15 December 2007

Craft 2.0

The collision between the seemingly separate worlds of Web 2.0 and craft is described in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine written by Rob Walker.

The article begins by describing the Handmade Consortium an online project that seeks to get consumers to pledge to 'buy handmade'. It's a consortium that interestingly includes key movers in the DIY movement, and the American Crafts Council. It has a page of online resources for the Handmade Movement that includes my own (now largely dormant) Hand Made Theory blog.

Walker explains how the rise of the DIY/Crafter movement has been intimately linked to Web 2.0. For example, the new Craft magazine which addresses the needs of "the new craft movement" was initiated by O'Reilly Media which itself has been behind all the analysis (and indeed the hype) that has led to the idea of Web 2.0.

The article argues that the new handmade movement is an explicitly ideological movement that has profound implications for consumerism, and seeks to develop sustainable economies based on craft production. More than once the piece draws parallels with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the examples cited demonstrate how a Web 2.0 enabled craft movement enables makers to overcome the Morris Dilemma. No "pandering to the swinish luxury of the rich" here - the hand felted ipod cocoons are very reasonably priced.

Much of Walker's attention is given to Etsy - essentially an online craft fair - - which provides makers with their own branded online stores. Brooklyn-based Etsy indicates something of the size and significance of the new handmade movement. It comprises a community of 70,000 people, with a $4.3 million turnover in November 2007 alone. OK, let's put this into perspective. According to the latest research the entire craft sector in Scotland accounts for an annual turnover of at least 95 million pounds. The probable annual turnover of Etsy is around 25% of this figure, and projections indicate that turnover is on a steep upward trajectory. The new craft movement is thus significant in economic terms alone.

To quote from Walker's article:

"The luck or genius of (Etsy) is that Kalin and the other founders encountered in the D.I.Y./craft scene something that was already social, community-minded, supportive and aggressively using the Web.... Kalin is nothing if not grandiose about what he thinks Etsy can accomplish. For example, he knows that individual crafters face a problem of scale: there is only so much one person can produce. (Hence the Industrial Revolution.) So he mentions creating “co-production” sites across the country, where groups of crafters would band together in a co-op-style model, ideally occupying space in distressed areas and offering training to people who want to learn handcrafting skills. Handmade isn’t a fad, he told me, it’s a resurgence, one that is of a piece with the booming interest in organic food. In 25 years, he said, Etsy would be both worldwide and personal, a global-local marketplace, a Web version of the Athenian agora.... Etsy could “disturb” the way people see the world, rethinking what makes their possessions important or trivial, leading us to re-evaluate the way we consume."

Craft 2.0 is the true inheritor of the Morris legacy. Unlike the professionalised 'art school' educated craft makers it has an ideological position which, while largely ill-defined and diverse, represents a constructive reaction to the inequities and politics of the market economy. It is clearly using the market economy as a means of developing sustainable livelihoods, but is bringing economic and cultural innovation to it. Above all it is dealing with the politics of work and consumption in ways that the professionalised sector cannot.

29 November 2007

Neocraft Conference

This blog has been a little dormant since July when we held our conference in Dundee, so it is time to revive it with a post on the year's second major craft research conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Five of us from Dundee attended this excellent and well attended event that brought together an international audience and some fine speakers. The conference was initiated and directed by Sandra Alfoldy of NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) who must be congratulated on the energy and vision that brought Neocraft (and its accompanying book, podcasts and associated gallery exhibitions) into being.

Before highlighting some of the themes and issues arising from Neocraft, let me cut to the chase of the key point I wish to make: it is time for a change of gear in the craft research community to ensure its consolidation, and to encourage rigour and scholarship. Major international craft research conferences have been rare - until the last three years. Since 2004 we have had Challenging Craft, Radical Craft, New Craft Future Voices and now Neocraft. So we clearly have a head of steam building in terms of research activity in the field. It is time perhaps to pull these disparate initiatives and networks together around a more clearly defined craft research community. An international research society dedicated to furthering craft research should be our collective project. We have the Design Research Society, the European Academy of Design and others which have all contributed positively to creating a new research culture throughout design. Now it is time for craft. Craft can reach the parts that other design research communities cannot reach - it can connect with feminist discourses, ethnicity, community activism and other areas far more readily than our colleagues in mainstream design research appear able to do. That is a strength that revealed itself most strongly at Neocraft. So, who would like to run with this?

Before you all start drafting your replies which kindly volunteer yourselves to initiate a major international research network, let me set down some of my observations about Neocraft. I'm sure others will have different perspectives which I hope we can share here.

Is modernism relevant any longer?

Paul Greenhalgh kicked the conference off to a challenging start with a paper which had echoes of his contribution to the Dundee conference. In summary: too often we confuse craft with decorative art; the former is a response to modernity, and part of its discourse, while the latter is not. We need to define a new 'politics of making' that concerns itself with new modes of production, the environment, globalisation and ethnicity. Paul, along with the other three speakers in the opening panel, referenced craft in terms of the Arts and Craft movement, the Leach tradition, etc. As an Englishman this gives me a warm glow of pride, but it is short-lived. As the conference developed it was clear that many contributions (including my own) referred to forms of craft that have simply no connection with, or any rational reason to be framed by Morris, Leach and the rest of that well heeled, largely male English set. We have a dominant discourse (modernism) that has arisen from art and design history. But there are now other perspectives and disciplines that have sensible things to say about craft (including management, pedagogy, gender politics) which too often are left on the margins. Two days later, wrapping up the conference, Alan Elder of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation made the point that we need discourses from different perspectives which will help us to "embrace the messiness".

