Design and craft by Alice Rawsthorn

They downed over a million soft drinks and scoffed nearly as many Bath buns, but most of the six million people who trooped into the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park to visit the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in the summer of 1851 were drawn there by prize exhibits like the world’s biggest diamond, Gobelins tapestries, a demonstration of the cotton manufacturing process and the first public toilets. Charlotte Brontë was so impressed that she enthused in a letter about the: “blaze of colours and marvelous power of effect.”

One young Londoner took a frostier view. When the seventeen year-old William Morris and his siblings were taken to the Great Exhibition as a treat by their parents, the rest of the family went in cheerfully, but he refused to join them. Convinced that he would loath the Crystal Palace and its contents, the teenage Medievalist and future Arts and Crafts Movement champion, insisted on remaining outside where he sat sullenly on a chair, waiting until his family was ready to leave.

Morris later discovered more eloquent ways of expressing his contempt for what he considered to be the soullessness and shoddiness of industrialisation, notably in the rough-hewn “protest furniture” he designed in a Medieval style in the mid-1850s for the rooms he shared with the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Yet his adolescent strop outside the Great Exhibition’s orgy of consumerism, summed up the relationship of design and craft for decades to come. Morris was not the only member of the craft community to consider design to be fatally compromised by its codependence on commerce and mechanization. Conversely, there was no shortage of designers who felt equally vociferously that their “raffia mafia” critics were twee and anachronistic.

Hostilities have now ceased, from one side at least, as designers have come to see craft in a very different light: as subtler, richer, more dynamic and eclectic. Some designers have made strategic use of artisanal symbolism, as the Dutch product designer Hella Jongerius has done by giving mass-manufactured objects the appearance – or illusion – of the idiosyncrasies we have traditionally associated with craftsmanship. Others, like Jongerius’s compatriot Christien Meindertsma and the Italian duo Studio Formafantasma have explored the expressive qualities of the craft process, and its role in addressing political and social challenges. Does this growing interest represent a significant change in the design community’s understanding of craft, and its cultural value? And is it accompanied by an equally radical shift within craft circles?

It is difficult to overstate how pernicious the battle between design and craft has been. Up until the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, most objects were made by hand, often by local blacksmiths or carpenters. Their skills were highly prized, and in the early years of industrialisation, manufacturing was accorded similar respect. Celina Fox’s book “The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment” describes how manufacturers vied for prizes for the most elegantly designed machinery at packed public exhibitions. But by the 19th century, industry had been demonised by its association with dark satanic mills, tackily made goods and urban squalor. Morris, John Ruskin and fellow members of the Arts and Crafts Movement fuelled these stereotypes in their writing and lectures, and advocated a return to the supposedly gentler, purer values of craftsmanship. Neither cliché was entirely accurate. Some handcrafted wares were no less tacky than the dodgier factory goods, while the best industrial wares matched the highest standards of craftsmanship.

Even so, the Arts and Crafts lobby was so persuasive that its dogma survived into the early 20th century, proving particularly virulent in Britain, the United States, Japan and Scandinavia. By then, constructivism was gathering force in Eastern Europe, fired by a very different vision of design and technology, as catalysts for a fairer, more productive society. When the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s, he wore factory overalls to symbolise his faith in industry. Until then, the school had adhered to a manifesto that began: “Architects, sculptors, painters. We must all turn to the crafts…”. Moholy-Nagy soon converted his colleagues to constructivism, and the Bauhaus’s director Walter Gropius coined a new slogan “Art and Technology: A New Unity”. The Bauhaus’s reinvention marked a turning point in the cultural fortunes of craft and design, beginning a process that has shifted the balance of power in the latter’s favour.

By the mid-1950s, when the French philosopher Roland Barthes described “a superlative object,” he was referring, not to one of the painstakingly crafted artifacts beloved of Morris and Ruskin, but to Citröen’s new DS 19 saloon. A decade later, when Richard Hamilton praised the objects that “have come to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness that the Mont Saint-Victoire did in Cézanne’s” he was talking about Braun’s electronic products. Craft still had its champions. When the US industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames were invited to conduct a review of Indian design in 1958, they recommended that India should modernize by building on its artisanal traditions. The Cuban furniture designer Clara Porset advocated a similar strategy for her adopted country, Mexico.

