Crafting our future


An opportunity for Labour?

It’s hard work being a Labour Party supporter. I suspect Obama supporters feel the same. Indeed, the failure of the left and the centre left (or in the US case, the liberals) to advance any credible progressive alternative is dispiriting in the extreme. What is all the more curious is that there IS the starting point of a progressive alternative staring them all in the face – but since it has not emerged from the increasingly insular world that party politics is now conducted in, then it has simply not been noticed.

The makings of an alternative are to be found in maker culture and active consumerism: in craft cafes, hacker spaces and especially in IKEA. It addresses some profound issues concerning how we innovate, how we create sustainable enterprise, and how we link this to a social agenda. It provides solutions for educational underachievement, models for urban and rural regeneration, and strategies to address critical skills shortages in fields as diverse as plumbing and programming. It demands that we rethink our conception of work, in order to make better use of the one vital resource that humans are provided with: our creativity. It connects with something very deep within us all: an inherent desire to make things for ourselves. And it requires that we ditch the one thing that ties us to redundant notions of our future: our labour. Perhaps that is the left’s problem.

What is interesting and significant is that this ‘new alternative’ has in recent weeks been the subject of coverage in UK and US business media, national media in the US, New Scientist, together with the technology and eco-activist blogosphere – but aside from one or two pieces in The Guardian, the Left’s media appears far more interested in the Occupy movement. Sorry, but I’ve spent time at St Paul’s and all I see is yet another marginal protest that the Left is so fond of.

Below is a summarised commentary on some of this recent coverage, prior to working it up into a more resolved piece of writing. I have emphasised recent writing rather than more extensive academic literature, such as David Gauntlett’s recent excellent book. The argument threading through it is that the emergent maker economy is of critical significance in the development of an alternative economic model that is capable of addressing economic regeneration, social renewal and individual fulfilment. While we have in the past been defined by our labours, in the future we will be defined by our works.

The indie capitalist revolution

In December 2011, The Economist reported on the significance of the maker movement under the headline “more than just digital quilting”. It recognised that its roots lie in digital culture at the confluence of the open source movement and the new technologies such as Arduino and MakerBot’s 3D printers. Setting its scene at the New York Maker Faire, The Economist explained how “this show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.”

Physical spaces and tools are part of the maker movement’s landscape, along with online communities. There is a rich pluralism as hackers and corporates coexist alongside business startups, social enterprises, hobbyists and venture capitalists. In its conclusion, The Economist draws a pertinent parallel:

 “The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

“It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.”

Also writing in December, Bruce Nussbaum – a former editor of Business Week – presents four reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Indie capitalism, Nussbaum argues, is “a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture–food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates.”

In contrast to The Economist, Nussbaum differentiates the culture of this new movement from the West Coast start up scene of the 70s that spawned Apple and Microsoft. He favours the term indie capitalism “because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while ‘startup’ sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like ‘indie’ because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.” In Nussbaum’s, view, the time is right for this indie capitalism to usher in an indie economics and indie politics given that – from Occupy to the Tea Party – finance or ‘predatory’ capitalism is under attack. And so is high street retail capitalism.

In a blogpost entitled why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur, Michael Wolf argues that with distribution chains collapsing vertically across video, music and books, as online storefronts become the entire distribution chain, so this expands the role of the artist-entrepreneur who distributes themselves. “No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.”

Writing recently in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz frames this development even more profoundly: “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

The Left almost certainly has a problem with the maker movement because it is bound up with entrepreneurialism. Which is strange, because many of the new entrepreneurs seemingly have no problems with politically progressive concerns and ideals. Yes, this is is the age of the business plan and the start up. Young people especially are doing it for themselves in terms of employment creation. Now, in part this is because many have no other choice; around 30 percent of new entrepreneurs in the US go into business because there is no other option for work. But whether reluctant or willing, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are doing it less for the money and more to make a difference.

Danny Alexander, a design entrepreneur writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, takes issue with those who see entrepreneurship as purely in terms of wealth creation: “For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement… I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.” Closer to home, there are dynamic new enterprises such as Snook which are pursuing a new politics and social vision through entrepreneurial action.

