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Craft: Still a Dirty Word, or Dare Now Speak its Name?

When I was growing up amidst potters, carpenters, artists and furniture makers in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the highlight of my summer was always the craft fairs my Mom organized. Running around with friends through the apple orchard, admiring the baskets and chairs and vases artisans displayed on their tables under the trees, feasting on handmade lollipops and bread and strawberry rhubarb pie–this was the essence of the good life to my young self, and I saved up money all summer to buy handmade stuffed animals and hand-printed stationary. This love stayed with me through college, where sections on the decorative arts were my favorite topic in art history classes. (Wherever that word went is another question.)

ChairDeet
Shaker chair by Brian Braskie, New Hampshire, 2007 (Private Collection)

But somewhere along the way it seemed CRAFT became the object that dare not speak its name. I discovered this in 2005 when I opened Greenjeans, a gallery and shop for handmade work by independent artisans in Brooklyn, NY, a place dedicated to the spirit of Mom, who tragically had passed away the summer before. I knew people would respond, though. The power of beautifully handmade objects is great, no matter what you call it.

When you read the word “craft” what comes to mind? A finely hand-built Windsor chair? A sweatshirt adorned with glitter and glue? That great necklace you purchased from an indie jewelry maker, or the rugs your great aunt braided? Does the word “craft” make you think “pretty and smooth” or “brown and itchy?” Or something more along the lines of microbrewed beer?

THE PROBLEM WITH THE WORD “CRAFT”

Three years ago, I wrote a post on Greenjeans Blog asking if, from a marketing perspective, CRAFT is a dirty word. As a craft gallery owner and blogger on the scene, I was interested in reclaiming the word from its dusty fusty connotations and proving how relevant, valuable and even revolutionary craft really is. It was a tough sell then when it seemed like almost everyone had a gripe about the word, including makers, a surprising many of whom seemed to scorn being called an “artisan” or their work “handcraft.” Some institutions were changing their names at the advice of marketing consultants–the former “Museum of American Craft” became the Museum of Arts and Design, and today’s California College of the Arts was until 2003 “of Arts and Crafts.” This doesn’t mean they’ve stopped exhibiting or teaching craft, just distancing themselves from the connotations of “CRAFT.”

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Desk by Hector Guimard, France, 1899 (Collection MoMA)

Likewise, to characterize your work as “craft” was perceived by many as woefully unsexy and irrelevant from a marketing and public opinion point of view–call it art, or better yet, design. (I might argue that the design boom of the 1990s was partly to do with hand-makers rebranding themselves as designers, and farming out fabrication as they grew. That, however, is a topic for another time.)

In October 2003, stalwart design magazine Metropolis asked, “When Did Craft Become a Dirty Word?” I was wondering the same thing. Craft is not a word you would see bandied about on the hallowed walls of MoMA, even though you will see a great deal of works that rely on craft techniques, processes, and materials on display in their “Architecture and Design” galleries. So why all this pooh-pooing of the word “CRAFT?” The word had become a verbal pariah with deep roots.

HANDMADE RESURGENCE

Then something started to happen. As the indie music and DIY movements gained momentum in the mid-aughts, a certain anti-consumerist taste for all things handmade began to take hold. Alternative craft fairs like the Renegade Craft Fair and Maker Faire were popping up around the country, craft magazines and websites launched connecting the community and offering open-source How To videos. Even wide-release movies (Juno, The Science of Sleep, Coraline) were plying hand-drawn animation and hand-built stop-action. Suddenly it was hip to be handmade. It was the moment for owls and hand-knit arm warmers, with great possibilities.

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Still from Handmade Nation

Today, while the global economic recession tarnishes the luster of spendy designer brands, the online craft marketplace Etsy, which launched in 2005, reportedly posted $100 million in sales in 2008 and the company is generating over $1 million per month in revenue. While established craft shows may not be keeping up with impressive sales numbers like these, many are working to adapt their models to embrace new ways of marketing craft. They better–this is the moment to engage the consumer hungry for something special, something local, something independently-made. Indie is fresh. All craft is indie. The vibe is epitomized by the title sequence for Faythe Levine’s documentary “Handmade Nation,” but can come from a handmade Windsor chair too.

