New Craft: A Return to the Hand

The renaissance of craft currently occurring among artists, architects, designers, and a generation of DIYers otherwise glued to their keyboards speaks to a universal longing for the tactile and the real.

This is the time of the year when the Haystack and Anderson Ranch catalogs arrive and, pen in hand, I pore through the course offerings, practically salivating. Once, as a “design” person, I wouldn’t have dared sully myself by getting so close to actual craft. It was the forbidden “other”—a parallel universe of object making, one whose exponents rarely mingled with those in design, and whose names, other than the ubiquitous Dale Chihuly, were largely unfamiliar. But a chance invitation to a conference called “Craft and Design: Hand, Mind and the Creative Process” at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in 2004, tumbled me into a direct confrontation with my own ossified views of craft. In a break from the lectures, I dipped my hand in a bucket of clay slip and was totally seduced. That weekend changed my life.

A few evening classes and a couple of Haystack summer workshops later, I took off from my career to go back to grad school, at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Beyond broadening my horizons in ceramics, I wanted to deepen my understanding of what it means to make and to find out if I had it in me to produce actual things—the sort of things critics write about. The truisms of contemporary design—that it’s about “problem solving,” that it’s “user centered” and “drives innovation”—had started to ring increasingly hollow. I needed a complete change of perspective, a new set of tools for thinking. I had a feeling that making by hand—knowledge gained bodily, learning through my fingers—might be the way to that new perspective. Whether the results would be classified as “art,” “craft,” or even “design” felt less important.

Apparently I wasn’t alone. Evidence abounds for the resurgence of craft or, perhaps more precisely, the rehabilitation of craft from the lower rungs of the cultural ladder. The efflorescence of, yarn-bombing as urban revitalization, and the DIY projects documented in Handmade Nation testify to a groundswell of people engaged in handicraft skills that they would have once been embarrassed to admit they enjoyed. Recent books like Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft provide a wider philosophical framework for understanding the renewed interest in manual work.

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Meanwhile, at the “high culture” end of the spectrum, craft has recently been the subject of several important exhibitions: Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London; Object Factory at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (the museum formerly known as the American Craft Museum); Gladstone Gallery’s Makers and Modelers (a survey of fine artists working in ceramics, among other media); and Undone: Making and Unmaking in Contemporary Sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute, in Leeds, England, which featured younger artists applying “craft” techniques to make sculpture from modest, everyday materials.

My hunch is that the return of craft (or, really, the return to the hand through craft making) has a lot to do with the computer’s takeover of every aspect of life—all things bright and digital, meaning electronic, rather than our fingers. So many activities have been reduced to data entry and exchange via a digital interface. What we do with our hands is, mostly, type, poke, tap, or swipe. The manipulation of physical things seems to have receded, replaced by good simulations or visualizations, which may satisfy the eye and the mind but leave us feeling strangely amputated. We’re parched for the handling of actual stuff, deprived of the knowledge of things through their intimate physical properties. The haptic has largely given way to the optic. As multiple functions (telephone, computer, calendar, answering machine, clock) merge in a single bland-looking electronic device (cell phone), whole categories of objects and distinctive forms are disappearing. Supposedly “smart” devices do stuff on our behalf, often at a distance, but these are really just empty vessels, dumb nodes awaiting setup within otherwise imperceptible networks. This abundance of information—however efficiently captured and displayed—leaves us fundamentally unsatisfied. All-pervasive data stir a desire—perhaps physiologically rooted—to use our hands in more varied ways, to manipulate tactile materials. In short: to feel again.