Labour isn’t working – the value of doing it yourself

Throughout the world, there is a generation of highly educated, aspirational young people with a strong sense of a social vision who have been failed by both labour markets and labour parties. Put simply, there are no jobs and no political vision about how to change the world in a progressive direction. The only solution to both problems is to do it yourself. Entrepreneurialism also addresses a third problem: most jobs suck.

In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” The options appear to be useful work (through creative entrepreneurialism) versus useless toil (by selling our increasingly devalued labour power). Put simply, whether creating a livelihood or building bookcases, people value doing it themselves. If you want proof – go to IKEA.

The IKEA effect has been documented and argued by behavioural economist Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. In this month’s New Scientist, an article entitled The hard way: Our odd desire to do it ourselves explained how Norton and his colleagues set up experiments in which people were asked to assemble IKEA furniture or fold origami or build Lego sets. “The participants then had to bid small sums for the products of their labour, or for a custom- or expert-made equivalent. The results were impressive. People bid considerably more for their own creations, even when they were plain old IKEA boxes. When it came to origami, they stumped up nearly as much for their own forlorn frog or bird as for the same animal folded by an expert – even though other participants subsequently rated their efforts as ‘nearly worthless crumpled paper’”. The New Scientist piece describes other research that cumulatively demonstrates that the things we make we value far more – regardless of how well we make them.

Crafting the creative society

One of New Labour’s many problems was the incredibly narrow way that it viewed creativity, reducing it to the questionable notion of creative industries. The whole point was that the UK was to build up a particular set of consumer industries that required specific skills and knowledge that would be supplied through the labour market. Built on a theoretical bedrock that drew heavily from Richard Florida’s Creative Class thesis, this drove policy at both national and local government. There are three central problems with the creative industry emphasis. First, it is highly centralised: necessarily London will act as the key focus for such industries. Second, it is very fragile: the experience of the computer games industry in Dundee is evidence of that. Third, it is culturally defined by Florida’s Creative Class: DIY culture in north Wales or knitting in Shetland does not feature in its metropolitan landscape. As such, the creative economy as defined is exclusive.

Crafting an inclusive creative society demands a wholescale rethinking of education, work and the processes of civic society. Libby Brooks, writing in The Guardian, makes the following case:

“A recession invites fundamental reassessment of the place of work – and leisure – in our lives. Practically, this means recognising that teaching a tradable, portable skill is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. Philosophically, it invites an acceptance that a trade-off between hamster-wheel presenteeism and mollifying consumption has never been good for us and is not feasible in this economic climate. Crucially, craft is egalitarian. While some in the Labour party appear bent on resuscitating the canard of meritocracy, which divides the gifted few from the unexceptional mass, craft reminds us of the significance of equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. Everyone shares the capacity to develop a skill, based on decent teaching, application and time – not raw talent.”

The question is, can Labour (or indeed The Left) envisage an egalitarian future in which people craft their own lives?


Why the Wedgwood Museum matters

The Wedgwood Museum faces selloff to pay £134m pension debt after court ruling

You don’t need to have a passion for pots to appreciate why the Wedgwood Museum represents the crown jewels of our industrial heritage. Josiah Wedgwood was responsible for some of the key innovations that drove industrialisation and design, and whose vision for technological progress went hand-in-hand with social progress. His was a vision of socially responsible capitalism that we could benefit from revisiting today.

The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent is a unique factory-based collection and archive that tells the story of Wedgwood’s contribution to our age. And what precisely is that contribution? Well, to get well made, durable, beautifully designed crockery onto tables Josiah Wedgwood undertook painstaking materials research into new ceramic bodies, he invented new decorative techniques, he created the profession of the designer, he built one of the world’s first factories, he invented the idea of market segmentation and pioneered many of the essential principles of today’s marketing. ‘Buy one, get one free’ was a Wedgwood innovation. Not many people know that. He brought science and art into industry in a unique, powerful and visionary way.

He invested his wealth in Britain’s canal system, and built proper homes for the new working class he had created, driven by a paternalistic concern for his employees. A passionate slavery abolitionist, he produced cameos with an enslaved black figure on a white background above the legend “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Soon becoming the fashion of the day, Wedgwood was the first to enable us to wear our issue-based politics on our sleeves, or around our necks. After Josiah’s death, his granddaughter married Charles Darwin – the Darwins being longstanding family friends – and the Wedgwood inheritance bought Darwin the time to write his theory of evolution.

