contemporary craft and design, art and architecture exhibitions, things seen...

An Olympian Challenge: Unpicking the Appearance of Manufacture

Where has the summer gone?  If you were in Britain this year then the question is more when did it ever start - but here we are at the end of August with seemingly little to show for it, at least on the blog (and tan) front.  I’m going to put this down to the delirium that swept the nation during the two weeks that were the London 2012 Olympics, a love affair with a spectacle of sporting prowess that looks set to reignite with the Paralympics.  I too got swept up in this sporting fever, making trips to see cyclists, archers and boxers in action and cheering on a host of other athletes from my starting block (alright, sofa).  For the first time ever I even watched the opening ceremony.  
The closing of the opening ceremony.  Photo: Daily Mail/Getty Images
What I found most curious in Danny Boyle's suitably Olympian show was the vision of British history it presented, specifically its portrayal of the nation's industrial past.  Never mind the fact that Britain's history appeared to start only in the mid 19th century - prior to that this small island was apparently a timeless Albion yore, a Tolkenian pastoral bliss of morris dancers, cricket and maypole dancing. 
Danny Boyle’s vision of a bucolic pre-industrial Britain.  Photo: Vanity Fair/Reuters

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A Knitted Brow: Representations of Women and Craft in the Media

I have a terrible confession to make.  A few Sundays ago, when my TV choices were either the UEFA Cup final or a double rom-com special, I went for the rom-com.  Yes, I know, I could have read a book, listened to the radio or even watched paint dry - but instead I went for some Hollywood drivel.
But every cloud has a silver lining - in this case, a reaffirmation of my feminist politics and the spark of a blog post. The Ugly Truth tells the story of Katherine Heigla successful career woman who mysteriously falls for a man (played by Gerard Butler) with appalling attitudes to woman.  We know that Heigl is not just single, but really really single because a) she has a cat and b) she knits.  And lo another gendered craft stereotype persists.  

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.

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Guilty Pleasures: Class and the Taste of Morality

I always find it strange how the most seemingly disparate of events turn out to have things in common, and trigger of a chain of thought that leads - well that leads somewhere anyway.
Most recently it was the news that adidas had decided to withdraw a trainer designed by Jeremy Scott, that had been scheduled to hit the shelves this August, following a preview on Facebook.  
Jeremy Scott’s JS Roundhouse Mid, from the Fall/Winter 2012 adidas Originals collection.  Photo: Jeremy Scott Shoes
This turnaround was because the JS Roundhouse Mid, came with ankle-height orange plastic cuffs and plastic chains that bore an unfortunate resemblance to slave trade shackles.
Both adidas and Scott defended his high-top design, the former declaring in a statement that “Jeremy Scott’s outrageous and unique take on fashion…has nothing to do with slavery” and Scott explaining that his design was based on a furry toy called My Pet Monster.  However the furore over Jeremy Scott’s ill-advised trainers didn’t go away, forcing Adidas to decide that they wouldn’t go on sale later this year after all.  
Both Scott’s design and the decision to take them off the shelves got me thinking about issues of taste and morality on display elsewhere at the moment.  Chiefly, it occurred to me that is was precisely this that most struck me about Grayson Perry's new tapestry works, currently on view at London's Victoria Miro gallery.

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Between Sailing Vessel and Skill: The Craft of Shipbuilding

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 arepre-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.

Yet the book also contains the seeds of elements of what would become the core focus of Pye’s later writings - craft.  In this book, he not only argues for the recognition of the presence of craft in a seemingly industrial context, but also that, with the exception of warships, we should realise that ships are crafted vessels: ‘ships have rarely been standardised as…aircraft are, for the sake of mass production’ (p.16). They are instead largelybespoke objects, made according to individual and local requirements.

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.

Reading Pye’s book was not only enlightening because it showed the author’s developing ideas - a question of beginnings that I’ll return to at the end of this post.  It also got me thinking about a third craft quality, one not yet developed in the 1950 text, but would become so prominent in his later work - skill.

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Drawn-out Forms: Sketches and Shape Giving

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.

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Artisanal Alphabet: An A-Z of Craft

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.

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Thinking about Tools

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…

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Bee-ing Sustainable

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. 

One of the first designers to embrace the advantages of the apian in recent years was of course Tomás Gabzdil Libertiny, most notably with his 2007’s Made by Bees vase for Droog.

Tomáš Gabzil Libertiny, Made by Bees, 2007, beeswax, limited edition, Droog.
Photo: Mocoloco.

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Ideas of the Handmade: Histories and Theories of Making

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  Hope to see you there!

All sewn up: Antique Singers and (de)industrial aesthetics at All Saints

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’ OscarsThe 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.