As the world is getting craftier we look at three key moments in the emergence of Craft as a creative and commercial phenomenon.
Consider these three pivotal moments in the emergence of Craft and the Handmade over the last 20 years, a Design moment, a production and retail moment, and a moment that merges sophisticated digital processes with a notion of the handmade
1. Design: Stefan Sagmeister
During the mid to late 90s New York-based designer Stefan Sagmeister produced a series of works for clients that didn’t just go against the grain of modernist revivalism in design but chewed up the grain and spat it out, regurgitating design formulas as the playfully handcrafted. While designer David Carson unravelled the modern layout, Sagmeister took out his pen-knife and carved his initials in the tree.
The headless chicken poster for the AIGA event in New Orleans was a sly nod to notions of New Orleans voodoo and the state of the design profession, while the individual stickers at the bottom of the page list the speakers, in signatures and doodles.
The only piece of graphic design hanging in my wardrobe is a piece he did for his then girlfriend, fashion designer, Anni Kuan.
Now yellowing with time, it’s a newsprint magazine folded over a wire hanger, and initially the print would come off on the readers’ hands’ – inky, messy, an added transaction marking the ‘handmade’ on the hands of the client. The murky, low key photography inside included this event poster with lettering made from bits of torn fabric.
Sagmeister’s handcrafted work feels both like a highly personal piece of communication but his Craft also attacks our conventional, common sense ideas of the kinds of materials Advertisers and Marketing people might use for messages.
For example his poster for Lou Reed’s album Set the Twilight Reeling draws the the song titles over Reed’s face.
But Sagmeister famously pushed the boundaries of Handmade in his poster for a 1999 talk at the Detroit chapter of the AIGA. I’ve written about this poster for books and magazines, and although I know it’s true, each time I instinctively question myself as to whether it is for real is he really a martyr for his craft – the analogy with St Thomas and Christ’s wounds isn’t too far-fetched. That said I’m no Saint and Sagmeister, though blessed with an extraordinary imagination, isn’t Jesus as far as I know, even so his passion was truly Biblical.
In design writer Peter Hall’s monograph of Sagmeister, Hall describes the designer standing in front of a mirror with a blade at 9.00 am on the day of the photoshoot for the poster, unable to begin the work of working on the canvas – his own skin and flesh.
Designer Hjalti Karlsson also passed on task, so the job as all the dirty ones inevitably are, was left to intern Martin Woodtli. Half-way through the lettering, the irritation of the cutting began to turn into pain, but Sagmeister tells Hall there was no turning back, he had no other ideas.
Sagmeister pushed the handmade, of the notion of Craft as somehow ‘authentic’ to its communication limit, to the point beyond communication, when it starts to shock and mesmerize, push us to think about our own complicity in seeking out creativity.
The question posed by the poster is a very general one made tangibly concrete by Sagmeister’s execution – What lengths would you go to for your Craft?
2. eCommerce and Retail: Etsy
Etsy was launched in New York in 2005 with a vision that was more than simply and online shop-front for craft-makers. Etsy was part business, part social philosophy and part art project that gave an e-commerce platform to artisans and people making handcrafted goods. It charged 20 cents for every item listed and took 3.5 percent commission on each sale.
Journalist Rob Walker wrote a feature for The New York Times in 2007 called Handmade 2.0, where he interviewed one of the founders Robert Kalin, a former philosophy and classics student. Kalin expanded on his belief that mass-production is alienating and dreamed of creating ‘co-production’ sites across the country in de-industrialized, distressed areas, where people would group together co-op style and make and train people new craft skills.
At the end of 2013 the Etsy reveals that it has $1.35 Billion in sales and released a report “Redefining Entrepreneurship, Etsy Sellers’ Economic Impact” looking at the detail of the business.
Etsy has received some bad press recently over its inability to monitor sellers who are in fact resellers of mass-produced goods using cheap labour, and it has extended the ‘handmade’ to include small businesses who may employ others who even depended on outsourced supply chains. But there’s a couple of striking facts about Etsy. In their report they note that while 29 percent of all businesses in the US are owned by women, 88 percent of U.S Etsy sellers are women. This of course is no surprise – Craft and folk culture has always been closely associated with the female, and its arguable the recent revival in cultures such as quilting has been a way of re-assessing historical notions of creativity largely invisible in male-dominated museums.