His ambition, to give pottery “an elegance of form” embedded craft aesthetic and processes within the new technologies of his age – in much the same way as Steve Jobs achieved two centuries later. Like Jobs, but far more fundamentally, he redefined design and its management for a new age of change.

Today, every innovator, designer, industrialist, scientist, craft maker and entrepreneur is standing on the shoulders of this giant. His significance cannot be over-stated. To achieve his “elegance of form” required building a whole new infrastructure for manufacture, commerce and culture. “Father of English potters” is an epithet that tells only a fraction of his story and significance.

The company that bears his name went into administration in 2009, and the brand is today owned by a New York based private equity firm, with Wedgwood employing only a few hundred workers producing top-end products. This followed some catastrophically inept management in the company in its latter years. I should know: I spent an interesting lunchtime in the company of Wedgwood’s Board. They hauled me in because I had said on BBC TV some fairly damning (but very true) things about the paucity of their design management, and how it was leading directly to factory closures. In short, Wedgwood’s problems in the mid-1990s was nothing to do with cheap imports, rather its key challenge was with expensive imports. Analysis of trade statistics showed that they were losing market share in the top-end, design-led markets. This of course they denied. While they employed some exemplary designers, the skills of these talented individuals were being exercised in a strategic black hole. A passion for pots? It was my view that the bosses knew the meaning of neither.

I knew I was right when lunch was served. It was horrible; the kind of fare that even University caterers would avoid serving. Put simply, if you do not appreciate the joy of eating, how on earth can you create the world’s best tableware to share that joy with others? Clearly the days when pottery managers were people with “clay running in their veins” were over. These people were accountants, and they didn’t do that very well either.

Allowing Wedgwood to fold was above all damning to the generations of Stoke pottery workers and their families who had invested their working lives and their craft skills in the company. To be honest, the best pots in the world count for nothing if the people who make them, who believe in them, whose lives are defined by them, are simply thrown onto the industrial scrapheap. They deserve far better.

And that is the dilemma here. A blackhole in Wedgwood’s pension fund has led to a court ruling yesterday that the Wedgwood Museum should be sold off to raise the £134 million needed for the former employees’ pensions. Their jobs were taken away, and with it their dignity and self-worth. Their pension is all they have left.

But as important as their pensions, is our history. History only becomes meaningful if we study it, learn from it, draw lessons out from it to guide our future. It is the mark of a civilised society that we invest in understanding our past. The Wedgwood Museum is in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register as, according to UNESCO, it represents a vital and significant part of our documentary heritage. It enables us to better understand and appreciate, not only Josiah Wedgwood’s remarkable innovations, but also those made by other potters and artists in creating an industry that defined its age and laid the ground for other industries to follow.

Without Josiah Wedgewood, it is doubtful that the UK ceramic and textile industries would have become the engines for industrialisation and world market dominance that they became. Without him, design would doubtless have gained a far lesser role in the UK economy, removing the foundations that today’s creative industries are built on. Without him, all the tricks of retail marketing we use today would have been pioneered in other countries. Without Josiah Wedgwood, who knows how we would earn our living in today’s world? I suppose we would always have slavery to fall back on.

THAT is why the Wedgwood Museum matters. And of course because it celebrates all those working people who gave their working lives to the pottery industry of Stoke-on-Trent.

As I’m not an accountant, I cannot answer the question of where the £134 million can be found to save the Museum and to pay the pensions. I understand such sums of money are trivial small change in the trading rooms of the City of London; perhaps it represents a couple of bankers’ bonuses. Perhaps some of our iconoclastic entrepreneurs could dig deep for the Museum? Step forward Sir Richard Branson. Shelve the tourist spacecraft, we have a time machine for you that will tell you far more about the world than 10 minutes in outer space will.

But I can answer the question of what it means if we allow this Museum to dissolve into private collections worldwide. It means we don’t really give a damn – about our history or the people who made it. I think we should. And we owe it to them to save it.

Steve Jobs

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Craft Connected

I was recently invited to chair the 1st conference organised by craftscotland entitled Craft Connected. This was held at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow on Saturday, 27 August 2011 and attracted a committed and lively audience of around 70 people. The conference was convened to explore how craft is connected: connected internationally, connected culturally, connected with industry and new audience, with public services, community initiatives and the wider society. We were fortunate in having a number of excellent speakers who explored different aspects of these connections and helped to provoke a spirited and wide-ranging discussion on how we take these issues forward. We were allowed to use part of the afternoon to discuss our Change Makers initiative and to develop ideas and proposals for the makers manifesto, which is described further below in the previous blog entry.