Technology is important - but should not be central

The value, nature and uniqueness of craft knowledge is highlighted particularly when we look at how it can engage with, redefine and discover cultural values in new technologies. Cathy Treadaway, Ulli Oberlack, Valerie Walker and Martin Woolner were among those contributors who provided evidence of this, and there is a potential here to connect craft with innovation theory. This is one of the new frontiers in terms of craft research and redefining the role of the maker in advanced industrial economies. A key contribution to the theme was provided by Grace Cochrane in her inspiring opening night keynote. Craft, she argued, has a shifting relationship with manufacture, and thus design and industry is equally part of the craft world as art is. Her examples showed how craft can not only exploit new opportunities in flexible manufacturing systems and processes, but also offer the potential to create sustainable livelihoods.

But those of us who are buoyed along by the excitement and potential of these technological challenges should balance our enthusiasms with an awareness and sensitivity of craft's other worlds: its centrality to aboriginal cultures, its role in urban political identities, its subversive potential and contribution to sustainability and development (eg: Suzette Wolfe-Wilson's contribution). Craft research is a broad church and we must make sure we keep it that way.

Connections and collaborations

The histories of craft that emphasise the contributions of notable individual makers downplay the importance of collaboration in craft - an unfortunate tendency that infuses too much of our craft education. But so many contributions demonstrated the social dynamics that lay at the heart of craft and which generate much of its knowledge base. In fact, it is difficult to remember a single contribution that didn't refer to collaboration in some way. A few highlights for me... Julliette MacDonald's paper showed how makers can successfully weave together tradition and innovation in collaborative contexts, Ezra Shales' is a gem of a contribution that identified the craft of the factory worker - a hugely under-researched field of inquiry, and Frances Stevenson's paper on sustainable livelihoods in craft. I'm sure there were other highlights - but with four parallel tracks then it was only possible to appreciate a small sample of the contributions. That's where the podcasts will be useful.

What is craft research?

Love Jonsson from Goteborg University was one of the speakers on the closing panel which addressed future directions in craft research. His contribution included a criticism of some UK doctoral practice-based research in craft, which he felt got little further than idle noodling in photoshop which demonstrated only that the makers did not really understand the tools they were using. This appeared to galvanise some spirited support from parts of the audience. I, of course, disagreed with every word he said (until he made some key points on the eclectic nature of research practices and the role of history) but his delivery and passion were just what the conference needed. And why do I disagree? Well, as I sit here surveying the spines of the various practice-based PhD in craft that I have either examined or supervised on my bookshelves I am at a loss to think of a single one that comes anywhere close to idle photoshop noodlings. So, name names Mr Jonsson - or I'll see you in court ;-)

Debate is good, and Love has raised an issue that we should respond to. However, my criticism is that a number of the contributions I heard contained no research whatsoever, and some of the discussions both within the sessions and outside them revealed a scant understanding of the nature of method or rigour. Merely describing practice has its place. But not here.

This brings me back to my opening point. Craft knowledge is a vital and unique resource, sadly undervalued in both academia and the wider world. If we wish to change this, then the bar needs to be set higher in terms of research quality, and sustainable communities of craft research established that provide the support and encouragement to propel more practitioners and researchers over that bar. A new learned society would help to achieve this.

In the meantime, Sandra Alfoldy and her team have provided us with a book and the podcasts of some stimulating presentations that advance craft research far closer towards achieving its potential as a valued area of academic inquiry.

06 July 2007

The conference concludes

This afternoon, the conference came to end. If you attended we would welcome your comments here on your thoughts and reflections on the event, and how we should take it forward.

To summarise the comments I made in the plenary....

Craft research is too often seen as a poor relation of the 'serious' business of research in design, fine art and the humanities. But the quality, the rigour and the focus of the papers presented at New Craft Future Voices suggests that we have made a breakthrough - which we can build on further. There is significant world-class research being undertaken in craft which we need to disseminate more widely. Personal highlights:
  • Methodological diversity and rigour that demonstrates how far craft research has developed in a short period of time.
  • Discourses around technology that are critically focussed.
  • Socially engaged practices.
  • The DIY/craftism analysis.
  • Ethnographic explorations of craft practices.
  • Creative explorations at the margins of craft - interaction design and industrial applications.
So, what were your highlights? What issues were significant for you? And how do we best exploit and further the positive and engaging dialogue that took place in Dundee? Also, if you have photos you would like to share of the conference, please email them to us and we will post them here.

On a personal level - I hugely valued seeing old friends and colleagues, and meeting new ones. I hope to see you again soon. I know that a number of people will be attending Sandra Alfoldy's conference NeoCraft in Canada in November, which promises to be excellent.

This evening I learned of another opportunity. Fancy Japan? Cumulus Kyoto is an international conference on design that is inviting submissions on craft.

