We unpack the longstanding ‘Craft’ trend and ask what’s really at stake in the visual language of the handmade.
It’s tempting to say that in 2014 Craft is big business, but of course Craft is always small business. Pick-Me-Up, the 12-day long illustration event that just opened in London’s Somerset House features an exhibition of 16 illustrators, and 17 different small businesses and collectives pitching up in stands or spaces.
Activities and products range from: Olio, a group of illustrators who have created a space called “BUILD, an open building site consisting of an evolving interactive workshop area and shop”; to Animaux Circus who alongside limited edition artworks and hand-printed textiles offer daily workshops where you can “hand-paint your own piece of wooden signage and immerse yourself into the wild world of modern sign-painting.”
So when was it that we moved from the world of anonymous corporate branding, design and logos, to the world of sign-painting? Actually, in this post-credit crunch era its easy to imagine many financial institutions fantasising about swapping the cold, discredited corporate typeface for the almost childlike appeal of handmade signage.
There’s no question that for the last few years the craft trend has functioned for trend-spotters, commentators and advertisers as short-hand for ‘authenticity’ – especially in the age of digital culture, as the physical counterbalance to digital culture. Craft, like authenticity, has become in some respects a social fetish.
But dig a little deeper and you can see other fascinating social, economic and visual drivers – different ways in which Craft is changing shape. How Craft is changing the shape of how we work, where we work and how we see work.
One of the ways in which Craft is re-shaping the look of business is in the organization of its space. Industrial production, and traditional corporate bureaucracies organized space visually, the regulation and order of work space becomes the visible sign of operational efficiency.
The imagery in this kind of world pictures fixed, static, permanent spaces which reflects a world of relatively stable employment, linear hierarchies and centralisation. The imagery of the artisanal craft space therefore is not just signalling a different kind of work, but a whole different set of economic and business processes. The images of these new spaces are busier, detailed, personal.
The imagery of the handmade, the artisanal, the family business reflects a real shift in the nature of work. A recent article by Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell in the Harvard Business Review reported that “in the United States alone, family-owned businesses (FOBs) are responsible for 60% of total US employment and generate 78% of all new jobs.”
A recent report commissioned by Barclays Bank and conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research revealed that in the UK there were 2.42 million small and medium enterprise family businesses employing 5.5 million workers with a total revenue of £540 billion, and it’s projected to grow over the next five years. The reasons for the growth? It may be due to the growth of what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls ‘fragile work’; flexible, part-time, uncertain. The image, and imagery of ‘family business’ is of stability – the reality is the newly unemployed generating new types of work with family members.
Imagery of the artisanal is reflective of commercial reality but it also reflects the dream of ‘solidity’, ‘anchorage’ and ‘certainty’ which has immense appeal in a working world that is anything but. Imagery of small businesses or family business also signals ‘trust’ and wider values such as ‘sustainability’, the notion of something being passed down generations. The family business, like the handmade, speaks the language of provenance - of trust, we know where this product comes from. Major supermarkets brand certain lines of food produce with symbols that imply you can trace each step in the chain of the produce.
This type of imagery also signals a kind of ecology of business, of interdependency, of craft. In the age of globalisation, local small businesses can be hugely reassuring. At the opposite of end of the size spectrum, unlike the necessarily free-floating persona of global brands, Craft business is very much anchored to location.
But while location, solidity and anchorage is crucial to the idea of provenance in small business and the handmade, the work spaces are increasingly blurring the boundaries between the official and the unofficial, the professional and the domestic, work and play.
Part of this is due to the fact that people are working at home – workspace is homespace. But there are also different arrangements of space, the separate ‘creative’ play spaces are increasingly mixed with ordinary office life. Over the next few weeks we will be sharing some of the field research we have done around these spaces.
And although Craft has huge social and cultural currency, the concept of Craft is shifting in interesting ways, not least through the emergence of 3D Printing which when the price is accessible, will change business models.
Perhaps the most interesting expression of craft I saw at the Designs of the Year show in 2014 was from the Mediated Matter Group at MIT’s Media Lab, a project called the Silk Pavilion, which involved a ‘collaboration’ with Silkworms.
The notion of craft is moving fast, and the handmade and imagery around the handmade has an appeal that spills out into many unexpected and different directions.
In the meantime, there’s the handmade. Better blot the sheet, lick the envelope and stick the copy in the post for the editor.