Author: Louise Schouwenberg

In the vanguards of the art and design worlds, there’s a remarkable interest for traditional techniques that, due to many reasons, lost their appeal at the start of the 20th century. Some proponents of ceramics, glassblowing, weaving, and other age-old crafts, emphasize the presumed higher quality of objects made with slow production methods, in contrast to the standardised results of fast industrial production. Some are primarily concerned with the social implications of production and stress the rewarding labour of craftspeople, which is based on tacit knowledge and age-old skills inherited from past generations, and contrast it with the mind-numbing work of industrial workers. And then there are those practitioners who embrace the local and historical characteristics of the crafts, and the multi-layered references they invariably represent, as these offer many possibilities for meaningful narratives. The renewed interest is remarkable, as the crafts had largely turned obsolete since the industrial revolution. Moreover, where craftsmanship was still cherished, low wage countries provided cheaper alternatives. In spite of very interesting cultural experiments to win the battle, the fierce competition has caused a closure of many European craft industries in these last decades.

A nice example is the oldest earthenware factory Royal Tichelaar, located in the small village Makkum in the north of The Netherlands, which has produced high quality handiwork since the 16th century. Their primary convention of working with locally dug clay and special glazing techniques, has brought them fame beyond the Dutch borders. Throughout the ages, to meet the changing demands of the times, there were many innovations within the company, one of the latest being a marriage between old crafts and modern design and art practices. Alongside the continued production of traditional earthenware, the manufacturer became a true pioneer in creating innovative collaborations between its own craftspeople and designers such as Jurgen Bey, Dick van Hoff, Studio Job, and Hella Jongerius. Iconic projects are for instance the Minutes Service by Jurgen Bey, the 300 Coloured Vases by Hella Jongerius, and the Pyramids of Makkum, a range of contemporary flower vases that referred to the restored 17th century flower pyramid of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Invariably, the projects celebrate the special nature and high quality of handicraft and celebrate the company’s conventional ways of working. It seemed to work for a while. Royal Tichelaar became the exemplary company that succeeded in fusing the old with the new. However, in spite of its success in the media and museum exhibitions, the new strategy could not prevent a continued decline of commissions. The company had to end almost all adventurous experiments. Today, the company is no longer owned by the Tichelaar family, and production has become an ‘on demand’ endeavour, mainly focussed on supplying special glazes for a niche of the architectural market.

Does the Royal Tichelaar example demonstrate that we either need to accept that age-old crafts are relics of a past that will never return, or does it demonstrate that the competition with low wage countries cannot be won, as these can also provide high quality products, but can do so for less money? Or should we view the Royal Tichelaar example differently, and consider it a call for new clever efforts to rescue what a growing group of artists and designers want to rescue, which is an intense awareness of the importance of a rich material culture. Let’s turn to some projects that testify of craft’s indispensable role within the vast field of contemporary cultural production. Most of them are probably known, as they were vastly published, but their innovative power was not always recognized. The practitioners mentioned below have fused innovative thinking with age-old craftsmanship, either because they had the skills themselves, or because they collaborated with highly skilled craftspeople.

Minutes Service, created in 2002 by designer Jurgen Bey, stresses the time-consuming and thus economic aspect of craftsmanship in the field of design. The above-mentioned ceramic company Royal Tichelaar asked him to explore the traditional technique of tin-glazed earthenware (faience). Bey soon noticed that the decorations, which were painted by hand, took most time. After the painters had placed the contour lines of the decorations on the pieces, Bey set a time limit for painting the colours within the lines, a time limit that was too short for them to paint the entire decorations and long enough to offer glimpses of what the completed ones might have looked like. The unfinished pieces were then fired and the prices, and the titles, were determined by the time spent on them. The pieces thus carry names such as 55 minutes cup and saucer or 134 minutes sugar bowl. The economic value of crockery is literally translated into the time that the craftsmen devoted to colouring the decorations by hand. In this manner Bey created a service of which each piece reveals craft’s refined value to an audience that has become familiar with the ease of throwing away mass produced cheap items. Now one could object that Bey’s pieces would only be available for the rich, and would thus ignore the benefits of the industrial revolution, by which things became attainable for many people. On the other hand, one might claim that Bey’s comment on the efficiency of the industry has come with a price, which one better consider when carefully choosing the items of daily life.