I trust that everyone who attended the conference had a safe journey home, and I look forward to further productive and stimulating encounters with you all.

Conference Ceilidh

The last night of the conference was celebrated with a Ceilidh, with delegates piped in to the Invercarse Ballroom by a piper, then - after dinner - entertained in the traditional Scottish way. However, the dancing styles of our guests was far from traditional.

04 July 2007

Exhibition opening

The Future Voices: Celebrating Diversity exhibition opened this evening at which attended all conference delegates, and other guests.

Curator Sally Moir opened the event:

The conference has started!

The New Craft Future Voices conferences got off to an excellent start this morning at the University of Dundee.

Over one hundred people are attending the event, which has attracted participants from all over the world. The conference kicked off with a challenging and provocative keynote from Paul Greenhalgh, Director and President of the Corcoran in Washington DC. A spirited call for crafts to embrace and champion 'poetry and politics' led into the first of the day's parallel tracks.

Conference and exhibition proceedings are available to purchse online from here.

This evening at 6pm the Future Voices: Celebrating Diversity exhibition opens at the Universithy's Cooper Gallery. Featuring diverse contemporary craft work and research-based practice, that explores the potential future of crafts discipline, its direction and economic opportunities. The exhibition celebrates diversity and will feature the work of 27 practitioners from seven countries, including Australia, Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom.

01 June 2007

Conference countdown

The New Craft Future Voices conference is due to open in just over one month. It offers the opportunity to hear prominent international keynote speakers that include Paul Greenhalgh, Bruce Metcalf, Joruun Veiteberg, Marie O'Mahony and Sandra Alfoldy.

This will be the first craft conference to fully integrate theory and practice. Alongside a conference programme that includes over 50 papers from academic researchers and practitioners, there is a major international exhibition that showcases 26 exhibit proposals from seven countries, and represents a total of 37 practitioners and over 70 pieces of work. Digital, Radical, Innovative, Fine and Process - the exhibition exposes a diversity of activities within the crafts and takes stock of its fast changing cultural and creative role. Attendees will also receive a fully published set of conference proceedings. There is still the opportunity to register for the conference by visiting the conference website.

If you are attending, we wish to hear from you. Our intention is to develop a rich discourse around the future of craft. So, leave a comment here that addresses one or all of these questions:
  • What will you be bringing to the conference?
  • What are the key questions on the future of craft you want to raise?
  • What are the priorities for the future of craft?
  • How can we better develop an international craft research community?

17 May 2007

Crafty MySpace?

Yesterday I posted a request for ideas about how we can develop a web-based resource to network research students and other researchers in craft - and design (see The Unusual Suspects below).

John Marshall left a comment which I thought would be better profiled - and more widely read - if I posted it here:

Sounds like something that fits between a 'crafty' version of MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/ and the Make Blog: http://www.makezine.com/blog/ - MakerSpace?

Something that is more useful than: http://www.phdweblogs.net/ and looks and works more like: http://www.carbonmade.com/

Something like: We Make Craft Not Money: http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/ bolted onto CGTalk: http://forums.cgsociety.org/ ?

How about starting something around New Craft Future Voices - like automatically making everyone who registers a contributor to this blog? Having a BoingBoing for Craft: http://boingboing.net/ would certainly be a start...
Any other suggestions?

New Craft Blogs

Craft blogs are like buses - you wait ages for a new one to arrive, and suddenly five turn up all at once. Craft Victoria has launched five blogs, each of which explores a different 'slow notion' in craft.
  • What's in the making - " As a Slow Notion, this topic delves into the practical, aesthetic and moral dimensions of the craft process. In the spectrum of production, design refers to the conception and promotion, while making is the middle process that brings design into being. In late capitalism, making becomes ever more invisible. Our factories have gone to China. This has led to anxieties about skill-shortage in the West. Does it matter that we no longer make things? Does it matter how things are made -- whether they are made by hand or who makes them?"
  • Craft versus spectable - "This topic explores the broader role played by craft in opposition to modernity. In 1968 'Society of Spectacle' was developed as a critique of the escapist tendencies in popular culture. In the 21st century, it relates to the dominance of the screen, particularly as a device for flattening the world and reducing it to pure image. By contrast, the world of craft is something that locates us in the shared material world. Is craft a sanctuary of participation in a passive society of spectacle?"
  • The world of spin - "This topic explores (and celebrates) a craft process found in a wide variety of media. Spinning is an activity redolent with meaning, found in many contexts from fairy tales to religious meditation. In the crafts, it connects a wide range of activities, including spinning threads, throwing pots, turning wood, use of metal lathe and blowing glass. This is an opportunity to explore the creative dimension of the centrifugal process, including the feelings it expresses. What connects the different spinning processes found throughout world culture?"
  • Sources of enchantment - "This topic explores the places where artists and makers find inspiration for their work. In recent times, many Australian artists have used the mythological forest as a subject for their work, including owls, deer and wolves. In popular culture, the enchanted forest continues to be an enduring feature of successful films and books. Is this an escape from the reality of our fraught nature, or a deep connection to the founding myths of Western culture?"
  • Learn from Africa - "This topic touches on globalisation and the growing popularity of world culture. The South Project goes to Johannesburg in October 2007. This will be an opportunity to consider the legacy of African Renaissance, in particular the value of ubuntu (humanness) that has guided South Africa through its process of reconciliation. Africa features most often in the Western consciousness as a problem that needs to be fixed. What is the Western problem that might require an African solution?"
To be honest, they've been around for some months and have some interesting content.

