Jessica Helfand | Essays

Crafting All The Way To The Bank

Craft is a tricky word. When we feel ourselves pulled in by the unforgiving vortex of digitized everything, we plead for craft, throwing it out like a life preserver — a desperate appeal to the forgotten soul. In those moments, it becomes a metaphor for a kind of imperiled humanity. But what about craft, we ask?

What about craft, indeed.

The word itself is just as easily relegated to parody, as in arts and crafts, braided lanyards and strings of beads — the eternal rainy-day alternative at summer camp: Hey kids, let's do a craft! Martha Stewart, of course, is the modern-day patron saint of craft, and can be credited at least in part for elevating the word itself to verb status (crafting) which, given the labor-intensive nature of handmade anything is — well, perhaps way overdue.

Martha's rigid discipline, however, is clearly not for everyone. But for those seeking guidance, her product lines offer pre-selected color palettes and necessary materials so that home-improvement projects are, in a sense, sanctioned in advance. Given the market, this is good business: in a culture that gives us assisted living and assisted dying, maybe we can call this assisted design. It's DIY with a little help from a fairy designmother. Kind of like ghostwriting, except that the ghost owns the company.

Martha's domination of the craft market may induce ridicule, but the basic appeal — and value — of the handmade thing itself is fascinating. At its core, it's therapeutic. It's personal. It's fun. It is, occasionally, even hip. Hardcore practitioners call themselves craftistas. Many are vocal in their pledge against consumer culture (and here is where the movement, such as it is, most faithfully evokes its Ruskinian ancestry.) And most trade piety for a healthy does of self-parody: one site's manifesto is "No Tea Cozies Without Irony."

Today, it doesn't take a major marketing deal with Kmart to make craftwork profitable. Websites like Etsy and Elsewheres are portals through which individual craftspeople can display and market their wares. Most are organized by retail taxonomies — bags and purses, toys and t-shirts — and resemble old-fashioned marketplaces in the sense that they provide space and services to numerous merchants. Yes, some of these "merchants" are stay-at-home-moms who like to sew. But don't be fooled: others are people just like you.

Of course, most designers like to make things. The difference here is that these are not, strictly speaking, designed things. Sometimes they're letterpressed or silkscreened, and occasionally, there's a laser-printer output in there somewhere, but for the most part, they're knitted, sewn, baked, sculpted, salvaged, glued and massaged into one-of-a-kind things. Sure, you may have little need for crocheted salt-and-pepper shakers, and the notion that someone spent real time quilting a pet toy gives new meaning to the notion of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but before you give in to the temptation to mock them, make sure you are not, somewhere deep down, at least minimally capable of seeing yourself as one of them. You may still choose to relegate it to a rainy day, but in this new world, the opportunity for invention, on your own timetable, along with a happy marriage of craft and commerce suggests more than just braided lanyards. Just don't call it arts and crafts.

Posted in: Product Design

Comments [14]

I'm studying the original Arts & Craft movement (captial A and captial C) in design school at the moment, and have come to regard the term less as a dirty label and more of an interesting ideology.

William Morris, the A&C's top man during the late 1800s, developed a design philosophy that sought to improve the economic conditions of the working class, a return to natural materials and handwork, and a call to develop (and well, force) a sense of good taste upon the public consumer.

In many ways all noble goals, although in the end some of Morris's more socialist aims were more talk than action. But I'd argue the A&C did help develop the notion of the "designer" amongst both its practitioners and its admirers.

So I agree with the positive side you present: I like to think the current renaissance in craft is empowering a new generation of "craftistas" to not only make stuff, but maybe design it a bit, too. To think about the process and not just the end product.

And I'm happy to call this trend Arts and Crafts.
Jeff Werner

I'm not sure where this article is really going, it seems to neither give a definitive thumbs-up to craft or a definitive thumbs-down to Martha Stewart don't-think-for-yourself DIY.

I particularly don't get the conclusion: "...these are not, strictly speaking, designed things." What does that mean? When is a thing designed, then? I thought design was about applying certain analytical and aesthetical processes to a problem? Why couldn't a tea cozy be "designed"? Are craft and design mutually exclusive? If so, does design only apply to industrial processes?

I'm also surprised that no examples are given of current craft practicioners who are kicking ass and naming names. Freddie Robins is an easy call, as is Cat Mazza's microRevolt. Current work in character design is recombining craft and design, just look at Rinzen.

Then there is always the potential of a new reading of craft in digital media. But I realize that's probably beyond the scope of this article.
Marius Watz

hmm...Sounds like a value assessment to me.
These are, strictly speaking, definitely designed things. Sometimes we like to think that a 3 column, multi-paged blog is evidence of lofty design decisions, but the process is very similar to knitting a dog toy or crocheting a salt-and-pepper shaker.

maybe a little pastel green here and a matching darker green over there, make sure the links don't clash and voila...

Some of the links are interesting, but I think if you really want to find out what's developing at the intersection of DIY, technology and craft you should start with a few other sites as well.

