emergence of designers such as Tord Boontje and the Campana Brothers, craft is currently at the forefront of design. The Brazilian duo, Fernando and Humberto Campana, have embraced craft as an integral part of their design practice. Inspired by the resourcefulness of the people in the favelas, for whom spontaneous handicraft (such as knocking up a chair from pieces of scrap wood) is simply a way of life, they have adopted a proactively hands-on, materials-led approach to design. For them, physical interaction is crucial: “Our products must be used, worn, touched, felt,” they emphasise. “We always say that materials play an important role in our products. They tell us what they ‘want’ to be. They come first, rather than the function and the form.” Significantly, Humberto spent several years as a sculptor and jeweller before teaming up with Fernando to design furniture, and during the early days the duo made many of their pieces themselves. The success of their current alliance with the Italian firm Edra relies on access to skilled craftsmanship within the context of industrial design.
Tord Boontje’s current work is also incredibly tactile and unashamedly decorative. It’s all about the physical allure of materials and ornament – lace, crystals, flowers. Reacting against the austerity of his early work, he admits, “I simply got bored. I had to find new territory. The old ground had become too crowded. To me, it’s more interesting now to work with louder, more visible decoration. I want to challenge the Conran Shop.” Boontje’s genius has been to tap into the sensory appeal of hand-crafted historical ornament, but repackage it for the computer age, exploiting the latest high-tech processes to produce domestic objects with a craft aesthetic at an affordable price.
In the light of these developments, the attitudes of rearguard modernists, such as Stephen Bayley, who argue for some kind of craft-free totalitarian state, sound rather reactionary. “Craftsmen demand our indulgence and insist we treat them as creative artists without, in most cases, having any access to the higher imaginative and creative functions which qualify art,” he announced in a polemic entitled Pottery: The Evil in our Society, in The Independent on Sunday February 15, 2004), adding that makers (or craftsmen, as he insists on calling them) “lack the discipline and technique familiar to industrial designers who need to be responsive to market requirements.” The implication is that craft equates with the hands and therefore excludes the mind (the exclusive realm of Art with a capital A), whereas design fosters rationality because it serves machines and the marketplace. However, for many designers, sensory responsiveness and physical intuition play a vital role in technical problem solving. You only have to look at the work of Thomas Heatherwick to appreciate this.
The craft process – expressed as a heightened sensitivity to techniques and materials – is often vital in triggering the design imagination. Tapio Wirkkala (1951-1985), the virtuoso Finnish post-war ceramics and glass designer, spoke illuminatingly about this: “Making things by hand means a lot to me. As I sculpt and mould natural materials, they inspire me and tempt me to make new experiments.” But equally, the rigour of the design process is vital to the success of a one-off, hand-made object – otherwise the results, however technically impressive, will be aesthetically weak. The late Robert Welch (1929-2000), an accomplished industrial designer as well as a talented silversmith, also wrote about the symbiotic relationship between craft and design in his book Hand and Machine (1986): “It has long been my conviction that each area can enrich the other to a very important degree. With silver design one has ‘carte blanche’ … but then the discipline of the dual background comes to the rescue, helping to establish the appropriate functional form and fine detailing. On the other hand, industrial products may be designed to embody a warmth of feeling and tactility which transcends the impersonalised methods of production; and the silver workshop can become the laboratory of design and research for industrial forms.”
Before we go any further, perhaps it’s time for me to come clean and confess that my interests span both design and craft. As well as contributing to icon, I am also on the editorial board of Crafts magazine. I also curate exhibitions and write books in both fields, sometimes combining the two. To me, it seems entirely natural to be interested in both areas and to flit between them, as they are clearly related, particularly in the field of furniture, furnishings and domestic objects.Yet when it comes to writing (and in the higher education sphere too), I am conscious that the audiences for craft and design are segregated and that neither has much sympathy with, or knowledge of, the other. Although I am not alone in harbouring these dual interests, at times I feel like a double agent. I am conscious that, in certain circles, it would be almost treasonable to admit my divided allegiances.
Unlike the term design, which is confident, precise and positive, the word craft is so clogged up with conflicting associations that it has become virtually meaningless, almost a liability. It is this imprecision which represents the biggest obstacle for the credibility of craft. Each society, and each sector within society, interprets craft in different, and often contradictory, ways. For example, in India craft refers exclusively to traditional handicraft, such as hand-woven, block-printed and embroidered textiles. Lubna Chowdhary, a British Asian ceramicist of Indian parentage, explains: “In India, working with clay is considered to be a lowly occupation, equivalent to a gardener. Indian people regard making things as a basic skill that most people have, like writing, but some people do it more beautifully than others. Because everyone has these skills, they’re not identified as special.” Even in Latvia (one of the new members of the EU), the ethnographic element of craft is primary. On a recent trip to Riga, I was struck by the wonderful knitted woollen socks and mittens with traditional geometric Latvian patterns sold on every street.