The conference was opened up by Garth Johnson from California whose blog extreme craft attracts considerable interest. He reminded us that craft can be transformative and it can also be a weapon. He wanted everyone at the conference to be a craft activist. His highly engaging presentation emphasised the relationship between craftivism and the DIY culture on one hand, and studio crafts on the other. He also made a call for a new decorative arts scholarship built on the world of feminist literary research.

Tom Hopkins Gibson described his own practice and stressed the importance of being part of a community. Having made a midlife shift into the crafts, his beautiful wood and porcelain pieces are sold by Liberty and Calvin Klein in New York. Through the success of his practice he is investing back in his community, transforming a disused industrial building in the middle of a former mining town into a craft centre. Tom’s contribution emphasised the importance of courage which lies at the heart of craft practice.

Contributions by Rebecca Davies from craftscotland and Laura Hamilton the Collins Gallery explored both the new opportunities presented by craftscotland and the professional needs of makers in dealing with curators and galleries. Certain shortcomings regarding the latter suggest that many craft makers see their practice as one solely of producing objects rather than developing and delivering a service. The issue of service was picked up in the afternoon by Lauren Currie from Snook whose inspiring talk on service design and its relevance to craft practice provoked considerable interest from the audience. She explained how, as a service designer, she used physical modelling as a powerful tool with clients to bring conversations to life and inspiring them to think through making. She argued that the role of a designer is not being in a studio anymore, it’s about going out into the streets and into communities. She laid down a challenge to the audience of unlocking their hidden and secret service.

Josiah Lockhart heads up the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh. Founded in 1860, this project demonstrates how craft can support and sustain communities, and the importance of physical objects in expressing value and the values of those who make them. This case study complemented that of Muriel Murray from Castletown Heritage Society based in Thurso which has established traditional skills workshops, working with local schools and local communities. These workshops have been successful because they are embedded in both the local environment and the local community and its history.

An extensive discussion at the end of the afternoon identified a number of themes and ideas that should be embedded within the Makers’ Manifesto. These included the issue of education, and to promote different types of education, using diverse funding, that reconnects craft with children’s and adult learning. There was also discussion on the relationship between the trades and craft, together with exploring how craft could address issues of sustainability and the low carbon economy. Many ideas were presented and discussed concerning how craft can transform its profile by attracting diverse audiences to events such as Craft Connected. Perhaps the time of the craft community speaking to itself is over, we need to actively and urgently engage with the rest of the world.

Craftscotland will be writing up some of the outcomes of the event, and making video of some presentations available online shortly.

The Change Makers

Makers in craft and design activities have a huge potential to contribute to community development and social change. In the wake of the UK riots, a Facebook group – The Change Makers – has been formed to explore how craft can be a stronger and more focussed force for positive social change. Given the failure of our political parties to move beyond their predictable responses to the crisis, we aim to develop a “Makers’ Manifesto”. We want to draw attention to positive practical examples and set out the case for craft as a force for empowerment and hope. We have set up a further webpage to source ideas for the manifesto.

The group has attracted over 130 members in just over two weeks. We have held an initial meeting in Dundee, contributed to a conference in Glasgow, and expect to hold a further meeting in London. If you believe that craft has a positive contribution to make to social change in the world today, we invite you to join us.

Already the Facebook group has attracted a great deal of debate and discussion. Much of this has helped to draw attention to exemplary projects and initiatives that demonstrate the social value of making. Over the next few weeks and months we will be drawing all this together in our Manifesto.

Arty farty’s contribution to science and technology research

On 15 July 2010, Vince Cable – the coalition government’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – set out the choices facing the UK higher education sector in a speech. This included extensive reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines, and how they are vital to economic competitiveness, research and scientific and technological progress. Then, in passing, he said that “what my father used to describe as ‘arty farty’ subjects feed into the rapidly growing and successful industries like creative design, publishing and music.” Really? Well, he is Secretary of State, so I am sure he has pored over the evidence on the subject. But here is some evidence that Vince Cable may be less familiar with.

