The Ugly Truth: women knit. Photo: IMP Awards
I’m not the only one to pick up on the cliched inanity of this equation between knitting and female status, but it did get me wondering about what the on-screen representation of textile-based crafts like knitting tell us about the current status of craft and gender.
It was a spot of bargain hunting that prompted this post. Sorting amongst the debris and the devalued at a local boot fair, I came across a book from the The Things We See series, published by the Council of Industrial Design (now known as the Design Council) in the early 1950s to increase the British public’s awareness of, and appetite for, “good design”. While others in the series deal with themes such as furniture, houses and pottery, this one focused on ships - and to my delight turned out to written by the furniture maker David Pye, one of the most insightful and pragmatic craft voices of the 20th century.
David Pye, Ships, no. 6 in the CoID’s The Things we See series, published by Penguin in 1950.Photo: Luxurylinerow
In line with the series’ aims, the book’s focus is design. For Pye, ships should be admired because they epitomise the modernist mantra of ‘form follows function’: ship designers are ‘pre-occupied with what they must make their ships do, rater than with how they would like them to look’. This ‘accounts for both the high standard of ship design and also for the low esteem in which it has been heeled’ (p.5) - a subordinate status that Pye attempts to overturn in the book.
Furthermore, in order to be attractive, these vessels require the evidence of individuality and the maker’s hand - or, as Pye put it in 1968’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship, they need to demonstrate "diversity". As he says in the 1950 text, ’design needs an element of surprise to keep our interest in it alive: a little mustard or a grain or two of Cayenne pepper…something in part to provide the spice of contrasts, for lack of which the smooth and perfect shape of a fast aircraft or a projectile is liable to pall.’(p. 19)
David Pye, Untitled, no date. English walnut. Photo: LACMA
As we see here, this was a quality present in Pye’s own, small-scale, vessels but often missing from these larger seafaring crafts.
One of the reasons I find this blog useful is that it allows you to put down ideas in their embryonic state; to throw something down on (virtual) paper and see what comes out, to produce a sort of sketch. The sketch is a fitting analogy for this post, as it is an attempt to pin down some thoughts on drawing. Specifically, I’m intrigued by the idea of the drawing and the making of an object as the same thing. This is not an unusual activity in itself, except that the objects in question are not two-dimensional paper-based matter, but three-dimensional forms, in which the free hand is not producing not prototypes, but the finished thing.
Sketching out Front’s Sketch furniture, 2005. Photo: Front
One of the most well-known examples of this in recent years was of course Front’s Sketch furniture from 2005, in which the all-female Swedish design collective developed a way to translate free hand sketches into products. As the much-viewed video of the process show, they essentially mimed the act of drawing furniture shapes into mid air, which were then recored with motion-capture video and digitized into 3-D models, made material using a rapid prototyping machine.
This post is in part inspired by the Critical Craft Forum's session at this year's CAA conference, where a panel of craft theorists were asked to choose one or two words in response to the question ‘What is Contemporary about Craft?’ This was no mean feat, and the rich, and often contradictory, variety of responses prompted my own reflections on the challenge of capturing the condition of craft today. Inspired by a wonderful set of speakers at a small symposium I recently co-organised on Ideas of the Handmade, I thought I’d attempt to pin this down to a mere twenty-six qualities. What follows is just one iteration of an A-Z of craft, and it is by no means comprehensive. It does however provide an insight into the complex nature of craft today. Alternative suggestions are more than welcome.
As previous posts have made clear, I’ve got a bit of a thing about thinking about tools. A new project has enabled the chance to explore this further, and got me thinking about some of the different ways we conceive and classify tools as particular object types. What follows are what can best be described as tool thoughts-in-progress…
Preparing for a recent lecture on sustainable design was an eye-opening experience; wading through the myriad issues and approaches made me realise, as many others already have, of how complex and contested this area is. We know that design is part of the sustainable problem, and that it is and can be a part of the solution – yet exactly what are the best ways that designers can use their skills to embrace the opportunity (as Paola Antonelli has recently positively spun it) that sustainable design presents is still unresolved.