The UK, a more mature capitalist economy, provides a different context for the production and consumption of craft. Even traditional crafts, such as basket-making, often only survive because of an orchestrated revival, rather than as evidence of a living tradition. For us, craft is a luxury rather than a necessity, something we choose to do (or buy) self-consciously – a channel for personal expression, an artistic vocation, a lifestyle choice, a leisure-time indulgence or a hobby. Even within the professional sector, there are many diverse interpretations of craft. The motivations of a designer-maker in Hackney, producing cutting edge objects for the Crafts Council Shop in Islington, are totally different to those of the Cotswold-based “designer-craftsman”, labouring away in his rural idyll on technically accomplished, highly polished objets d’art.
The modern-day concept of craft has its roots in the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement, although whether its chief protagonist, William Morris (1834-1896), would recognise his offspring is debatable. He and Bernard Leach (1887-1979), “father” of the Studio Pottery movement, were fervent anti-industrialists who sought refuge in craft as an escape from “corrupt” industrialised society. Both were convinced that the life of the craftsman – be he an artist-craftsman like them, or an artisan-craftsman, like the stonemasons of medieval England or potters of Sung dynasty China – was ennobling and spiritually pure. “A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body,” wrote Morris. Leach took Morris’s morality and turned it into a creed. “The pot is the man,” he argued, “his virtues and vices are shown therein – no disguise is possible.”
Such views were still influential during the Crafts Revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the vigorous, hippy-led, anti-establishment movement, which promoted craft production and rural self-sufficiency as an acceptable middle-class way of opting out. However, the world has moved on since then, and craft has reinvented itself. Today the idealistic, skills-based Morris/Leach view has been sidelined and a more pragmatic, but artistically open-minded, view prevails. Old-fashioned, paternalistic terms such as craftsman have been supplanted by craftsperson, maker or designer-maker. Potters have become ceramicists. Studio glassmakers have become glass artists. What used to be known as the British Craft Centre is now called Contemporary Applied Arts.
Today, contemporary craft, as championed by the Crafts Council, is alert and progressive – adventurous in its subject matter, responsive to new technology and materials, enterprising in its applications, and entrepreneurial in its business practices. Through avenues such as 100% Design, Chelsea Crafts Fair and Collect (“the new art fair for contemporary objects” launched earlier this year at the V&A), the Crafts Council pushes work that is savvy, sophisticated and urbane. The more imaginative, experimental and sometimes edgy side of craft is explored through its exhibitions programme and Crafts magazine.
Last year, a new independent venue called The Hub, the Centre for Craft, Design and Making, opened at Sleaford in Lincolnshire (something of a misnomer unfortunately, given its location away from the heart of things). The Hub’s inaugural exhibition, What is Craft?, featured work chosen by a variety of practitioners and “opinion formers” from the craft and design sector. Their varied interpretations of craft highlight what is its continuing fluidity and nebulousness. Potter Kate Malone stressed the bond between maker and materials. For her, craft “must involve skilful practice, knowledge of material, an ability/symbiosis with hands and tools.” Product designer Sam Buxton also emphasised the practical side of craft: “Take some ability, add dexterity, mix with artistry, a little skill infused with know-how, add a touch of ingenuity blended with technique and expertise, topped with workmanship, and you have craft.” However, for ceramicist Kate McBride, “craft is all about design and ideas, which come from having something to express, more than the skill of making. But in order to make the ideas work, you do need practical skills,” she adds.
For conceptual jeweller Laura Potter, craft is essentially personal: “making processes on a very ‘human’ scale that give an object a sense of being created by someone, rather than by something.” Jeweller Tamar Gomez also focuses on the intellectual and emotional processes that precede the physical creation of the object. For her, craft is “an idea or concept in the mind, translated into something tangible. A form of personal expression that often transcends the human psyche.” Product designers Tim Denton and Johanna van Daalen of Electricwig go further, proposing a much broader and more open definition: “For us, the intangible, as well as the tangible, defines craft. Environment, memories, emotions and social context not only influence the thinking process, but will also dictate the final form of the objects created.”
The object I selected for the Hub exhibition was a floor lamp by Sharon Marston, a dramatic feathery concoction, more like a bodice than a lampshade, made of strips of woven nylon crin (a stiff fabric normally used for hats) and long cascading lengths of fishing twine. What I like about this piece, apart from its technical resourcefulness and aesthetic bravado, is the way it cross-fertilises different disciplines (in this case product design and fashion) to create a new hybrid. Marston was one of the featured designers in the V&A’s recent contemporary lighting exhibition, Brilliant. She typifies the growing number of practitioners who stand on the cusp between craft and design. Some pieces she makes herself, or with her assistants, whereas others are licensed for production by companies such as Innermost. So is she a designer or a designer-maker? “I suppose I’m in the middle,” she tells me. “The way I create is very hands-on. I’ve always used textile techniques, but I’ve applied them to other materials, like plastics. I draw with the material. It’s not until I get my hands on the material that I come up with ideas.” To me it matters not a fig whether Marston personally makes the pieces. Technically, though, if she constructs them herself, or if they are made under her personal supervision, this is craft, whereas if someone else produces them in a factory, this is design. But for Marston, and many others like her, craft and design are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary. In her case it is impossible to draw a line between the end of craft and the start of design.