The annual Morgan Stanley ‘Great Briton’ awards celebrated the highest achievements in the arts, business, sport, public life, and science and innovation. Each year four people were shortlisted for each of the awards. 2007’s shortlist for the Great Briton in Science and Innovation included a theoretical physicist from Imperial College, an international expert in the pathology of dinosaur bones and John McGhee, an Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded research student based in an art school. His digital animation research on 3D visualization strategies to improve disease understanding among patient groups has twice featured on BBC News and secured the front page of the Guardian’s education supplement (30 October 2007). John is an animator with a background in 3D design.

When crop geneticists provided printmaker Elaine Shemilt with their DNA data, their expectation of the science-art project was that it would result in some striking decorative prints that would liven up the walls of their research institute. However, the resulting prints revealed to them the occurrence of new elements and data patterns that they had previously been unable to perceive. The prints led directly to a whole new externally funded research project examining gene progression in pathogens. Within the decorative patterns, new knowledge became visible. Vital research in crop genetics was triggered by the work and insights of a fine art printmaker.

With a background in craft-making and product design, Graham Whiteley brought a highly idiosyncratic approach to his doctoral research on prosthetic design. To begin with, the medical physics specialist who was part of the supervisory team saw dubious value in Graham’s emphasis on life-drawing and model-making as his key research methods. Six years later, his research contributed to a new bionic arm and hand that has been hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in prosthetics.

We look to our art schools to produce great art and design, and their broader value is always pitched in terms of their contribution to Britain’s Creative Industries. However, their recently emergent research culture is producing something else as well: unique contributions to science, technology and innovation in fields far removed from ‘creative industries’. The examples above are taken from a book chapter I am working on that will be published later this year on The Hidden Value of Art & Design. The chapter explores art and design’s contribution to other specialist disciplines, to industrial competitiveness and innovation, and to social policy. In exploring this value, the chapter ventures from hospital wards to the suboceanic world; we will examine the role of designers in defining advanced manufacturing processes and the role of artists in scientific research; we will see how art and design researchers can contribute to crime prevention, prosthetic technologies and urban planning.

The cases I draw upon are not particularly new – but as Vince Cable’s comments suggest, this message on the wider value of art and design is simply not getting through. Recent research by Mary Schwarz and Dr Karen Yair for the Crafts Council is one recent addition to a growing literature on the wider economic and social value of creative disciplines, in the case of their research, craft specifically. So we need to marshal more evidence, more positive cases, and tell the story more effectively. Comments to this post that include other cases are most welcome, so that we can begin to assemble an up-to-date broad based and accessible listing that can help to strengthen research on this issue, and help tell our stories in a more powerful way.

Craft research

This post follows up references made in the craft research lecture.


The following books were referred to:

Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capitalism includes references to craft working, from the context of industrial sociology in a highly readable analysis of labour process theory.

E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class provides a spirited and highly rigorous case for how craft skills and knowledge provided the foundation of industrial culture and development.

David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship provides the argument on the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work, argues for the emergence and significance of the Third Sector.

Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand is an excellent read which argues for a correspondence between digital process and traditional craft.

Randall White, based at New York University, was one of the first to recognize the evolutionary importance of personal adornment and its critical role in the organization and demographic expansion of modern humans – in other words, how jewellery was a defining issue in the development of human culture. His book on Prehistoric Art, argues this more fully.

Learning through making

The Crafts Council sponsored Learning Through Making Project brought together research teams from Loughborough, Middlesex and Sheffield Hallam Universities to explore and define the value and nature of craft learning. The research also tackled the nature, relevance and value of contemporary craft practices. The project, which was conducted as three separate but related strands, has produced a considerable number of publications. Some of those that are available on-line are listed below:

The Craft’s Council’s own extensive end of project final report.

A transcript of the two day conference held at the British Library which included presentations by the research teams and other invited speakers on the theme of learning through making.

A follow-up report published by the Arts Council: from learning to earning.

The Sheffield Hallam project was concerned with exploring the value of higher education in crafts, providing data on employment destinations (including the first longitudinal study of the employment of craft design graduates) and an analysis of the nature and value of craft learning at degree level. Publications include: an executive summary of the whole project, a paper presented to a conference of EAD held in Stockholm, and a more polemical piece – A New Vision in the Making – published in Crafts Magazine.

