Thursday, April 03, 2008

Crafts Council research

Following my previous post regarding the Crafts Council commissioned research on Learning Through Making, it is worth pointing out that a recent redesign of the Crafts Council's website has given access to some very useful research on craft.

Its new research page enables you to download the following:
  • Making it in the 21 Century (2002-03) - the most recent socio-economic survey of crafts activity in England and Wales.
  • Makers in Focus (2006) - a summary report about the working environment of West Midlands designer makers, craftspeople and applied artists at different stages of their careers.
  • Making it to Market: developing the market for contemporary craft (2004) - a two-year research programme into the market for craft, with a specific focus on contemporary fine craft, commissioned and published by Arts Council England.
There are also links to other reports.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Learning through making

What is the educational value of craft? What do we learning through making? What is the relevance of craft education in today's world?

These were the central questions of a research project conducted by the UK Crafts Council in the late 1990s. The Learning Through Making Project brought together research teams from Loughborough, Middlesex and Sheffield Hallam Universities to explore and define the value and nature of craft learning. The research also tackled the nature, relevance and value of contemporary craft practices.

I led one of the research teams, and even today - nearly a decade after the completion of the research - I receive queries about our findings. Until recently it was possible to download a project report summary from the Crafts Council website, but no longer. Following a recent inquiry I have made copies of our own project report, and the Crafts Council summary report available online.

Here is the Craft’s Council’s own summary report. And here is the executive summary of our research on the value of craft learning in higher education. In our research we undertook a longitudinal survey of employment patterns for 216 craft graduates throughout the UK, providing a unique picture of craft employment. Not only was this the first survey of its type, but (unless anyone can correct me) remains the only survey of its type.

If design is dead, what happens to design (and craft) thinking?

Philippe Starck is the French designer who championed elite design, and has been responsible for everything from toothbrushes to houses. He now claims to be ashamed of his practice and intends to quit from design within two years.
"I have been a producer of materiality. I do feel ashamed for this. What I want to be instead now is a producer of concepts. This will be much more useful."
An English translation of the interview with Starck printed in Die Zeit is provided by mlle a. on her blog here. A full reading of the translated interview is recommended.

This raises the question of the future and value of design thinking (and craft thinking) in a post-material design culture. It is interesting how many of our students on our Master of Design (MDes) course come from a craft-based undergraduate degree and have applied themselves seamlessly to strategic design projects. Significantly, this more conceptual approach makes full use of their craft knowledge and thinking, demonstrating the unique value of craft thinking to a range of problems covering healthcare, strategic management and social issues.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Technophilic craft

One of the highlights for me at last year's Neocraft conference in Canada was Ezra Shales from Alfred University, New York State. He has just had a paper published in American Craft that deserves full reading, and is available online here. Below is one of his compelling arguments:

"The “craftsman-artist” was a strategy to combat the division of labor but it contains an important contradiction: When the Arts and Crafts movement distinguished the craftsman as autonomous, it simultaneously signaled a withdrawal of engagement from the collective social economy. The cliché of “freedom” has become ingrained in craft lore. The craftsman-artist continues to be described as an inspired individual, as if the process were redemptive for society as a whole. The idealization of the individual atelier as a bulwark against “alienated labor” has remained widespread even now, as new disciplines, such as digital craft, challenge the primacy of traditional processes. Are the craftspeople engaging in DIY in the privacy of their home really being radical, or are they simply participating in niche consumption, merely like microbreweries promoting “ethical consumption?” I would argue that craft will revive its radical aspect only if it returns to engaging in collaborative production and addressing its audience by speaking in the vernacular."

The article is a passionate and well argued case for craft makers to "Reclaim The Factory". Ezra uses the example of Barry Dixon, who worked with Wedgwood on the piece shown above that was cast using Josiah Wedgwood's black basalt, to demonstrate the relevance of factory production.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The craft of problem finding

More on Richard Sennett and his new book The Craftsman....

