Is Craft Now Cool

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Is Craft Now Cool?

Grant Gibson

 

As I write, Collect – the International Art Fair for Modern Craft and Design – has just opened at its new home of Somerset House in London. That being the case it seems an apposite moment to reflect on how perceptions around the word ‘craft’ have changed during the past decade or so, and how that, in turn, illustrates shifts in the design industry itself.

Perhaps a bit of my background might be useful first. I left the RIBA Journal to edit Crafts magazine in late 2007. When I told soon-to-be erstwhile colleagues where I was going, I remember vague sneers that I’d shortly be writing about wicker baskets and brown pots. Not long after I arrived though something strange began to happen. Craft became ever-so-slightly cool. Some of this renewed interest in hands-on making and materials was almost certainly a reaction to the digitalisation of society and the desire of increasing numbers of people to get away from their screens, but there were a number of other important factors too.

In my view the re-appraisal of craft should be traced back to the publication of Richard Sennett’s seminal 2008 book, ‘The Craftsman’. It argued that we were surrounded by craft, and that skill was something innate in all of us: from the Linux programmer hunched over a computer, to the hospital nurse dealing with a medical emergency. Suddenly you had a new licence to say ‘craft’ in both academic and media circles, safe in the knowledge that you weren’t going to be made to feel like the odd one out. By accident or design, ‘The Craftsman’ pre-saged an extraordinary decade for making.

 

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett
The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

And importantly too, other books followed in its wake. A little over a decade ago, for instance, I found myself in a central London cafe with ceramist Edmund de Waal. As we parted ways I asked him what he was up to next, and he told me he was heading up to the Lake District to finish a book he’d been writing about his family’s collection of tiny Japanese carved figures. Apparently they had a bit of a history.

I thought it sounded like an intriguing idea – tracing the lineage of these exquisitely made objects and telling the story of the ascent and decline of a Jewish dynasty at the same time – but hardly something that would prove popular with the public. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be. ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ went on to pick up the Costa Book Award and was a global bestseller. Subsequently there was Matthew Crawford’s ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us’, in which the American academic-turned-motorcycle mechanic created a manifesto arguing that manual work was more satisfying than climbing the corporate ladder.

Meanwhile, Rob Penn wrote ‘It’s All About the Bike’ and ‘The Man who Made Things Out of Trees’, that both tell quite personal tales of his quest to find skilled makers. In the first instance, it’s so he can build his dream road bike, and in the follow-up, it’s to create a series of products from a single trunk of Ash that he felled in woods near his house.  And Glenn Adamson - best known until this point for academic books such as ‘The Invention of Craft’ - got in on the act last year with, ‘Fewer Better Things’, a breezy guide through issues surrounding material intelligence.

None of these books are How Tos - that’s another burgeoning part of the publishing world. Instead pretty much all of them look at the importance of craft to our wider society – illustrating how far we have been removed from the provenance of the products that surround us; the twin curses of disposability and built-in obsolescence; and why it would be better to learn a little more about materials – both for our own well-being and the environment as a whole.

Thanks in part to Crawford’s treatise, for a brief moment ‘making’ even entered the UK’s political lexicon. In 2010, for instance, John Hayes, the then-Minister of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, delivered a genuinely eye-opening lecture at London’s Royal Society of Arts entitled, ‘The Craft So Long to Lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain’, in which he opined: “People speak of the intellectual beauty of a mathematical theorem. But there is beauty, too, in the economy and certainty of movement of a master craftsmen. I believe that both kinds of beauty must be recognised on their own terms. And that implies not that the stock of academe must fall, but that the stock of craft must rise.” While much of what he had to say was hackneyed and over-romanticised, it was still remarkable to hear an active politician discussing the importance of aesthetics with such abandon.

Levi's Craftworkers campaign, shot by Dean Chalkley
Levi's Craftworkers campaign, shot by Dean Chalkley

The other interesting thing that happened to the craft world around this time was that brands - big, global ones - began using the word. Levi’s launched its Craftworkers campaign to coincide with the revamp of its London Regent Store in 2010, focussing on a group of fashionable, young things across art, music, performance and design and dressing them in, naturally, denim. Neatly the company appeared to be taking Richard Sennett at his word and finding skill in unexpected places, while at the same time hopping on the burgeoning bandwagon of hipster culture.

Others, such as Kettle Chips and even McDonalds, quickly followed suit. Companies wanted what ‘craft’ could provide – primarily authenticity and provenance, with perhaps a quick shot of ethical superiority – but few were offering anything back.

