Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Alice Rawsthorn on Craft

This post is proud to have been syndicated to the Ponoko blog.

Alice Rawsthorn wrote an interesting article recently pondering on the modern relationships between designers and craft, a distinction that is becoming increasingly blurred in my opinion.

"Many 20th-century modernists disdained craftsmanship in favor of deploying industrial technology to design for the masses, even though much of Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier's early "machine age" furniture was actually made by hand. The opposing camp was equally hostile. When the industrial designer Jasper Morrison developed a collection of ceramics in 2000 to be made by the artisanal potters of Vallauris in France, it was slammed by a French crafts magazine as "looking as if it came from a factory."

These days we're after a combination of both: we want hi-tech, standardised products, yet we want each to be unique to us, to be customised. In her article, Rawsthorn focusses on the collaboration between the Swedish-German design team of Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar and Nymphenburg porcelain to produce Mt Private Sky: a line of highly finished plates that depict the night sky on the day of the user's birth (incidentally, according to Geekologie, the plates are hand-painted in gold and platinum!).

My Private Sky

Apparently the project was conceived as a means of rejuvenating the product, and adding value, or rather adding a feature to better justify the high cost of handmade crockery in comparison to mass-manufacturer competitors. Interestingly, Weisshaar and Kram are digital devotees, working remotely from each other over the internet and in this case, developing a software program to generate the nightsky data for the user - essentially a mass-customisation platform. So despite having radically different artforms, designers can become part of a craft-based operation, achieving never-the-same-twice results through computational methods. Rawsthorn observes that:

"Perhaps surprisingly, computer programming conforms to the classic Arts and Crafts Movement definition of a work being made by one pair of hands."

Ironically, this definition wouldn't strictly fit with the My Private Sky project, each plate being the result of a few different pairs of hands, including those of the programmers. It would however fit many makers and Ponoko users, our modern day craftspeople honing their very modern but none-the-less meticulous skills through making objects. This is the significance of the Arts and Crafts movement today: just as there was a backlash against industrialism, today there is a backlash against cold mass-manufacture: again we long for a return to local, personal values, but this time its not at the cost of technological benefits. The modern craftsman is a master of contemporary technology too, and this might not be so hard as the web and design tools make fabrication easier and more democratic.

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