Design and Technology Education

There is significant theory and research that arises from the field of pedagogy research in design and technology. This has considerable application to research in craft, as Peter Walters’ recent thesis demonstrated. Here are some links:

The Recycling Exhibition

Curated by Louise Taylor when she was at Craftspace Touring (before becoming Director of the Crafts Council), the Recycling Show opened at the Crafts Council gallery in 1996 before touring the UK. At the time it was the most visited exhibition that the Crafts Council had held, securing media coverage that included a half page in the FT, and reviews and features in much of the popular and specialist media. In many respects it was a significant show, demonstrating how makers can engage with the issue of recycling in different ways, and engaging the public in a highly imaginative way. An extended version of my essay for the exhibition catalogue is the only on-line record of the show.

Recycled glass research

The research project conducted at Sheffield Hallam University under the direction of Jim Roddis, is an exemplary project on how craft research can define a research agenda and develop new insights and applications that have more widespread environmental and commercial value. It has resulted in a material – Ttura – and there have been a number of papers published that describe the research process, including this one.

Craft-based research degrees

My paper – It’s Research, Jim… – drew heavily on the work of Carole Gray and Julian Malins, in particular this: Gray, C., & Malins, J. (1993). Research Procedures / Methodology for Artists and Designers. In Principles and Definitions, Winchester College of Art, on behalf of the European Postgraduate Art and Design Group (ISSN/ISBN: 095-159-043X).

Below I have grouped some links to work and publications by current and former research students whose approach could be classified as “craft-based”, although the extent to which they would agree on such a definition is another issue. This is clearly far from exhaustive and focusses on those who I have either supervised or examined. However, they are all outstanding researchers who have in different ways brought considerable innovation and insights to craft research.

Katie Bunnell, a research student at Gray’s supervised by Julian Malins, and currently based at Falmouth College of Art. Her research explored the integration of digital process within studio ceramics. Links include: summary overview of her PhD research, a further summary that has more detail on the visual nature of her electronic thesis, the transcript of an interview with her, and her current research project.

Graham Whiteley‘s PhD was entitled “An Articulated Skeletal Analogy of the Human Upper-Limb” – essentially he was tackling prosthetic design research through a methodology that made considerable use of craft techniques such as physical prototyping and drawing. The research output comprises a thesis which was structured as an annotated sketchbook and a series of models and components. On-line are photographs of his work, a Yorkshire Post article that explains how his research contributed to a 2005 Space Shuttle mission, and his current project. Chris Rust, his supervisor at Sheffield Hallam, is a highly significant researcher and writer in the field of pratice-centred research. Two papers that the two of them co-authored are available on-line: knowledge and the artefact, and experimental making in multi-disciplinary research.

Jayne Wallace‘s continuing research is in the field of digital jewellery. With a background as a jeweller, craft making has been an integral element of the methodology, which has also incorporated cultural probes research. Her research homepage provides a summary of the project, together with links to a number of publications. Like Graham, her research has demonstrated the value of craft research far outside the traditional domain of craft, in her case arising in publications in the field of HCI. Significant publications include the experience of enchantment in hci, co-authored with specialists from that field, craft knowledge for the digital age, and her keynote address to the 2004 Challenging Craft conference – sometimes I forget to remember.

Peter Walters has recently completed his PhD in human-centred design, that explores and demonstrates the value of physical prototyping to contemporary design practices. Weaving together theoretical and practical research, the thesis represents an epistomology of making. Again, as in the case of the two researchers above, Peter’s craft-based research has application outside the field of craft, having application to the problem of medical misconnection errors in healthcare. Peter’s research home page includes links to several publications and a summary of the research. There is also a link to the paper he presented to the EAD conference in Barcelona.

Other research students include Sarah Kettley, Jenny Downs and Katherine Townsend, and of course Jane Harris. It is only lack of time currently that precludes elaboration on the work of these (and other) excellent researchers.

Craft and digital process

This will also be expanded when there is more time. The essential links (referred to in the seminar) are:

Finally, the Craft Connexity paper written by Julian Malins, Chris McKillop and myself for the 2004 Challenging Craft Conference.

Finally, check out our blog on craft research, and the conference held in July 2007 at the University of Dundee.