Yet Porset and the Eameses were in a minority, as design’s cultural currency was rising, and craft’s falling. Craft also suffered from misogyny, having long been regarded as a female preserve. For decades, women were encouraged to study “feminine” subjects like ceramics and weaving, even at supposedly progressive art and design schools. During the Bauhaus’s early years of craft evangelism, both Anni Albers and Gertrud Arndt were forced to abandon their original plans to join the glass making and architecture courses respectively, and to enroll in the textile workshop. Like so many other things perceived as “female”, craft was marginalised.

Equally problematic was the dismissal of the craft traditions of developing countries, even those with proud artisanal histories, on the grounds that they might impede modernization. In India, despite the efforts of the Eameses and other craft enthusiasts, the critical reputations of designers and artists whose work was associated with artisanal symbolism or techniques, like the potter Devi Prasad and Mrinalini Mukherjee, who made sculpture from hemp and other textile materials, suffered from this misassumption.

No more. These days, designers drop craft references with alacrity, and design graduation shows are replete with investigations into artisanal history. The change began in the late-1990s when Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey and the other Dutch designers, who exhibited together as the Droog group, alluded to artisanal rituals in their work. Typically, they treated craft as a means of imbuing industrially produced objects with the endearing or eccentric qualities of craftsmanship. Jongerius has done so by programming the production of factory-made ceramics to add the flaws we expect of hand-made pots and to sign them with her fingerpint as master potters do. She has achieved a similarly subversive effect in industrial design projects, including KLM’s aircraft cabins, through the tactical use of embroidery, straggling threads, mismatched fabrics and other artisanal tropes.

Jongerius’s work has been widely imitated, though generally with less rigour and sensitivity, as a glance at the IKEA catalogue attests. Another group of designers has adopted a conceptual or anthropological approach to craft. Christien Meindertsma’s projects have ranged from reinventing traditional artisanal materials like flax, to celebrating one woman’s achievement in knitting more than five hundred sweaters. While Studio Formafantasma has produced a succession of objects that explore episodes of Italian craft history including the use of lava from Mount Etna by Sicilian artisans and the ritual of bread making in rural communities. Even as technocratic a designer as Jasper Morrison has acknowledged the influence of mingei , the Japanese folk craft movement,
on his work in industrial design.

Craft has enjoyed a similar renaissance among artists, including Peter Wächtler and Theaster Gates, who regularly engage with ceramics and other artisanal processes. There has also been a reassessment of the work of artists whose association with craft was once considered pejorative, including Sheila Hicks’s textile installations and Mrinalini Mukherjee’s hemp sculptures.

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 cuts in public funding.) 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 standardisation 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 globalisation 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 impossible 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 – 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.

And in an age when we devote so much of our time to devouring digital information and imagery on screens, it is not surprising that the spontaneity of craftsmanship should seem 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”, as did the 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 Counterculture”.

The artisanal revival also reflects the role of digital technology in reinventing craft and design practice. There is an argument that craft could be expanded to include software design. Traditionalists disagree, but the software design process of typing instructions into a computer in the form of code is surprisingly similar to the Arts and Crafts Movement’s definition of a dedicated individual applying his or her skills by hand, albeit with a computer mouse and keyboard, rather than a carpenter’s chisel or potter’s wheel.

Similarly, advances in digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, are enabling product designers to adopt the typically artisanal roles of makers and fixers. Networks of designer-maker-repairers, such as Fixperts, are experimenting with such systems, which are so fast and precise that they can fabricate entire objects or parts of them individually. As these technologies become more sophisticated, they will give designers greater control over the outcome of their work by enabling them to design, customise, make and repair it, as village blacksmiths did for centuries.

All of these changes have enlivened design practice, and helped it to adapt to the challenges of post-industrial culture. Craft has benefited too, both from an injection of new thinking and forays into new fields, like software. Even so, it is debatable whether there has been the same degree of experimentation within established craft disciplines as there has among the designers and artists who have ventured into their terrain, at least not yet.

There are encouraging precedents in the work of innovative practitioners like the British ceramicist Clare Twomey, whose community making projects and research into artisanal history embrace elements of art, design, anthropology and craft. The future of craft, and its chances of ending decades of decline, may well be determined by its ability to embrace the elasticity of contemporary culture by making tactical incursions into other disciplines, as its old foe design has done so deftly.

This is a revised version of a column by Alice Rawsthorn originally published in the October 2015 issue of frieze.

Alice Rawsthorn will moderate a Conversations in Creativity panel featuring Nicolas Roope (Plumen), Claire Norcross and Samuel Wilkinson at 6.30pm on Thursday 4 May (Blackburn Cathedral).