One exception is the luxury bag manufacturer LOEWE who launched a new craft prize in 2018 where the winner picked up a cool €50,000. The brand also stages major craft installations in places like Milan during its design week, which are considered, knowledgeable, and feature names that only a few years ago would have been thought of as deeply unfashionable. Last year it asked the likes of Irish maker Joe Hogan to weave baskets out of leather. Does it get priceless PR out of all this? Yes absolutely. But it is elevating the field at the same time and it has committed to doing so for a number of years now. In other words, both sides benefit.

30 shortlisted artists for the 2018 edition of the LOEWE Craft Prize, exhibited at The Design Museum
30 shortlisted artists for the 2018 edition of the LOEWE Craft Prize, exhibited at The Design Museum

If brands were getting involved then, so were the media and other areas of the arts world. On TV, shows about baking and sewing became mainstream staples. Arguably, most interesting of all though has been the fact that the art world began to embrace skill once more. The architecture collective Assemble picked up the 2015 Turner Prize for its ongoing collaboration with local residents in Liverpool’s Granby Four Streets to refurbish homes and make a slew of associated products, for instance. There’s no question that ceramists such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal as well as textile artists like Sheila Hicks played a key role in this. Perry famously joked when he picked up the Turner Prize in 2003 that he thought the art world had more trouble coming to terms with him being a potter than his choice of frocks. And last year, Tate Modern had its huge Anni Albers retrospective. Similarly, galleries such as Musseums in Wiltshire and Hauser & Wirth in Bruton have put together programmes with a strong material focus. Makers such as Freddie Robbins, Barnaby Barford, and up-and-coming names like Katie Spragg and Lena Peters are being shown to a new audience.

Things started changing in the design world too. Craft became de rigeur. This became most obvious at Milan in 2009 when Craft Punk was launched on an unsuspecting public at the Fendi showroom. In an artfully staged intervention, a group of young designers - including Simon Hassan, Glithero and Raw Edges - were asked to create pieces fashioned from off-cuts from the Fendi factory. It was a massive critical hit and, in the years that followed, a slew of other projects would come in its wake. In 2010 the co-founder of Droog Gijs Bakker curated Yii at the Trienale, which brought together young designers and traditional craftsmen from Taiwan to create products and Wallpaper* launched what would become its annual Handmade event. Since then, everywhere you turned, and on virtually every stand, someone would earnestly be making something.

The economic crash of 2008 also had a role to play in the shift of craft’s relationship with design. Recession curbed manufacturer’s desire to experiment – companies such as Cappellini and Driade, which for years had taken chances and supported young designers found themselves in financial difficulty. Equally, we began to become aware that as a consumer culture, we’re surrounded by too much stuff. So, to get around this, a group of designers - including Swedish designer Anton Alvarez with his thread wrapping machine, and UK-based James Shaw with a plastic extruder gun - instead decided to investigate tools that could create products and allow consumers to decide if they wanted to make something or not. And if they weren’t doing that then, to blatantly pinch from Walter Gropius, they were turning to the crafts.

However, perhaps there is no better indication of the renewed interest in the issue than the (rather unexpected) success of the V&A and Crafts Council’s 2011 exhibition The Power of Making. Curated by Daniel Charny, it was essentially a treasure trove of products, materials and pieces that attracted well over 300,000 people, making it the museum’s second most popular shows ever, at that time.

The Power of Making at the V&A.
The Power of Making at the V&A.

On the surface it seems that everything in the crafts garden is rosy. The public is on board; big brands can see the commercial potential; the art world loves it; it has academic chops; and it has become an essential component of the currently fashionable interest in wellness. Even government has been paying attention.

Issues remain however. The most obvious one is that we’ve been here before. There was a craft revival in the early 70s, at a time when there was economic recession as well as an interest in ecology and self-sufficiency (which sounds familiar). Yet, it quickly faded from the collective consciousness.

Making might be going through a media-inspired resurgence, but it’s impossible to avoid the nagging sense that the foundations are built on sand. As the design educator and writer Christopher Frayling has pointed out it is possible for a child to go from primary school through to university, without ever actually handling any materials at all. The worry persists of what precisely will be left when the eyes of the marketeers and hipsters alight on something new… because they will.

Yet, despite these significant obstacles I’m quietly optimistic that the renewed interest in craft that we’ve seen over the past decade or so won’t fade away so quickly this time. The issues it represents are now engrained in our lives. A stratum of society will continue to care where and how our food is produced and our products manufactured. Likewise, sustainability is a topic that all mainstream politicians are going to be forced to address regardless. The notion that we need to buy fewer things, and that the things we do purchase should last; be made in decent conditions; and be of a higher quality; is absolutely solid. And craft is in the box seat here. The fact of the matter is that it no longer is a word that makes people sneer.