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October 21, 2009

On the surface, craft culture may seem as soft and fuzzy as a skein of hand-dyed yarn, but as I learned at the American Craft Council's annual meeting and conference last week, there are as many dynamic tensions among practitioners, scholars and devotees of craft as there are between fibers on a loom.


While I write and think about design daily, I was a relative outsider at this event, which convened many of the Craft Council's core members to discuss the future of craft. On the first day, I participated in a roundtable with writers from around the country, in which we talked primarily about the changing media landscape. Editors from American Craft magazine, Metropolis, and more focused titles like Fiberarts and Metalsmith discussed how the Internet, the economy, and the "new" craft culture are impacting the way we write about the subject.

That "new" culture, of course, is the DIY movement, which many see as dichotomous to more traditional studio craft. In my view, this was the most interesting tension of all: Are the DIY makers of the world corrupting or contributing to the field of craft? No clear answer materialized, but the friction provided a nice opportunity to examine a small-scale example of a larger trend, as throngs of creative amateurs bootstrap their way into positions of influence and success.

The Council, which was founded in 1943, seems to be grappling hard with this phenomenon. The lineup of speakers and attendees at this year's conference reflected a desire to support the new wave, but it was clear that a strong resistance remains—perhaps a desire to prevent a change in craft's fundamental identity.

Many of the conference sessions addressed the issue in one way or another, but one that was particularly effective and engaging was a set of short lectures moderated by Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The program, entitled Mixed Taste, is based on a series Lerner has been running in Denver, in which he pairs lectures on two unrelated topics [or seemingly so], then leads a Q&A that is open to both presenters at once. The Craft Council episode of Mixed Taste was called “Butchery and Prairie School Architecture,” featuring Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, Textiles and Sculpture at Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Kristin Tombers, the owner of local Minneapolis butcher Clancey’s Meats and Fish. As you might guess, the first included many images of Louis Sullivan's modernist architecture, and the second, large slabs of grass-fed beef. The Q&A then gracefully demonstrated that unexpected crossovers and complementarities can appear when you remove the boundary between fields.

Shortly before I hopped a plane back to California, I caught a keynote lecture by Rob Walker, the New York Times Consumed columnist and author of Buying In. Walker clearly has a favorable opinion of the current evolution in craft, but he approached it from the point of view of the marketplace and the "value" of craft to consumers. People want backstory, he said, and mass-produced products don't have much of that. Handmade crafts put a whole new spin on the question "Am I getting my money's worth?", giving the owner a story and a sense of connection to a single person's creative process. Walker's argument in favor of the new craft culture addressed the importance of keeping skilled trades alive ("Without skills," he said, "all we know how to do is shop.") and the possibility for collective consumer action to incite social change. But not to get too idealistic about it, he reminded us that rejection of mass-production is selective—just look at how many DIY makers carry iPhones.

I left the conference with at least as many questions as I had when I arrived, but with a new appreciation for the passion and complexity of the relationships between disciplines and generations within this community. Craft is such an important part of American history, there's no question we ought to uphold and preserve the threads of tradition, but it's also inspiring to know that the younger generations are interpreting tradition in their own tech-enabled, convention-defying ways, adding new color and texture as they go and—hopefully—redirecting the meaning of "value" in the marketplace.

If you have thoughts on old versus new craft culture, please share them in the comments! 

IMAGES, Creative Commons: Knitting Stormtrooper by Balakov; "Get Excited and Make Things" by AnitaKHart from Renegade Craft Fair

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