16 May 2007

The Unusual Suspects

I recently had the pleasure to visit the Konstfack in Stockholm as external examiner for their MFA in Jewellery and Metalwork. Led by Professors Ruudt Peters and Karren Pontoppidan (third and fourth from left above) they are seen here wearing pieces by graduating student Sara BorgegÄrd (far left) which are shown in the current degree show. An excellent course with excellent students - and for overseas students there are no tuition fees, which is a refreshing take on the idea of public education.

What is also interesting is that the Konstfack is about to begin a doctoral programme in art and design. We had some discussions about this, and the need to better link up research students in craft disciplines worldwide. The recent conference in Izmir, Turkey of the European Academy of Design (EAD) - which I've blogged on elsewhere - also raised this issue. There were some very good papers presented by doctoral students, a number from craft disciplines. But there are few mechanisms in place to help them network together. There is the phd-design list, but this would appear more effective for networking supervisors than students. So Wolfgang Jonas is starting work on developing an on-line networking system for research students in design, which will be under the EAD umbrella, but open to all. Early in June he is holding a meeting to progress this idea, and is seeking suggestions for what is needed.

If you are a research student in craft - or a supervisor, or have even a passing interest in doctoral studies in craft - please leave a comment on what you would want from an online networking system. How could we learn from other social networking facilities? Is an email list sufficient? What resources would you like to see shared?

All your comments will be forwarded on and contribute to building something that helps create a worldwide research culture for craft.

20 April 2007

Craft at the Cutting Edge


National Museum of Scotland

A group of us recently visited ‘The Cutting Edge’ exhibition at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, a major craft exhibition showcasing some of the best crafts practitioners in Scotland.

Our visiting group comprised of craft practitioners, researchers and educators and we arrived full of expectation and excitement as this exhibition, by its very title, promised to present the freshness of crafts practice. It promised new, ambitious, daring crafts and we felt sure it would ‘wow’ us with cutting edge practice, reflecting the breadth of craft that we know is definitely ‘out there’ in Scotland. The ‘Cutting Edge’ Exhibition (still showing until 26th April) has also come at a time when Craft and issues concerning Craft are being discussed with increasing frequency, raising public awareness outside the ‘recognised’ crafts arena. Therefore the timing of this exhibition is perfect.

The foreword to the exhibition states, “the cutting edge clearly demonstrates the wealth of well designed, beautiful and brilliantly made objects in modern day Scotland” (Aitken et al., 2007), and there were some pieces that clearly fitted this description, balancing innovation with aesthetic integrity. But, here comes the gripe, overall there seemed to be a ‘much as before‘ feeling, and the potential value of craft as ‘cutting edge’ seemed to be lacking spark. Therefore I think this exhibition raises pertinent questions about craft practitioners time, in particular the necessary time needed to develop new ideas and concepts whilst under pressure to make a living. Craft practitioners know how difficult it is to balance skilled making, thinking and aesthetic reasoning with earning and striking a balance is often difficult. The Cutting Edge also raises questions regarding the future of crafts and crafts practitioners and how and what this balance should be in the future. Investment, is surely the key….isn’t it?

17 April 2007

The Legacy of William Morris

Todays Guardian features an article on the shortsightedness of the London Borough of Walthamstow who are threatening the William Morris Gallery with closure. Cost cutting is given as the reason for wanting to cut back opening hours and remove the keeper and his team from their jobs. There is an online petition to save the Gallery which already has more than 5700 signatures at http://www.keepourmuseumsopen.org.uk

The main thrust of the Guardian piece is why doesn't the council get how significant a resource this is! Jonathan Glancey does an excellent job of making these elected members in no doubt of the legacy of William Morris and why the saving of the gallery is so important. In particular he highlights how Morris was responsible for resurrecting any number of craft skills. Certainly much of the art & craft education that is available today is part of the legacy of Morris and people such as John Ruskin. I have never visited the William Morris Gallery although it has for some time been on my list of places to visit. I also have friends who live in Walthamstow and a visit to the Gallery would also provide me with an opportunity to catch up with them.

While Local Government in Canada and the USA are recognising the importance of arts provision in regenerating deprived inner city areas (See previous post), our local politicians appear to lack the imagination and the vision. On 3 May 2007, there will be local government elections in England, local government and Scottish Parliamentary elections in Scotland, and National Assembly elections in Wales. We should all be asking what the priorities are for the arts and crafts in particular - placing the issues high on the political agenda.

Morris himself believed that the political arena was one of the key ways of uniting art & society, ensuring that beauty was an everyday part of life and that all men had access to creating beauty through their labour. These values are as relevant today as they were then if not more so. We need politicians who can see the significance of this and provide the investment necessary to build on Morris's legacy.