The revaluing of craft is probably also a reaction to the conformity and dullness of so much present-day product design. Which is to say, it’s a reaction to the model of corporate mass production that has reigned since the late 19th century, in which reliable sameness is more valued than variability. But manufacturing and distribution methods have profoundly changed since William Morris and his confreres in the Arts & Crafts movement protested the degradation of labor in industrial production by championing the handcrafting of decorative objects for the home. Today, products imbued with a craft aesthetic can just as easily originate in a factory in southeast Asia as in a studio in rural Appalachia. Thus, alongside their name-brand-designer lines by Michael Graves and Isaac Mizrahi or Swedish sofas, large retailers like Target and IKEA can sell “crafts”—wicker baskets, wooden bowls, beaded knickknacks, woven rugs—that rely on and maybe even sustain small-scale craft enterprises in the Third World but are nevertheless made affordable for Western consumption by sophisticated global-supply chains.

Meanwhile, a new kind of craft aesthetic is paradoxically emerging from the same source that’s making us hanker for tactile things: the digital world. Today, the uniqueness of the handmade object—the presumed basis of its “value” and “authenticity”—can no longer be so easily argued. Algorithmically controlled variants can now be digitally introduced into production runs, yielding objects with slight differences, one from the next, as designers from Greg Lynn and Karim Rashid to Aranda/Lasch and Hella Jongerius have demonstrated. Still, it’s debatable whether an object with such numerically assigned variations has quite the same charm as a burr-maple bowl whose odd surface perforations result from turning that particular piece of wood.

“Making is thinking” was Richard Sennett’s working hypothesis when he sat down to write The Craftsman, which came out in 2008, shortly after I submitted my grad-school applications. He quoted the psychologist Daniel Levitin’s estimate that it takes an average of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. At Cranbrook, this statistic became vividly apparent. Apart from the astonishing variety of skills my classmates had at their fingertips—their fluency in the language of materials was revelatory—what most impressed me was the sheer amount of time it took to make physical things, as opposed to arguments fashioned from words. The initial idea might come to mind easily, but it’s a whole other matter realizing it in three dimensions: figuring out the materials needed, gathering the tools, determining the sequence, mocking-up alternatives, and then finally launching in to the slow, deliberate (sometimes tedious) work of bringing a new form into being.

One of my classmates spent all day, every day, for about 14 weeks, bending baling wire into what gradually came into focus as a life-size human figure; another spent the same semester slicing up thousands of tennis balls, turning them inside-out to reveal their colored rubber interiors, and arraying them into the Wimbledon equivalent of a Persian carpet. At the end of my first year, I sat for hours on the floor of a soon-to-be-condemned campus building, hot-gluing hundreds of dead houseflies into long braids for a site-specific installation. Part of me was quite aware that by any sensible standard, this was an insane (and probably unsanitary) way to occupy myself. But in the real time of doing it, there was no question: I was totally absorbed—in fact, happy.

Making by hand puts you in touch with duration and offers an antidote to our cultural obsession with the immediate, the instant. It brings you face-to-face with gravity and the fascinating, often obdurate, nature of physical matter. It spurs renewed respect for physics and chemistry as you confront the behavior of different substances, singularly and in combination: all the stages between wet and dry, liquid and solid, cold and hot, light and heavy, negative and positive. As an erstwhile wordsmith, I had to come to terms with my paucity of practical skills, and I acquired new qualities—patience, tolerance (especially for mess), attention, precision, measurement, timing (waiting for things to dry, hurrying to avoid the death knell of “pot life”), and full-bodied muscular alignment to achieve all degrees of impact, from delicate to forceful. I acquired a certain fondness for hand tools, many of which had previously scared me. (Shop class wasn’t in the curriculum at my all-girls’ English high school.) These days, people who can hold their own in a wood or metal shop command my awe more than someone with an advanced academic degree.

Last summer in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the humanities and media professor Camille Paglia wrote a polemic about higher education and job creation titled “Revalorizing the Trades.” She contrasted the “calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world” of art-school students who work with their hands with the “glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media … [who] have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.”

Paglia has a point. But one of the funny things about making things by hand is that you can’t really explain to someone else why it’s so satisfying. You have to actually do it to know it. So here’s my advice for any designer who’s been at the screen too long: unshackle your hands from the keyboard, or use them just a moment longer to sign up for a summer course at a craft school. But be warned: it might change your life.

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