In February this year he gave a lecture at the RSA in London on the themes of the book. This is available as a podcast and PDF transcript. Just go here and scroll down to his lecture. He presents just a few of the themes from his book, and the discussion that follows explores these further. Just to take one part of his lecture that stood out, and in a sense rationalises why craft is so essential to design education at degree level:

"The second big issue of skill that was first raised by Wedgwood and then I'm afraid stolen by Diderot is the relationship... Diderot was, I couldn’t call him a magpie but let’s say he was on the edge of magpie-like activity on the encyclopedia, was the relationship between problem solving and problem finding. Oftentimes when we think about a skill we think just about problem solving, how to get something done, how to make the pieces of wood join together or how to, if we’re a computer programmer, how to work out the logic of the lines of a piece of computer code. This is not the whole story. What Wedgwood understood and what Diderot then expanded was the notion that as we get better at problem solving we ought to also get better at problem finding, that every solution for us, at the higher levels of skill, should open up new problems, otherwise what we’re doing is simply equating skill with procedure."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Craftsman - getting craft on the cultural radar

It is an eternal complaint of the craft communities that craft is marginalised, ignored, and simply not accepted as a subject worthy of attention by the media, policy makers or critics. But over the last two weeks, craft has been discussed in the pages of The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman, Daily Telegraph, and Times Higher Education. BBC Radios 3 and 4 have also been discussing craft. Indeed, a monastic retreat or diet of tabloids are the only two reasons why a person in the UK can have avoided at least a fleeting brush with the art of the potter or the notion of tacit knowledge in the last couple of weeks.

The reason for this new found interest in the handmade is the publication of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.

This excellent book has attracted considerable attention because it is a significant work of scholarship, it is hugely readable and it presents a compelling case for the contemporary relevance of craft.

As Edwin Heathcote writes in the FT: "At the heart of the book is an idea that work need not be about making money but can be about something more existential and profound. In a charmingly (and often slightly ramblingly) eccentric journey, Sennett takes a look at great craftsmen over the ages, from the workshops of Antonio Stradivari and of Renaissance goldsmiths to the strange set-up and motivations of the National Health Service."

According to Lynsey Handley in the New Statesman, Sennett approaches his subject with passion and commitment: "Sennett's goal is to remind us that skill - technique, to use his preferred word - is the result of hand and brain informing each other, through repetition and decision-making, to create a unique, solid and easy flow of knowledge between the two. Mastery, in other words. It is an open letter to us all, reminding us that we can shape and craft our own lives, and must not allow wider forces over which we have little control to rob us of that awareness. Our hands can both anoint and kill, but with practice, understanding and the help of others, can be turned away from destructive purpose. Literally, the future is in our hands."

Writing in The Guardian, Fiona MacCarthy explains how "Sennett alters one's view of craftsmanship by finding so much meaning in the detail. The grip on the pencil, the pressure on the chisel: he persuades us that these things have real significance. The Craftsman is one of a trilogy, with volumes to come on ritual and craft, and craft and the environment. This first instalment is so good it will be difficult to wait."

Indeed, he promises two further volumes. Warriors and Priests will explore ritual as craft, while The Foreigner will tackle the issue of environmental craft, arguing that "craft is now foreign to us." But for now, it is The Craftsman that provides more than enough to stimulate, challenge and provoke.

The Times set the tireless champion of conservatism Roger Scruton the task of reviewing The Craftsman, which he began with clarity and a degree of objectivity: "The Craftsman continues an argument begun in the 19th century, when writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris extolled the crafts remembered in our surnames (Smith, Cartwright, Thatcher, Mason, Fletcher) while lamenting the mind-numbing and soul-destroying labour of the industrial process which was replacing them. A long line of thinkers, from Hegel and Marx to Sennett’s teacher Hannah Arendt, have sympathised with the argument. But Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary: it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system. Linux, for Sennett, is the work of a community of craftsmen “who embody some of the elements first celebrated in the (Homeric) Hymn to Hephaestus”.

However, Scruton could not avoid using the review to pursue his own argument on modernist culture, concluding thus: "Architecture succeeds in its public task through humility and devotion, of the kind that can be observed in the moulding, firing and laying of a properly proportioned brick, but which is violated at every point by Frank Gehry’s bombastic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Sennett writes beautifully of bricks and their manufacture. But a residual sympathy for modernism leads him to praise Gehry’s costly extravaganza. He is entitled to his taste; but he should be clear that Gehry’s building is not an exercise in craft but an attempt at art, and exemplifies the same kind of “look at me expressing myself” that has led everywhere to the death of those virtues – humility, piety, obedience – without which no tradition of craftsmanship can really survive."