08 March 2007

Crafts Organic Approach

Continuing the debate about craft and the digital - I came across this interesting book by Robert Frenay - Pulse: How Nature is inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century. What caught my eye was his suggestion that the new technology (and biology) will be "consciously crafted by humans" by bringing organic principles to all of human design. I quote "The machine age is about to meet a superior challenge. This doesn't mean the end of technology. There will be more of it now more than ever. But our best innovations will no longer be like those that sparked the industrial revolution. In the future they will increasingly be like living things. Not life in the traditional sense, but a biology that has been consciously crafted by humans - a new biology".

Included in this new technology are approaches such as haptics. One of the best examples of this being driven by craft is the Tacitus Project that explores the relationship of the applied arts to science and technology. Funded by the Arts & Humantities Research Council it has developed some Haptic Interfaces. "Haptics is the study of human touch and interaction with the external environment via touch. Haptic interfaces are a class of human computer interaction (HCI) devices that predominantly appeal to this particular sensory modality. Touch is unique as a human sense in that it can be used to gather information regarding the external environment and also to interact with it. " Anne Marie Shilitto is a jeweller and research fellow at Edinburgh College of Art and manager of the Tactitus project. This is another good example I feel of how craft is transforming the digital. For me crafts unique contribution to the digital is its organic approach.

I have argued that the philosophical origins of craft are founded on the organic principles of the German Romantics and Goethe in particular. See conference abstract on the New Craft: Future Voices Conference website. The full paper will be discussed at the conference itself in July 2007. Similarly Frenays book also discusses nature - "not as a place we visit or a focus of concern but as a system, a philosophy, a guide for our thinking and solutions in an increasingly complex world."

As an organic approach - craft is naturally slow, because it is grounded in relationship and connections and gradual improvements. Adopting an organic approach to the digital and technology also raises the importance of pattern, something that the crafts is particularly expert in. See for example the work of Frances Stevenson who works in printed textiles. Frances also attended the Radical Craft Conference in Pasadena last year - See last years blog. I will quote from that blog here to underline the point that craft is at the heart of the debates about making processes that are akin to living organisms.

"Our world was the subject of Constance Adams presentation,(she works for NASA) and I think her presentation was about as radical as you get. She presented 'Crafting the Mothership, space architecture'. She explained that Earth is ONE complex organism and in order for earth to survive the organism must propagate. If earth is the mothership then spacecrafts should be sent out to propagate other environments.This talk was great as it involved radical ideas in terms of how space exploration has forced 'makers' to rethink how they get something to work. She highlighted structures like soil, crystals and grains. Growing and living structures that are necessary for life. Structures that demonstrate the movement of life. What was really interesting is that she highlighted the need for natural methods and materials being used in order to sustain life, and how future visions look back to traditional roots. " This quote also connects with Jane Harris's discussion of the term craft in Mikes last post (see below) where she acknowledges that the term craft is being used in a process led way, such as 'crafting nano materials', to associate something that's so far ahead of us with something that's very past in order to realise it in the present.

This vision of organic craft would also include my own work (in partnership with Fraser Bruce at Dundee University) and colleagues in Edinburgh University and Professor Fraser Stoddart and his research group at UCLA looking at crafted approahces to Nano-technology.

What is also interesting about this is the link back to Bruce Sterling and his shaper/mechanistic short story series. These stories were concerned with a human genetic future and the ultimate commodification of humanity. The organics of craft and the organic principles of the 'new biology' shifts us away from the either or choice of the mechanists or the shapers but enables us to consider a future in which mechanistic technologies are incorporated within an organic approach.

So the 'new biology' as Frenay points out "... doesnt reject the machine age. It builds on it and incorporates that by stirring its classic logic into the larger complexities and dynamics of living systems." By acknowledging crafts organic principles we have much to contribute to this emerging future. It would be good to hear views on this and suggestions of other relevant organic craft examples.

06 March 2007

Slow design

Here at Craft Research we are pleased to share our thoughts and observations with a generally small but committed readership. And they are not all lonely weavers from Fife. Some live as far afield as Edinburgh. In fact, we have readers and comment contributors from throughout the world, and generally get around 30 hits per day. At one stage last week we were getting 30 hits every hour - and from places we don't normally get hits, like Harvard, Price Waterhouse and Microsoft. Weird, eh? The reason for this is that Bruce Sterling had quoted and linked us on his blog. He had referred to the admittedly rather provisional typology of digital craft practice I had put forward in the previous post, concluding his comment with: "Oh really? Do say more!".

I started to draft something in response, then read an article that fluently expressed what I was trying to say. The article is in Crafts, which is published by the UK Crafts Council. I've subscribed to this for a decade and a half, and in the last few years seriously wondered why. In the days when Peter Dormer strode its pages with his impassioned writing, Crafts raised debate and helped to gain a contemporary relevance for the crafts. But since his sad death, the publication appeared to slip ever closer to coffee table anonymity. Now, with a new editor, refreshed look and some sparkier writing it has a welcome reinvigorated spring in its step. From being the Daily Telegraph of the applied arts, it's now more like the Sniffin' Glue of the connected crafts. With Caroline Roux at the helm, Crafts is on a far more interesting path.

In the latest issue Jane Harris and Timorous Beasties are in dialogue with Nick Barley, recently appointed as Director of The Lighthouse, Scotland's Centre of Design. The entire article is worth reading, but alas it is not online, so below I have included some excerpts that hopefully address Bruce Sterling's request for more on the relationship between crafts and the digital. JH is Jane Harris. PS is Paul Simmons. AM is Alistair Macaulay.