In line with Bey, but also contrasting his focus, designer Hella Jongerius used the characteristics, conventions and inherent meanings of ceramic production, to make a plea for combining the best of two worlds, the industry and craft production. In 1997 she created a range of plates, cups, and bowls, which showed individual differences in spite of being produced as series in the same moulds. She accomplished the ‘misfits’ because she fired the pieces on a too high temperature. By then, she knew she did something craft experts would loath, she knew that porcelain only preserves its shape when fired at the proven ‘right’ temperature, and she knew that all excellent porcelain works remain on the right side of the borderline of production: fired as hot as possible, to create the finest grained texture as possible, but never beyond the line where mistakes, and thus imperfections, are bound to happen. She decided to celebrate the mistakes, the imperfections, the misfits. By firing the pieces of B-Set at a slightly too high temperature, all items became individually deformed, to such a degree that they became unique pieces within a family range of similar designs. The title B-Set points to the usual assumption that mistakes turn things into a quality below A-level. The service was the start of a series of projects, in which Jongerius thematised the notion of individuality within serial production, the concept that a combination of industrial production and craft production would bring out the best of two worlds: the benefits of serial production and the benefits of craft production. Important in this context, in which we deal with the value of old crafts for contemporary culture, is the fact that novel insights on craftsmanship came from a non-expert, from a designer, who freely experimented with the materials and techniques. Whereas craftspeople will usually strive for perfection, she claimed that the advantage of craftsmanship nowadays resides in imperfection. After all, the industry can produce perfectly identical pieces; why would craftspeople focus on something they can never win. Moreover, in the course of the 20th century we had started to see the downside of cheap mass production, leading to indifference and a throwaway culture, with all its negative consequences for the environment. Jongerius thus attacked the industry at the right moment in time, and she formulated a novel conception for the crafts.

An artist who has reversed the outdated image of craftsmanship that still prevailed in the artworld at the start of the 21st century, is Grayson Perry. When he won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2003, it changed the reputation of the applied arts and showed a magnificent new potential. Like Bey and Jongerius, Perry uses the characteristics of items that are obviously made by way of traditional craftsmanship, including the inherent references to the past and the conventional settings in which pristine ceramics and weavings usually find their home. He confronts the familiar expectations they evoke with subjects that belong to today’s culture. Perry was trained as a ceramicist, but instead of staying within the confines of the applied arts field, he started to play with the expectations and meanings of traditional handwork, and used them as canvas for depictions of sexually and politically loaded subjects that seem to contrast the refinement of the colours and execution of the works. Playing with content that is at odds with the aesthetic appeal of the used materials, offers Perry many possibilities to analyse, and make fun of, British society and the contemporary arts scene and its conventions and prejudices.

Studio Formafantasma, consisting of designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, did something similar. They used well crafted items, which refer to tradition, as canvas for a narrative on the inherent contradictions of culture, a narrative on immigration and notions of national identity, as canvas to question the tendency of mindlessly perpetuating the past for the sake of the past. In 2009, the two graduated from the MA department of Design Academy Eindhoven (Contextual Design programme), with the project Moulding Tradition. The title refers to the local Sicilian craft tradition to depict black people on popular vases, the so-called Teste di Moro vases. In the 17th century Arab-African people conquered Sicily, introducing majolica to Europe. It inspired the typical vases that are still produced for the tourist market in Sicily. In recent times, history seems to repeat itself, the designers say. While craftsmen create vases with African and Arab features referring to Sicilian history, people with similar features are returning, this time not as conquerors, but as immigrants. A majority of the Italians consider these fugitives a danger for Italian culture – an ironic twist of history. “Our project is a statement on the ephemeral concept of tradition and shows the contradictions of a decadent culture: if as Italians (and Europeans) we are able to represent our culture with a ‘Moor Vase’, at the same time we must be able to go beyond prejudice and fear, and let our culture change in the course of time.” The project consists of a collection of refined ceramic vessels garlanded with portraits of an émigré, buoy-like discs engraved with the percentage of refugees who immigrate per year, and ribbons printed with news reports on immigration.