“HAND-WASHING”

As the vibe caught on, mainstream markets started to co-opt the handmade aesthetic in attempts to appeal to today’s consumers in increasingly ironic ways. You see it all the time. Crate and Barrel and Ikea offering ceramics that appear hand-wrought but are mass-produced from molds. Appliqué details on clothing from Target imitating indie trends. Condos claiming hand-crafted details. Even television ads for cars where the handmade-ness is helped along by CGI. I call this “hand-washing” — like phony environmental claims are called green-washing–and have written about it a number of times on Greenjeans Blog.

Whether we’re talking a pale imitation or the real deal, there are no two ways about it: craftiness is definitely having a moment. But is “craft” still a dirty word?

PERSPECTIVES ON THE WORD

Two Bunnies, pair of brooches by Lisa Crowder, Austin, TX
Two Bunnies, pair of brooches by Lisa Crowder, Austin, TX

I recently asked people involved variously in the craft world what they think. Monica Hampton, Director of Education at the American Craft Council, writes, “The attention to where things come from, how they are made, the conditions under which they are made, and the traditions they represent are all tenets that are being upheld and honored more than ever in our society. For this reason, I think that craft is having a resurgence and moving, I feel, away from having bad connotations.”

Writer Lily Kane of the New York gallery R 20th Century, “The handmade, the remade, the renovated and remixed are increasingly vaulting over mass market disposables. People are increasingly tending to, as [mid-20th C. American designers] Charles and Ray Eames begged of us, ‘Think about things.’ They are starting to realize that CRAFT builds community, encourages people to interact with one another and sustains local economies.”

From her vantage point in Austin, jewelry maker Lisa Crowder acknowledges that, “There are definitely varying degrees of originality and craftsmanship in craft at the moment, but all in all ‘craft’ is no longer a dirty word.” Jewelry maker and educator Bruce Metcalf agrees: “Is craft a dirty word? Not when you have beer companies that advertise ‘hand-crafted’ beer and a philosopher who writes a book called The Craftsman.” Offering a west coast perspective, Rena Tom, owner of the design shop Rare Device, says, “Craft is not a dirty word here in San Francisco, possibly because we have a very widespread food culture and it’s often positively associated with artisan, small-batch beers, pork products, pickles and the like.”

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Felt and ceramic artists Chris Rom and Geoff Buddie at the American Craft Show, 2008 (Baltimore, MD)

Others disagree with my premise entirely. Andrew Wagner, editor of ReadyMade magazine, writes, “To me, craft has never been a dirty word. Craft is an amazingly malleable term which is precisely what makes it so exciting.” So agrees Danny Orendorff, Assistant Coordinator of the Renegade Craft Fair: “We here at Renegade have obviously never found ‘craft’ to be a dirty word and don’t necessarily see a sharp distinction between what may be considered a ‘craft’ or ‘art’ project/object…the intrigue and ambiguity around how to ‘classify’ these objects maybe helps keep them interesting.”

“Faux mass-produced craft (which is all the rage these days) is what I consider dirty,” writes Danielle Maveal of Etsy. “Products made under questionable working conditions that steal the ‘handmade’ aesthetic, devalue real craft.”

At the end of the day, the marketability of craft does all come down to perceived value, and the Very Esteemed Callie Janoff of the Church of Craft gets down to the dirty truth: “In art school I had a teacher tell me that I was making craft an issue in my artwork, and did I really want to do that? Craft was a dirty word for fine artists in the early nineties, but predictably what was dirty became evocative, and eventually blasé. By now I feel like the public culture beyond the art world is tuned in to issues around craft, even in superficial ways.”

Mug I bought in 1993 (the summer before going away to college) made by the Lalish's, potters in my hometown. It only has one chip though I have used it every day since.
Mug I bought in 1993 (the summer before going away to college) made by the Lalish's, potters in my hometown. It only has one chip though I have used it every day since.

While the art and design worlds may still be struggling to get their mouths around it, in terms of public perception and marketability “craft” is a word that seems to be on everybody’s lips these days. And why not? As I learned intuitively from my Mom and the hundreds of artists and artisans I have met throughout my life, craft is essentially and indelibly the root of art and design.

We may not be a handmade nation, but in an age when the U.S. hardly manufactures anything anymore, it’s a boon to our culture to embrace the relevance and desirability of, say it with me now, “CRAFT.” Now doesn’t that sound good?

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