PS - It's interesting that even the name of the magazine we're going to be in - the dreaded 'craft' word - got such a bad rap in the 90s. But being at art school helped us learn about material, about process, about how to actually make something because after all, we've got to learn about that in order to design for it.
JH - It's a term I fought against during that time - ironically, there's now a new use for it, particularly in the context of emerging media. They're using it in a process led way, such as 'crafting nano materials', to associate something that's so far ahead of us with something that's very past in order to realise it in the present.
PS - Tom Dixon's a craft person, so is Marc Newson, Ron Arad; all these people started making things for themselves and having that knowledge of the materials.
AM - And that's what sets them apart, because they're totally involved.

There then follows a fascinating discussion which ends up focussing on why time and development and reflection are central to the craft process, and how this results in unique outcomes. Finally Jane says:

JH- I went to a wonderful presentation the other day by Gossypium who have spent the last 15 to 20 years working with cotton farmers in India, really going back to source. They have a shop where they sell basic clothing and it just walks off the shelves but everything's shipped in from India, and people can wait six months for a babygrow. It's an incredible concept: it's like slow food.

Slow design: that is craft's contribution to digital culture.

27 February 2007

Poets of (sometimes lost) interaction

Sandra's post below on Technocraft rang a few bells.....

The January issue of Icon ran a piece called Digital Poets by Daniel West describing how "A new generation of designers is moving beyond traditional product and furniture design, and using technology to enrich the way people interact with objects and spaces." Again, it was centred on ideas and graduates coming out of the RCA's Designing Interactions course led by Tony Dunne. As Dunne is quoted as saying in the article: “A materials-led approach to design is expanding to embrace digital technologies... New hybrids of design are emerging. People don’t fit in neat categories; they’re a mixture of artists, engineers, designers, thinkers. They’re in that fuzzy space and might be finding it quite tough, but the results are really exciting.”

The Icon and Wallpaper articles cover similar ground and cite some of the same practitioners. While few (if any) of them would define themselves as craftmakers, that is not really the point. What we have is evidence that craft thinking and processes are engaging with interaction design as a form of critical design. My only frustration is that design journalists seem to have immense difficulty in looking outside London and the RCA for evidence of exciting and relevant work in this field.

I have an interest in how craft makers are engaging with digital culture, but I'm not convinced that 'Technocraft' is really that appropriate as a label for them. I'm playing with definitions here, but let's see how this works...

iCraft. We have people like Justin Marshall and his colleagues in the Autonomatic group - excellent makers working at a post-doctoral level - who are exploring the integration of digital process into their workshop-based practice, and helping to define a digital craft aesthetic. Their mission is to "raise the profile of making in 21st century design culture". There is exploration of how the relationships between craft, industry and digital process can be redefined to create new physical possibilities.

HybridMakers. Then there are those who are bridging craft and new media, moving away - to varying degrees - from physical objects, but still using creative methods that are rooted in making and indeed champion making as a method. John Marshall (no relation) I would place in this camp (perhaps he disagrees), and Jane Harris most definitely is.

CraftInteractionists. These makers are using crafted objects and craft process to explore new possibilities of interaction design. Here we have examples such as Jayne Wallace, Hazel White (in collaboration with Ewan Steel) and Sarah Kettley. A number of the 'Technocraft' examples also fall into this category. Particularly interesting is the work of Ranjit Makkuni, an interaction designer formerly based at Xerox PARC, and who was this week the subject of a feature in Business Week. He is developing exciting work that uses artists and craftmakers to create innovative interactive environments. As he says in another recent interview:

"My recent work, the Crossing, is looking at new forms of hardware and mobile devices that unlock the symbols, spaces and interpretations of Banaras. This would be an example of a project in which there was multiple layers of design: from crafts, to metal work, to wood crafts, to paintings, to all the stuff that we do with embedded programming such as in situ embedded audio and graphics, to video, to graphic design, to multimedia design-all of this integrated to create very rich experiences."

Also, here at Dundee, Graham Pullin, formerly of IDEO, has done a great student project - The Museum of Lost Interactions - that cyberpunk guru Bruce Sterling described as: "this dead-media hoax 'museum exhibit' by these Scots design students is just the awesomest." While this is not interaction design by craft makers, it demonstrates the value of 'crafted' objects that that tell stories about interaction and culture.

Linking back to Andrew Wagner's point raised in this blog a few days back, craft has such immense diversity that we need to celebrate and revel in. And try to make sense of. It is fortunate that many of those working in these particular areas of craft practice will be at New Craft Future Voices this July. I look forward to what they have to say.


This months Wallpaper features an article entitled Technocraft - describing a new design movement featuring hi-tech, quirky one-offs.

"The technocraft movement is a European Art School take on the garage start-up culture of Silicon Valley. Typically based in shared studios and home offices, technocrafters know how to programme computers and lay out circuit boards. Yet they are not driven by Fordist dreams of mass production. Instead, with a soldering iron in one hand and a PowerBook in the other, they use technology to express their creativity. The products themselves are often deliberately chunky and retro-styled but there is poetry in the ideas."