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Noel Malcolm gets his review off to a shaky start, in my view, by cracking gags about Polish builders. But this The Torygraph, after all, and it manages to get references to immigration and the BBC licence fee into just about everything, including the sports and gardening sections. However, Malcolm soon gets into a more balanced stride: "'Domain-shift' is one of Sennett's favourite terms, and there is some very energetic shifting on these pages. Sometimes the result is real insight, but all too often the whole procedure seems merely fanciful. Writing about how tools can be used for new purposes, he describes Christopher Wren's early scientific work using telescopes and anatomical dissections; then he claims that these were put to use in his town planning after the Fire of London, where his long straight streets would 'channel' vision (as in a telescope) and his overall plan involved thinking about the 'circulation' of people (as blood circulates in a body). But is this anything more than a clever association of ideas in Sennett's head?"

More serious criticism follows: "Sometimes the connections are not just fanciful, but obviously wrong. Having described how the Renaissance anatomist Vesalius acquired new skills in dissecting the human body, he then makes the startling claim: 'Modern mining technology derived originally from the bodily revelations of the scalpel.' The first modern treatise on mining, Biringuccio's Pirotechnia (1540), 'urged its readers to think like Vesalius, using mining techniques that stripped back strata of earth instead of simply chopping through them'. The reference he gives, to back up this claim, is bogus; Biringuccio's book makes no mention of Vesalius's work (not surprisingly, as the latter was published three years later, after Biringuccio's death); it is a treatise on metallurgy (smelting, etc), not mining, and has just a few comments in the preface on how to dig for ore; and what it says there is the opposite of what Sennett claims: 'You must work in a straight line, breaking through every composition of stone strata that you encounter…'"

Keith Tester, writing in Times Higher Education, introduces a further critique. "Sennett knows that there are threats to the craftsman, but his book never really confronts them. It is not really enough to say that: "Social and economic conditions ... often stand in the way of the craftsman's discipline and commitment." The point is that the institutions and enterprises of contemporary social and economic life are not primarily about creating opportunities for the nurturance of craft skills. They are about closing down the ambiguities of the world in the name of ever tighter efficiency (which nevertheless fails precisely because of the inescapability of ambiguity, and so the management consultants are called in again - and again), or they are in the business of profit generation. The latter is something that Sennett understates. He discusses Japanese car plants as if they were beacons of craftsmanship, and he says they used management styles that allowed all workers to localise, question and open up. But this is to miss the main goal of the car plants, which was to make profit."

Certainly, the book has flaws. When he links his thesis on craft to changes currently underway in the NHS, then the result is unconvincing. So is his treatment of CAD which is curiously uninformed by the work of craft practitioners who work with digital tools. But this is perhaps unsurprising when one considers the sources used by Sennett. There's no mention of Dormer, only a passing reference to Pye, and Malcolm McCullough's ground breaking work Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand is a further absence.

But to have a hugely well researched volume on craft that avoids Dormer, Pye and the other usual suspects is also refreshing. Last November at the Neocraft conference I said how the best contributions to our understanding of craft come from outside the cosy, cloistered world of craft itself. I was referring then to Harry Braverman and Mike Cooley, author of Architect or Bee. Richard Sennett, Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Professor of the Humanities at New York University, joins them in providing a perspective of craft that is timely, relevant and well argued. However, as I have explained elsewhere it is not that easy to get hold of.

The Craftsman has succeeded in putting craft on the radar of cultural commentary. For that reason alone it is a highly significant contribution.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Podcast on craft and skill

From the BBC:

"Last week the Prime Minister said that he wanted to make sure that "Britain raises its skills game to world class". Nowadays people have people skills, managers have management skills and leaders have leadership skills. But are these true skills - or are they rather aptitudes we are born with, perhaps something that can be learnt on a weekend course?

"Laurie Taylor is joined by sociologist Richard Sennett, author of a new work entitled The Craftsman and Grayson Perry Turner Prize winning artist and craftsman-potter. They discuss the meaning of 'true' skill, of craftsmanship - of the lifelong engagement with a particular skill or craft. Is there still a need for the craftsman’s ethic in our computer-driven, factory-made society where strings to our bows count for so much more than a way with wood?"

Listen to this radio programme here as Real Audio, or as mp3 podcast.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The BBC gets crafty

An interesting piece on the BBC news website about crafts and the internet.