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The re-invigorated relationship between design and craft


In the recently released October 2015 issue of Frieze magazine, Alice Rawsthorn examines the historical tension between design and craft, as well as the recent détente between two fields as post-industrial design has adopted certain aesthetic and production techniques from craft. The return to craft, Rawsthorn suggests, bespeaks a culture suffering from digital fatigue. Here’s a snippet:

So, what happened? Why are once-dowdy words like ‘crafted’, ‘artisanal’ and ‘heritage’ now ubiquitous in marketing campaigns? Why are YouTube clips of potters working at their wheels so popular? Why are new craft courses opening at art and design schools all over the world? (Except, dispiritingly, in Britain, where they are closing because of draconian public-funding cuts.) And why does Edmund de Waal command ever-higher prices for his pots?

One explanation is that, after decades of what once seemed like the heroic achievements of standardization and mass-manufacturing, we now take their benefits for granted and find it hard to ignore their shortcomings. Similarly, we know too much about the dark side of globalization to be unaware of its consequences. Just as factory wares summoned fetid visions of exploited child labour to Morris in the late 1800s, it is difficult for us to look at an Apple or Samsung smart phone without worrying whether it was made from conflict minerals by an abusive sub-contractor, or imagining it failing to biodegrade on a toxic landfill site. Tellingly, two of the most compelling public-design projects of recent years – Norway’s soon-to-be-issued banknotes, designed by Snøhetta and The Metric System, and its new passport, developed by Neue Design Studio – depict the natural beauty of the Norwegian landscape and traditional occupations, like farming and fishing, rather than the oil industry, which has been the primary source of the country’s wealth since the 1980s.

In an age when we devote so much of our time to devouring digital information and imagery on screens, perhaps it’s inevitable that the spontaneity of craftsmanship should seem increasingly appealing. The same desire has fuelled the popularity of concerts, festivals, debates and other live events, as well as d.i.y. activities like gardening, knitting and baking. The sociologist Richard Sennett redefined the intellectual framework of craftsmanship by making an eloquent case for its empowering qualities in his book The Craftsman (2008), as did the design historian Tanya Harrod in her portrayal of Michael Cardew, one of British studio pottery’s most picaresque characters, in The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew: Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture (2012).

Image: Pattern by Jeremy Deller & Fraser Muggeridge Studio, designed in response to the work of William Morris for the exhibition ‘Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol’, 2014–15, curated by Jeremy Deller at Modern Art Oxford. Via Frieze.