The article concludes; "If technocraft is a movement, then it s a protest movement mixing art, design, physics lesson technology and a rough-hewn way with wit and materials. Most often home-made and one-off, technocraft exposes the false promise of the international gadget giants who bury technology in the bland design and peddle the myth of unstoppable, inevitable and technology driven progress."

I love the way the author has connected craft and poetry in making. Its also good to see craft once again being 'embedded within everyday life in new ways' as Mike puts it.

This is another 'exciting facet' to craft - more please.

26 February 2007

A Job for The Doctor?

The latest development in the Craft Wars is a fleet of crocheted daleks that have recently hoved into view, featured a couple of days ago on boingboing (American readers - many of you won't know what a dalek is, so a brief update here). Firm evidence, then, that the hobbyists have adopted serious weaponry in the battle to appropriate the concept of craft from the 'fine craft' communities.

Sandra Wilson's original post - both ends of the spectrum - and the comments that it stimulated have raised some important questions. For me, the most telling point raised by Sandra was this: "One end of craft has for some time been keen to distance itself from the term and yet the other end is happy to embrace it and reinvigorate it for a new generation". One reaction to The Guardian's championing of the craft hobbyists - according to one comment made on our blog - is to "find a new word for hand making.... (because) craft just doesn't do it". Talking to other professional makers recently suggests that this view is widespread. In other words, give the hobbyists 'craft' and we'll adopt something else.

Great idea. We have thousands of people worldwide who are getting passionate and involved in craft, we have national newspapers devoting special supplements to it, we have a whole new culture emerging that is embedding craft within everyday life in new ways and often weaving this into radical politics. What better than to turn our backs on this movement, and the opportunities that it presents us with, and retreat into a little world of our own making?

We also have the design industry looking seriously at craft as a source of innovation and underlying philosophy for design practice in a post-industrial age. Last year's Radical Craft conference attracted over 800 people to Art Center Pasadena - one of whom was our own Frances Stevenson who blogged here about it.

A recent comment on our blog made by Andrew Wagner, the new editor of American Craft magazine, argues: "There are so many facets to 'craft' which is precisely what makes it such an exciting, vital, and absolutely alive and kicking field but it is so rarely shown this way...it is always one way or the other and that is where I see the mistakes being made. I think 'craft' needs to proudly display the ranges of the discipline and revel in those."

My frustration for some years is that craft has failed to make a case for itself, and has failed to connect with the wider culture. As a result it becomes ever more exclusive, culturally disconnected and seemingly inarticulate. Our project (along with others such as Sandra Alfoldy's at NSCAD) is seeking to overcome some of the problems by encouraging and enabling a research community to move necessary debates forward, but we clearly need to go further. We need more than academics to work on this - this is not simply a job for well meaning doctors of craft.

Craft practitioners, curators, journalists, hobbyists, designers (and yes, even academics) need to develop and extend dialogue. We need to define the common languages that Sandra is calling for. We need to find ways of not only celebrating diversity, but making more productive links between diverse practices. And we need to realise our common interests, and pursue them together. We need a new vision in the making.

19 February 2007

What is craft research?

As we canter up to the New Craft Future Voices event, we should begin to focus our thoughts and discussions on one key question in particular: what exactly is craft research? I say "one key question", but of course there are a number of related questions bound up in this. How do we define it? What is its scope? How do we articulate its wider value? Is it not simply a subset of design research?

I pose these questions because of the need to define a position in respect of both critics and those whom we seek to support and encourage. Two recent events have brought these questions into focus. One was the view expressed by a prominent member of the design research community to a colleague that (I risk paraphrasing here) "little of any significant value has arisen from research in the crafts". The other was a conversation with another colleague who was expressing frustration that she had to learn how to write as a social scientist in order to publish in the field of craft research, while such writing skirts around but does not get to the core of the original knowledge that was arising from her practice. Her view was that we have failed to define a way of communicating craft research that is appropriate to our disciplines. Twelve years ago I began to discuss this in a somewhat polemical piece It's Research, Jim... that I had intended to revisit at some point, but never got around to. It's probably time that I did.

We should aspire to define a field of inquiry with its own distinctive methods, forms of communication (and perhaps learned society?) that is sustainable and valued within the wider academic community. The response to the New Craft Future Voices call for papers is hugely encouraging. There is some excellent, engaging and committed research being undertaken in craft disciplines throughout the world, much of which does not readily find a home in existing research communities. Therefore we have an opportunity to define and create a framework for supporting such research.

So, my initial stab at a definition is this:

Craft research aims to improve the understanding of and enhance innovation within craft practices.

Its key objectives are to:
  • explore the cultural and economic value of craft
  • promote discourses around the nature of contemporary practices
  • develop appropriate means of communicating the craft knowledge that arises through practice
  • promote innovation in craft practice.
I welcome all contributions that seek to improve on this initial definition and move us further towards articulating a clear position on what is craft research.

04 February 2007

Both ends of the spectrum

The second in a series of monthly Guardian Guides is - Craft. It focuses on how to make everything from a stylish new dress to a DIY dining table. An interesting section entitled adventures in modern craft includes "New Wave Crafting" that derives pleasure from the recycling of everyday objects.