Finally, I would like to mention the Belgian design studio Unfold, consisting of Dries Verbruggen and Claire Warnier. Their work explores new ways of creating, manufacturing, financing and distributing in a fast-changing world, in which elements of pre-industrial craft economy merge with high tech industrial production and digital communication networks. They aim at creating a shift of power, from industrial producers and their regulating infrastructures to the individual designer and the consumer. While industry and craftsmanship are positioned as polar opposites, they claim, they would be more accurately represented as volatile points in a matrix of manual, mechanical, and electrical forces. Wheel-thrown pottery, for example, though now considered an artisanal skill, developed as a partial automation of coil pottery by the third millennium BC, making the production of small clay vessels more efficient. If industry is characterized by the displacement of advanced operations from hands to machines, then handicraft is defined by its retention of fine motor skills mastered over years of practice. Their project l’Artisan Électronique is an intersection between craft, industry, and digital making, avoiding easy categorisation and creating novel takes on what craft production can be. Spectators of the project are invited to move their hands in front of sensors, indicating the details of a vase. The computer programme collects all data and sends them to the 3D clay printer, which subsequently creates the object. Handwork? Digital fabrication? The worlds of production merge and fuse, which indicates a clear future.

A renewed attention for age-old crafts can be explained and legitimized by the obvious assets, the high quality, the attention given to each item, the importance of being aware of history, and the conviction that the crafts enrich the vast landscape of production. However, the renewed interest cannot simply mean that we should ignore contemporary times, ignore technical innovations, and it cannot simply mean that it suffices to go back in time and employ the old means as if nothing happened in the meantime. Paradoxically, the most timeless items started as excellent time-based items. Timelessness can only be gained by embracing the here and now, as well as staying aware of the past. Whereas one may rightfully have reservations when a theorist waves a moralistic finger, standing at the side-line of creation, I would still like to make a plea for a critical approach of the renewed interest in craftsmanship. And here we touch upon some of the dangers. What craft practitioners rarely do, is acknowledging the pitfalls of their trade, such as the nostalgic, and in many ways (politically) regressive sentiments that are evoked by traditional conventions. Holding on to tradition for the sake of tradition, does not acknowledge that culture is only vital when it allows for constant changes. Another pitfall of craft production is a phenomenon that one can easily experience at exhibitions in which well crafted projects are displayed: a tendency to revel in virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity and neglect the narrative one intends to transfer. The complexity of craft techniques, and the skills they require to master the process, often leads to a show-off of excellency, which might offer the spectator a sense of inaptitude and inferiority, whereas one might claim that important artworks and designs empower the spectator, and entice energy instead of fatigue. All of the above-mentioned practitioners, and many many more, exemplify how craftsmanship can be employed to produce innovative, energizing narratives.


Author: Cvetka Požar

Nearly two and a half decades, since the mid-1990s, crafts have been making a comeback across Europe, even though they have never completely disappeared, despite the predominantly serial mass production. One of the lesser-known facts, for instance, is that traditional craftsmanship played a crucial role in the shaping of the new aesthetics of Italian design between 1945 and 1960 in the period of modernism, which in principle rejected manual production.


Author: Koraljka Vlajo

The future of traditional crafts in Croatia hangs in fine balance. Right before our eyes small craft shops are, one by one, disappearing from towns and cities. Partially, it is a consequence of historical and political regional circumstances and, in part, it is due to globalisation process and overwhelming quantities of low-cost goods that are pushing out more expensive local products.


Author: Thomas Geisler

So, what do you do for work in a place like this? Ideally, you’re a craftsperson. A strong number of whom emerged from the agricultural society in the valley, their endeavours occasionally reaching industrial dimensions. The world market leader in wire hangers, for example, is an inventive metalworker from the region, and there are more of his kind around here. The people who want to stick with manual production and – simply put – remain independent yet united in their battle against globalisation, established Werkraum Bregenzerwald in 1999.