Which is why Craft entrepreneurs won’t look like conventional Chief Executives, or business go-getters. It’s a hard stereotype for advertising and marketing people to give up on, when we have always lived with a particular image of what a business person is.
97 percent of these women work from home, they’re not wearing business suits. So a ‘business’ image of a woman pumping iron at an expensive gym might represent these women but to be honest, they are as likely be pumping up tyres on their eco-friendly bicycles (type in bicycle into Etsy’s search and you get back over 31,000 answers).
Look at the portraits on this Etsy page, the number of women, the age range, the ethnicity, the image of the woman with (presumably) her daughter. That is a business picture – no business suit, no work-out, and maybe not much heroic business glamour in the traditional lifestyle glossy kind of way. But this family business (see below) is the new economy. Scroll over each image and you read something personal from the maker.
While conventional images of power and business may resonate with a corporate audience they’re not really relevant either for the new Craft-business economy or the customers who are buying.
A feature in the January 2014 issue of The Economist magazine quotes Etsy Chief Executive Chad Dickerson arguing, “‘People are getting tired of the same old big-box retail products,’ says Mr Dickerson, adding that young adults in particular are attracted by the life stories of the sellers whose products they buy. Presumably with Amazon in mind, he says this ‘could not be more different than mass-produced items delivered to you by drone.’”
Provenance is not just about knowing where the product comes from, it’s about a shared passion between maker and buyer. A consumer good only has the operational story of its production, you can find that on a spreadsheet. The handmade good from a small business is a ‘good’, a commodity, but it also becomes an ‘object’ whose meaning partly comes from the story of those who made it.
3. Publishing: Wallpaper* magazine
Wallpaper* was launched in 1996 by Tyler Brûlé, though the tagline was originally ‘the stuff that surrounds’ you Wallpaper* magazine’s visual and design cues came from the headline of its first issue – ‘Urban Modernists’.
Originally a love letter to modernism in its various guises from mid-century to quirky 70s modern, visually it was a reaction to the fashionable grunge aesthetic of the early 90s, represented in photography by the likes of Corinne Day and Juergen Teller. In a discussion with style guru Peter York in Frieze magazine in the late 90s Brûlé says, “I think that moment of the early 70s, with its different kind of abandon, was a response to the far more raw, experimental 60s. What we wanted to do with Wallpaper* was, in a similar way, react against the early 90s – going out, dropping a tab of ecstasy, dancing around in a muddy field, all those things….We don’t want to live in a horrible bedsit, or even to be sold images of living in a horrible bedsit, in shredded clothes, with huge rings under our eyes – as we’re being force-fed by so much of the fashion media. I wanted people to look healthy, I wanted the interiors to be bright, but also to be slightly artificial as well – which in Wallpaper* they are.”
By its second decade the magazine’s illustrated, ‘handmade’ covers reflected a shift in ‘the desirable’. In 2010 it commissioned a range of illustrators to provide visual elements which the reader could use to customise their own covers via a special app.
Big Active illustration agency had delivered a smaller scale version of this when collaborating with Beck on his album The Information; each CD came with one set of 4 specially commissioned stickers. It was a partly a response to the slow demise of sleeve art in the age of the CD and digital downloads.
But perhaps Wallpaper*’s biggest statement on the handmade came with its 2012 issue with 30 different covers by illustrators such as Anthony Burrill, James joyce and Rob Ryan from which subscribers could choose for their own customized issue.
Wallpaper* which was always about envisioning a certain kind of luxury began to signal an idea of luxury through illustration – but a luxury that everyone, or at least the readers of Wallpaper* could buy into. Which in a way is where Craft is at the moment, the handmade and handcrafted can be an everyday luxury because its value is in appreciation of the buyer.
What’s more it is about the buyer knowing the provenance of the piece. Like each New Yorker cover, the Wallpaper covers were signed by the maker. Provenance means there is a story, a narrative, a sensibility behind the work. In the age of digital reproduction, the notion of the maker’s hand is becoming an essential element of value of an image.