"More punk than Stepford homemaker, the modern craftster is a sociable creature, gathering in pubs, clubs and online to chat and swap ideas."

The guide also includes crafty websites we love - with one glaring omission!

This is a guide for those who wish to get in at the ground level of craft - this is the craft of the hobbyist. Craft sadly is not presented as a vocation or a worthwhile way of making a living - it is presented as a distraction from everyday living rather than a way of living.


This same week the Craft Council will be promoting Collect the leading international art fair for contemporary objects in London. This is what some might describe as the other end of the spectrum, forty one galleries presenting work by over 350 leading artists.


The word Craft here is only visible in the title of the Council but for how much longer? One end of craft has for some time been keen to distance itself from the term and yet the other end is happy to embrace it and reinvigorate it for a new generation.

Why are we so ashamed of our hobbyist associations? Do both not belong to the same family of craft? Are both ultimately just striving to understand what it means to be human? Some more dedicated than others? Can we not celebrate this diversity, rather than create more distance between us? How much of this distinction is related to class? Do these craft differences exist in other countries? Writing this blog on both ends of the spectrum has also made me ponder where is the craft middle ground, what does this look like and who occupies it?

23 January 2007

craft research

craft research
BeautyMy research is raising interesting questions, and there is one I’d like to share and discuss here: ‘Is the concept of beauty timeless and unchanging?’Looking at an example of historical craft practice, namely the ‘Vine Corridor’ (created in 1899, commissioned by the 3rd Marquis of Bute, and situated in the House of Falkland, Scotland), I’d like to explore the question by initially concentrating on the role of natural light and its relation to beauty.In the narrow ‘Vine Corridor’, natural light dances through three, small stain-glass domed windows. The three windows represent different parts of the day, namely ‘dawn’ ‘mid-day’ and ‘dusk’ and are coloured accordingly. For example, the morning window is coloured with cool, soft mauves, greys and blues, the midday window is golden with oranges, yellows and pale blues, and the early evening window has a rich, warm, palette with deep pink, red, purple and gold. The windows in themselves are aesthetically pleasing, quality pieces of craft. But, when natural light passes through the stain-glass and falls on the highly patterned and colourful ‘stucco’ plasterwork on the walls, the significance of the craft aesthetic is heightened. There is a new story being told, one that brings the natural cycle of day together with symbolism in the 'Vine Corridor'. When you walk through the corridor you realise beauty is a dynamic quality; it demands that the eye is constantly moving, challenging the eye's ability to stay focused on one element for a sustained period of time. This is one of my observations, but what are your observations of the role of natural light on craft practice? How does it affect your practice? Does it? Perhaps you would like to comment on another aspect?

05 January 2007

Exploring Contemporary Craft at the V & A

craft research

Found this informatiion about an event at the V & A in London in february that people may be interested in.

The Maker's Perspective: Exploring Contemporary Craft
Saturday 10 February 2007
Lecture Theatre

Contemporary crafts are expanding, with extremely talented artists working in the field and the number of galleries and collectors growing rapidly here and abroad. This study day examines contemporary craft practice and compliments COLLECT the international art fair for contemporary objects which is presented by the Crafts Council at the V&A from 8-12 February 2007.

Chaired by Amanda Fielding, Camberwell/V&A Fellow, the day will include four leading craft artists talking about their work and its development. Participants will have the opportunity to view COLLECT 2007, where they will see examples of some of the artworks discussed and the day will conclude with a question and answer session.

This event is aimed at a non-specialist with an enthusiastic interest in applied art and craft, as well as budding collectors who wish to inform the way they collect.


10.00: Museum opens

10.30: Welcome, Anne Fay, Learning and Interpretation, V&A

10.35: Introduction by Amanda Fielding, Camberwell/V&A Craft Fellow

10.45: Muddy Fingers
Ceramicist Daniel Fisher will speak about looking, playing and getting dirty.
Daniel Fisher, Ceramicist

11.30: Coffee

11.50: Half Truths and Recollections
Leading glass artist Bruno Romanelli takes a chronological journey through his work from leaving college to the present day.
Bruno Romanelli, Glassmaker

12.35: Lunch (not provided) and an opportunity to visit COLLECT

14.00: My Path through Metal
Ndidi Ekubia will describe how her fascination with metal began and how function plays an important part in the design and interpretation of her silverware. Using hand raising techniques she is able to push metal into fluid three-dimensional forms then manipulate the surface to create movement and vitality.
Ndidi Ekubia, Metalsmith

14.45: Tea

15.05: Material Evidence
Michael Brennand-Wood will be speaking about his current work and projects, making reference to the context and history of his recent practice and associated influences.
Michael Brennand-Wood, Textile Artist

15.50: Panel discussion and audience Q&A

16.15: Close and opportunity to visit COLLECT


£38 (including V&A Members and Patrons). Concessions: £32 senior citizens; £12 disabled people, ES40 holders and students. One free lecturer's ticket is offered for every 10 student tickets booked and one free place can be offered to a carer accompanying a disabled person. Ticket price includes morning coffee and afternoon tea. Tickets must be booked in advance online or by calling +44 (0)20 7942 2211 or emailing bookings.office@vam.ac.uk