Rob Walker kicked off Day 2 of the American Craft Council conference in Minneapolis with his talk “Handmade 2.0.” Coming to craft as a journalist and culture critic, Walker views craft as a social movement and a niche market. In reference to the conference’s title, “Creating a New Craft Culture,” he said that he’s not sure if there is “a craft culture,” but maybe “craft cultures,” plural. I also liked how Walker described DIY/craft/handmade as “making goods speak to power.” To me he seemed to be putting his finger on the pulse of the weekend.
Walker also talked about marketing trends, debunking the notion that consumers will pay more for authenticity, ethics and quality. He spoke of thinking in terms not only of your story as the maker, but also of how consumers are also making their stories as they shop. He closed by offering his perspective that having multiple versions of what craft means is just fine because the variety of meanings provide multiple entry points to discovering craft. And that is a good thing for those in the craft business. (He also mentioned something called The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving in 19th century Minneapolis, which I have to investigate.)
Julie Lasky followed with “Men in White,” a very cool presentation on the birth and evolution of the image of the designer. She traces designers’ sartorial style and self-image over time, from the well-dressed upholsterer of the turn of the century to the 1960s man in a white-lab-coat, to the black turtlenecked duo in the round-rimmed glasses of the present day. My favorite example that she presented was a clip from a 1954 film called Executive Suite in which a handsome furniture designer who works for an old family business takes a stand during a board of director’s meeting, condemning them for permitting the production of shoddy goods in the interest of higher profit margins. Interestingly, at the end she mentioned she’s not sure how much longer this category of work will be called “design.”
Next, Robin Petravic told the story of Heath Ceramics, the venerable, decades-old California institution that he and his wife took ownership– or perhaps stewardship – of recently. Petavic spoke of how, as designers, he and his wife felt a resonance with the hands-on, practical imperatives of Charles and Ray Eames. They wanted to make a change professionally and discovered Heath Ceramics was for sale, and it became the place where they could be more hands-on while still being designers. He talked about new forms they have created, and the old practices they preserve. They’re still doing old forms too. Petravic showed images of on-site production space, which to me resembled a bakery. As a story of harmony among craft, labor, design and business, be sure to catch this whole story when it comes on the ACC conference blog as a podcast.
Lydia Matthews took the podium after lunch for her talk “New Models of Marketplace” to articulate the ethical and ecological aspects of craft, which always resonates with me. She spoke developing a sustainable practice, and described how economic systems operate through various kinds of capital including social, cultural and ecological. She referenced Tony Fry and the intriguing idea that objects and things have ethics. She thinks we (as a craft community) could be more inventive in how we contextualize craft as well as be more conscientious about how things are sourced. She gave examples ranging from the Bamboo Bike Project to the Counterfeit Crochet Project, doing a great job connecting the dots of the many principles and values that comprise what we call craft. If I can get a copy of her last slide, I’ll post it – it’s very close to the map in my head when I think about craft.
Garth Clark gave the final talk of the conference, delivering somewhat of an evisceration of the craft world’s institutions (especially the ACC) – he has become known for his pull-no-punches assessment. Yet he also conveyed a renewed affection for the spirit alive in earnestly handmade work, sparked in him at Burning Man, surprisingly.
The main part of Clark’s lecture centered around contrasting two craft spheres, one which he refers to as “the palace” and the other “the cottage.” He described the years of 1980-1995 as “craft’s Versailles’s period,” an era dominated by high-priced, “pointlessly virtuosic” ojects d’art sold in rarefied venues to rarefied collectors. He contrasted this sphere to the cottage where, in his description, most crafters work and in which, he claimed, few in the ACC seems to care about. He advocated that we (the crafterati, if you will) become more engaged and concerned with grassroots making than mere aesthetics, and argued that paying attention to “the cottage” is what craft needs now more than anything. He pointed out that craft rooted in the cottage is what Eileen Osborne Webb had in mind for the American Craft Council to begin with.
Some in the audience thought Clark’s acerbic comments hurtful and unfair – and yes, he is rather like the craft world’s Simon Cowell — but I appreciated Clark’s ability to stir up the room, and took his comments with a grain of salt, appreciating the humor as well as noticing several important truths.
Sonya Clark (no relation to the prior speaker) concluded the conference with “Craft as Subject, Verb and Object,” a roundtable session based on a survey she conducted over the weekend. Garth Johnson, Lacey Jane Roberts, Andy Brayman and others joined her on the dais to share their reactions to survey results. (I will post the survey results if I can get them for you.) Her session made the point nicely that we are a composite of all that came before us both as individuals and as a community, and advocated that we do a better job of embracing our diversity.
Throughout the conference time for questions from the audience interspersed the sessions. One good question that came up twice and didn’t get adequately answered related to the fact that too often the only qualifying statement about why someone has selected a work of craft to use as a given example is that “it’s great” or “it’s beautiful.” Likewise, sometimes “she’s awesome” or “he’s great” are the sum total of qualifiers for a referenced artisan. I’ve thought the same thing and want to engage this matter more. I think there are clues in Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking Through Craft.
Another audience member asked, as craft proliferates without boundaries online, what should be done about “good/better/best?” This isn’t a bad question – aesthetics are a part of the larger conversation, but they are a part people didn’t seem ready to engage at the time.
Another question came up during Roundtable 1: What’s so threatening about DIY? One person said, “It’s like wanting civil rights and yet being homophobic.”
Several audience members tried to engage the subject of women and feminism in craft, but it never gained traction. This would be a good topic to follow up on next time. I wonder if there are any women’s studies scholars working on this topic?
The craft community seems to be craving engagement with more delicate topics like aesthetics and socio-economics. And the conference as a whole conveyed a sense of many craft communities meeting, getting more familiar with one another and finding common ground. I look forward to the conversations continuing!