There is though one aspect that does seem to unite several of those pursuing the eco agenda; a persistent interest in bees. As articles in Forbes and elsewhere indicate, this isn’t a terribly original insight. Nevertheless, bees and beekeeping seem to cut across the multiple approaches to sustainable design - much of which, unsurprisingly at least for those who know my interests, are caught up with the resurgence of interest in craft.
I’m not the only one thinking about objects, and one of the reasons I set up this blog was to gather what else was out there, rather than just provide a platform for my own reflections. As part of this, I’m co-organising a one day symposium at ECA called Ideas of the Handmade: Histories and Theories of Making on the 20th April. Funded by the Design History Society, it is free and open to all, but spaces are limited. To sign up, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see you there!
Walk past a branch of the UK clothing brand All Saints, and you’ll come across an arresting sight; rows and rows of vintage black Singer sewing machines, occupying the entire shop front from floor to ceiling. From London to New York, Singers have become All Saints signature: there are apparently anything between 10,000 and 40,000 of these antique sewing machines in All Saints’ stores, all apparently imported from India.
All Saints’ store in New York, which opened in June 2011. Photo: The Guardian
According to Brinkworth, the branding agency responsible, their design for the All Saints’ store evokes ‘a mood of decadent decay and distressed glamour’. This ‘mood’ is as present inside as out; step into the warehouse-style interior and the industrial gothic look continues.
There’s no escaping Singers at All Saints. Photo: Brinkworth
There are yet more sewing machines, metal chains hanging down the walls, and rusting cast-iron trolleys and heavy duty tables displaying the brands’ equally seemingly worn-in goods.
Industrial chic inside a typical All Saints store. Photo: Brinkworth
Brinkworth have certainly been successful in creating a brand identity for All Saints that is identifiable on a global scale, yet each time I walk past one of the stores I can’t help but wonder what exactly is the message here. On the one hand, given that these masses of machines have replaced parades of products in the shops’ vitrines, they can be seen as part of All Saint’s beaten up, offbeat aesthetic that goes against the season-led diktats of the fashion world. As Kevin Stanford, the brand’s creative director has stated, 'We don't care what colour Prada plans to do next season…Just look at the average person's wardrobe - it's full of taupe, grey and black.'
Of course by the very merit of their antique, individual, anti-fashion statement, All Saints’ shop windows are in fact highly fashionable. These beautiful nineteenth century inventions are a part of the wave of nostalgia that is currently influencing everything from the craft revival to two of the films dominating this years’ Oscars - The Artist and Hugo. Its intentionally distressed chic is reminiscent of the branches of the Byron hamburger chain, whose similarly pre-aged facades become even more ridiculous when you realise that the branch has been there a month or less, and is in a brand spanking new building: it takes a lot of effort to look that old.
Byron in Islington, established 2010, not 1910. Photo: London Chow.
Yet there’s something that puzzles me about All Saints’ shopfronts: what these dormant, redundant machines say about the state of manufacturing today. I guess that these displays were intended to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and ol’ fashioned quality manufacture. Fair enough. Yet the fact that these machines are antiques, unneeded in any functional sense, transforms these shopfronts into spectacles of de-industrialisation and post-industrialism in Britain.
All Saints, est. 1994. Photo: The Guardian
This is not just true of the UK, but elsewhere too; for there to be tens of thousands of these machines as unwanted for industry in India (presumably at some earlier point these machines had been exported from Europe for use in India’s economic development before being imported back to here) suggests a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit, and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system. Which makes sense in fine in terms of All Saints’ individualistic, craft aesthetic, but surely not in terms of its levels of actual manufacture, in which these machines clearly play no part - otherwise they’d be on the factory floor, not in the shop window.