Art, Craft and Design Realigned and the Birth of Manuf®acturing
Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov
At the beginning of this new century, craft was in crisis mode. Craft was being banished from institutions, organizations and general civilized discourse, sending craft-centric circles spinning with anxiety about the future of their field. Some of the greatest fears took hold when New York’s American Craft Museum became the Museum of Arts and Design in 2002. Just a year later, the California College of Arts & Crafts (where Steven has been on the faculty since 1995) became California College of the Arts. But it wasn’t just the large urban institutions that were shifting semantic positions. Even arts organizations in smaller towns were experiencing similar existential moments, electing to drop the term craft altogether. Some in the craft world embraced the changes while others responded with grumbling, confusion and even anger.
Only one year ago, the seventy-year-old Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery went through a similar questioning period and ultimately changed its name to Museum of Contemporary Craft. Their choice could almost be considered a radical one for the time – to embrace craft and focus on the term in its most active form, as a verb. Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects is a key part of their mission to present new, relevant and expansive ways to define the discipline.
For craft was not expiring as much as it was changing, evolving in a way that few could identify and that even fewer could anticipate. In fact, the small-scale titular loss of craft on one level turned out to be the large-scale rediscovery of craft on numerous others. On the professional front, craft materials emerged as key constituents of contemporary sculpture, furniture, fashion and industrial design; craft processes found new relevance as artists explored the meanings that accrued to mass produced goods, and industrial designers explored the promise of rapid prototyping and individualized production; luxury brands focused marketing muscle on their products’ artisanal traditions and highlighted areas where the handmade was celebrated for its virtuosity. In the two-dimensional realm, a surge in hand-made typography re-energized graphic projects everywhere – from restaurant menus to corporate identities.
In retrospect, what we experienced with the term craft was both a linguistic switcheroo, and the radical systemic shift that insiders feared. Even though the word lost some of its prominence, the key signifiers of craft remained undiminished. Craft – the process, the intention and the action verb centered on a deep and abiding sense of materiality – has seemingly been inserted back into everything that matters most in visual culture. Select artists from nearly every creative field – from art to design, music to theater, and cinema to literature – have been quick to claim or reclaim craft as part of their professional heritage, an integral part of their toolkit, and absolutely essential to the creation of great work. While the word may have disappeared from some very visible marquees, the good news is that the material concerns, processes and transformations that craft addresses are enjoying larger and more visually literate audiences than ever before.
Manuf®actured is based on that escalating visual literacy but also on the welcome willingness (a quality that has always been there, but is particularly prevalent now) among artists, craftspeople and designers to approach, absorb and act upon new ideas, new ways of making, and new types of materials. With respect to manuf®actured objects, the results so far have been three-fold: the creation of a class of strange-yet-familiar objects that are art-craft-design hybrids; the utilization of a wide range of already manufactured products and product components as powerful and readily available raw materials; and elevated attention, curiosity and dialogue among growing numbers of aficionados, collectors, critics and consumers. More people than ever before are turned-on to the merits, opportunities, and pleasures endemic to 21st-century object making.
Each of the artists, craftspeople and designers in Manuf®actured embodies the concept of conspicuous transformation, itself an updating of the term “conspicuous consumption” noted by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. They use a vast array of consumer goods as their raw material: tin cans, staples, detergent bottles, plastic tape, marker caps, lipsticks, zippers, foam packaging, plastic combs, thread spools, highway signs and more. They take these often virgin products of consumer culture and either separate them into modules, aggregate them together in great numbers, or both. This is manuf®acturing: the active and thoughtful accumulation, organization and transformation of common materials through a novel combination of hand, tool, machine and production processes.
The thing that is new in manuf®actured objects is that it appears to be the first time that artists, craftspeople and designers are pulling their raw materials from the racks of pristine manufactured goods or post-consumer products and packaging that have entered the waste stream. Because they are manufactured, these materials can be acquired in vast quantities with the relative ease of getting one’s groceries. Abundance on this scale often generates strategies of repetition – objects are multiplied by whatever power the artist chooses. Pedestals can overflow, corners can be filled, whole walls can be covered; complete rooms can be outfitted, dwarfing the eon-spanning metrics traditionally provided by the scale of the human body.
While diverse, the practitioners in Manuf®actured have the following in common: they all share the ability to transform familiar, banal, even previously manufactured materials into objects of great meaning. They all evince the deepest respect for their materials through their careful attention to even the tiniest of details. They all advance a new definition for what is considered beautiful through their pure visual presence, even as they offer social commentary about our immersion within consumer society and our disconnection from both nature and the act of creating.
Manuf®actured includes a wide variety of works that challenge our notions of what materials can be, accelerating our visual culture, and pointing toward a new type of environmentally-aware bridge between the creative disciplines. The work ranges from the precision-bound domestic ironies of metalsmith Harriete Estel Berman to the meticulously twisted wigs of fiber artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir; from the minimalist cubes of crocheted cotton frozen in resin by designer Marcel Wanders to artist Jason Rogenes’ glowing otherworldly light totems. Seen together – for the first time anywhere – the pieces shown in this exhibition are remarkably varied and thought-provoking.
As object-making has moved toward manuf®acturing, it has increasingly drawn upon the lessons, processes and intellectual challenges that artists, craftspeople and designers have always negotiated at the highest echelons. This new kind of craft is now thoroughly and unmistakably contemporary.
In so many ways, craft is still about what it was always about – the integral process of making, the joy of mastery, material exploration, secret but attainable knowledge, the mark of the maker, reference points to human scale, the kinesthetic relationships between hand and mind, and honest and sincere rendition. We are in the midst of an art, craft and design revolution, one in which the fringes are as fascinating as the familiar center – further fulfilling contemporary visual culture’s radical promise of innovation and possibility.
Lifting a lesson from popular culture (something that manuf®actured objects are prone to do), consider the story of the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi. He died a noble death in Star Wars, willingly succumbing to Darth Vader’s light saber so that his energy could be released throughout the universe. In a similar way, craft has vanished one moment only to manifest more broadly than ever a moment later. This time it has been absorbed into seemingly every element of creative culture – a powerful force and equally powerful source guiding the makers of objects whenever and wherever questions of material-based poetics are raised, celebrated and rewarded.
Adapted from “Art, Craft, and Design ReAligned” as printed in Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects, published by Chronicle Books, 2008.