Make Magazine blog
Hack A Day
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

Craft is a tricky word indeed. To half of the population it implies quality and skill (i.e., honing one's craft), to the other half its something made of macaroni and glue. To me, there's the link between craft and skill, but inherent freedom as well. Freedom to try out new ideas where I'm the client and the materials are of my own choice; a rare thing indeed. If others like the end result, great. If not, who cares? It was created by me for me.

I do, however, have to disagree with you regarding whether the item is inherently designed or not. Speaking for myself, it is. Maybe I just don't have the knack for organic creation, but whether it serves a function, makes a statement, or expresses an idea, its always thought out, refined, designed. As for the term "assisted design," all design is assisted isn't it? We learn from our environment and each other on a daily basis. We apply, tweak, and monkey with those ideas, toss in some skill and training and wallah: the end product.

Print, silkscreen, embroidery, or macramé: they're all just methods to express an idea. It's the freedom to design for anyone, by anyone, using whatever method or madness you fancy that makes it special.
James D. Nesbitt

In the 1970s my mother was into "macrama."

I was amazed. Tying rope into baskets, pot-holders, anything...

How creative is that? I -- looking back -- didn't think very. Until my own "motherly" Mom started making brilliant sketches (of flowers, cars, airplanes, houses) for my son out on the back porch (with chalk) last month.

She's damn good!

She could draw ?!?!?!? (and do crafts, and play musical instruments, and sing and tell stories and carry on an intelligent conversation... and cook and clean, etc. ????)

Well, I've given a second thought to all the "wanna be" Martha Stewart's out there and come to the conclusion that many of them are quite brilliant in their own right. Who are we, as "professional designers," to discourage craftiness and creativity?

Apparently it's in my blood. How about yours?

Joe Moran

John Howard Benson
John Benson
Nick Benson

three generations of true craft ...

Joe M

What is a craft? I tend to have a rather traditional view: marbling, fabric dyeing, quilting or quilling, stencilling or rubber-stamping, collage or card making, soap making or candle creation, knitting or weaving, origami or paper sculpture (and no doubt, lots of other activities I've missed). Many crafts do require an understanding of colour or composition and even form. Some practitioners are formally trained and others are not.

One thing I really like about the word 'craft' is it's unpretentious and down-to-earth demeanour. It has a simple, modest streak to it and no inflated sense of self-importance. 'Design' and 'art', on the other hand have become ridiculously loaded terms in the eyes of many: puffed up, inflated and pretentious.

I am proud to call myself a craftsman, and I consider my daily activity to be a craft. As a type designer, I am working in the tradition of both William Morris and my uncle Bob, who was a potter.

The products of my work - typefaces - are intended as vessels for communication, just as the plates and cups and bowls my uncle made were vessels for food and drink. Both kinds of vessels have qualities which make them more effective, more comfortable, more delightful...

So, it's probably all a matter of semantics and personal choice of dictionary definition, but when I think of craft, I think of things deeply considered and well made, things of usefulness and usability.

"Craft" isn't an activity, it's a "practice." The article seems to take a social construct and apply it to something much more deeply rooted in art. "Abstracting Craft" is an excellent book on the subject, and pulls the nature of craft into an age of nothingness. Personally, craft is sort of a "common" or open set of rules for manufacture. I think of pinch pots as a "product" of society -- a way of doing -- or a meme. This will become increasingly applicable to designers with the emegence of personal manufacturing.
Nicholas Paredes

There is strong connection between craft & designing. But craft in itself is very strong. It has some meaning behind it. A reason for practicing in a particular region/culture.

The definition that has stuck with me since art school was that 'craft' was the process of beginning a work with the precise knowledge of how it is to look/be at the end. Where as art & design are two processes where the end product is an unknown - something that is resolved during the creative process.

To suggest that design is craft would be to ignore the problem solving nature of design and explains why a lot of studios produce work that is highly polished (crafted) but is poorly thought out and overly derivative.

I see great joy in the final crafted product. (And a great range of creativity in the crafting process.)

However, I do not always see great USE for the final crafted product.

Crafted items are most valuable to me when the design connects the item to innovation and utility.

Sadly, this happens less and less as the modern crafted item turns to commerce for validation.

I mourn the loss of craft used mainly as a family heirloom.

i prefer the label craft. art & design just don't always fit. craft somehow implies that it is heartfelt.

i liked the craftistas title. i call myself a procraftinator.
tina glengary

Not sure why everyone is so afraid of the word craft? As artists lets not be snobs. It has a bigoted quality to it when we declare that we have a definition of craft as something less and art as something more. We all know examples of the opposite. Craft - Art these are just words. When does one become the other?
There is a tradition of economics to consider. During lean hungry times, most people have to recycle - which leads to creating things from other things. Is that a craft or folk art? Because Martha Stewart is rich - her work is seen as a craft. If she was poor - it would be folk art. If she was crazy - outsider art. If she was someone's mom - it would have no value. It would be a "just a craft - someone's mom did". If it was a dad... and was done in the workshop, it may be art. Those hidious airbrushed cars (usually a naked woman with wings)are forced on us as art forms because a guy did them - and we are told it takes great skill. Sorry to be so blunt but I'll take a quilt any day over an air brushed car.

Jobs | June 16