When Did Craft Become a Dirty Word?

It may be disappearing from institutional marquees, but these days craft is the star of the design world.

Last fall the American Craft Museum changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design. Likewise the California College of Arts and Crafts has recently dropped the C-word from its name, and is now the California College of the Arts (CCA). Both claim they aren’t dissing craft so much as acknowledging its immersion with higher arts. “The artificial boundaries between art, design, and craft that were so important to the nineteenth-century academies no longer exist,” says Simon Blattner, chair of the museum’s board of trustees.

It’s true that the distinction between craft and design—the handmade versus the mass-produced—doesn’t mean what it used to. But there’s more to the name changes than that: the museum’s curatorial direction has also turned away from craft in favor of design (see Perspective, page 78). Ironically craft is disappearing from these institutions’ vocabularies at exactly a time when it is newly informing both the aesthetics and the production of designed objects and spaces. In the past few years we’ve noticed designers reacting to the limitations of mass production by manufacturing unique pieces, engaging machines to do what previously only individuals could. (See “Custom-Made Miracles,” March 2002; “The Smart Hands of Hella Jongerius,” July 2002; and “Magic Touch,” February 2003.) These designers don’t view craft nostalgically but in a forward-looking manner, revisiting the conventions of skillful workman-ship, sensitivity to materials. and limited productions. (See “KomKom Combination,” December 2001; “Rapid Prototyping,” August/September 2002; “The New Organics,” October 2002; and “Fluid Forms,” December 2002.)

This resurgence can also be seen in a new attention to visual intricacy and ornamentation, the incorporation of handcrafted elements into manufactured products, and labor-intensive uses of technology. All of these were evident at this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), where we found seven of the objects featured on these pages. Along with numerous other new projects, they prove that craft is not a dirty word but one that designers are actively redefining for the twenty-first century.
* denotes projects seen at ICFF

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