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?