written by:
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.

knittingrobot

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.

getexcitedmakethings
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

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016