In 2002 the Crafts Council held an exhibition called Home Made Holland, which suggested that Droog and other contemporary Dutch designers, such as Marcel Wanders and Hella Jongerius, had found a way forward for design by embracing avant-garde craft. Significantly, one of the chief protagonists behind Droog is Gijs Bakker, a radical jeweller who revolutionised the discipline during the late 1960s by combining throwaway materials with conceptual ideas. It was through applying this formula to a wider range of objects 30 years later that the Droog phenomenon exploded, yet in spite of its genesis in art and craft, the design world has been happy to claim Droog as its own.
The reality is that some of today’s leading designers, such as Marc Newson, Tom Dixon and Ron Arad, started out (technically speaking) in the craft/sculpture field, personally making, or closely overseeing, the fabrication of unique pieces in their workshops. Tom Dixon’s early company was called Creative Salvage; Ron Arad’s was One-Off (although Arad always cannily presented his work as art). Once raised to international design superstar status, it is easy to forget this, but particularly at the early stages of people’s careers, there is often a lot of creative to-ing and fro-ing between art, craft and design. “Honestly, I can’t remember ever holding an ambition to be a designer,” Dixon claims on his website. “It just slowly came over me as I rejected notions of being an artist or a craftsman. Even today I prefer the idea of being an industrialist.” However, the fact that Dixon put himself forward for this year’s Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for Furniture (administered by the Crafts Council) somewhat belies his claim to have detached himself from craft. El Ultimo Grito, another of the short-listed design practices, also straddle the no-man’s land between art, craft and design.
So where does craft fit into the visual arts framework? Does it have an independent existence, or is it an adjunct of another discipline? Is it the natural bedfellow of design, or an impoverished second cousin of art? To me, craft is simply another avenue of visual creativity, closely allied to, and at times overlapping with, art or design, but with its own distinct identity. As with a political party, some people sit in the centre, others lean to left or right. Making things by hand is still an important aspect of much contemporary craft, yet it does not preclude the use of computers, machines, workshop assistants or subcontractors. Craft satisfies deep human instincts and has a powerful physical presence, but it can also carry complex intellectual messages or emotional weight. Craft can be sensual, it can be cerebral, or both, as in the case of Edmund de Waal.
Professor Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art and chair of Arts Council England, is comfortable with the diverse, multifaceted character of contemporary craft. Remarking on a recent survey by the Crafts Council called Making It in the 21st Century, he observed that contemporary makers “touch the design world at one end of the spectrum and the art world at the other – such distinctions don’t seem to mean much to them any more.” However, other commentators, such as writer Kate McIntyre, are frustrated by the low profile of craft within the visual arts hierarchy: “Craft is the second sex: marginalised, trivialised, feminised, it is undermined by connotations of domesticity. Decorative-, applied-, not quite art, craft skirts the issue of function, and is not quite design. Craft loiters, seemingly without intent, on the fringes of the visual arts, laden with the potential to subvert.”
The ceramicist Richard Slee, who has been ploughing his own subversive furrow since the 1970s, is more philosophical about the situation. Slee won the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for Ceramics in 2001 and has just had a major retrospective at the Crafts Council, but if there was any justice in the world – or if the art world had the gumption to recognise his genius – he would have walked away with last year’s Turner Prize, rather than the self-promotional and self-indulgent Grayson Perry. Slee himself is unperturbed: “In some ways, because the area that I’m in is somewhere indefinable, I have quite a lot of freedom. I always thought the whole art/craft debate was primarily about jealousy – and about money and status. Whatever world you’re in, you still have the same prejudices. If you’re outside, you’re freer of those constraints. There’s a lot of political correctness in the fine art world. It’s even fractured into Saatchi artists and non-Saatchi artists. You’re better off in some unfashionable backwater somewhere.”
Perhaps we all need to relax and stop being so judgemental about craft. We should accept the open-endedness of the term. To dismiss craft wholesale, just because we feel uncomfortable with some of its more embarrassing associations, is to ignore a rich seam of creativity. It’s time to put an end to narrow-minded territorialism and to formulate opinions on the basis of the intrinsic quality of the work. Yes, there is plenty of bad craft in circulation, but probably no more than the amount of bad art or bad design. The existence of the mediocre should not detract from the validity of the excellent.
Lesley Jackson is a curator and design historian