They downed over a million soft drinks and scoffed nearly as many Bath buns, but most of the six million people who trooped into the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park to visit the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in the summer of 1851 were drawn there by prize exhibits such as the world’s biggest diamond, Gobelins tapestries, a demonstration of the cotton manufacturing process and the first public toilets. Charlotte Brontë was so impressed that she enthused in a letter about the ‘blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect’.
One young Londoner took a frostier view. When the 17-year-old William Morris and his siblings were taken to the Great Exhibition as a treat by their parents, he refused to go in. Convinced that he would loathe the Crystal Palace and its contents, the teenage medievalist and future champion of the arts and crafts movement insisted on remaining outside, where he sat sullenly on a chair, waiting until his family was ready to leave.
Morris later discovered more eloquent ways of expressing his contempt for what he considered to be the soullessness and shoddiness of industrialization, notably in the rough-hewn ‘protest furniture’ he designed in a medieval style in the mid-1850s for the rooms he shared with the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Yet, his adolescent strop outside the Great Exhibition’s orgy of consumerism summed up the relationship between design and craft for decades to come. Morris was not the only member of the craft community to consider design to be fatally compromised by its co-dependence on commerce and mechanization. Conversely, there was no shortage of designers who felt equally vociferously that their ‘raffia mafia’ critics were twee and anachronistic.
Hostilities have now ceased, from one side at least, as designers have come to see craft in a very different light: as more subtle, rich, dynamic and eclectic than it was previously held to be. Some designers have made strategic use of artisanal symbolism, as the Dutch product designer Hella Jongerius has done by giving mass-manufactured objects the appearance – or illusion – of the idiosyncrasies we have traditionally associated with craftsmanship. Others, like Jongerius’s compatriot Christien Meindertsma and the Italian duo Studio Formafantasma have explored the expressive qualities of the craft process and its role in addressing political and social challenges. Does this growing interest represent a significant change in the design community’s understanding of craft and its cultural value? And is it accompanied by an equally radical shift within craft circles?
It is difficult to overstate how pernicious the battle between design and craft has been. Up until the industrial revolution in the late 1700s, most objects were made by hand, often by local blacksmiths or carpenters. Their skills were highly prized and, in the early years of industrialization, manufacturing was accorded similar respect. Celina Fox’s book The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment (2010) describes how manufacturers vied for prizes for the most elegantly designed machinery at packed public exhibitions. But by the 19th century, industry had been demonized by its association with ‘dark satanic mills’, tackily made goods and urban squalor. Morris, John Ruskin and fellow members of the arts and crafts movement fuelled these stereotypes in their writing and lectures, and advocated a return to the supposedly gentler, purer values of craftsmanship. Neither cliché was entirely accurate. Some handcrafted wares were no less tacky than the dodgier factory goods, while the best industrial wares matched the highest standards of craftsmanship.
Even so, the arts and crafts lobby was so persuasive that its dogma survived into the early 20th century, proving particularly virulent in Britain, Japan, Scandinavia and the US. By then, constructivism was gathering force in Eastern Europe, fired by a very different vision of design and technology, as catalysts for a fairer, more productive society. When the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s, he wore factory overalls to symbolize his faith in industry. Until then, the school had adhered to a manifesto that began: ‘Architects, sculptors, painters. We must all return to crafts!’ Moholy-Nagy soon converted his colleagues to constructivism and the Bauhaus’s director, Walter Gropius, coined a new slogan: ‘Art and Technology – A New Unity’. The Bauhaus’s reinvention marked a turning point in the cultural fortunes of craft and design, beginning a process that has shifted the balance of power in the latter’s favour.
By the mid-1950s, when Roland Barthes described ‘a superlative object’ in an essay for his book Mythologies (1957), he was referring not to one of the painstakingly crafted artefacts beloved of Morris and Ruskin, but to Citröen’s new DS 19 saloon. A decade later, when, in an exhibition text, Richard Hamilton praised the objects that ‘have come to occupy a place in my heart and consciousness [in the way] that Mont Sainte-Victoire did in Cézanne’s’, he was talking about Braun’s electronic products. Craft still had its champions. When the us industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames were invited to conduct a review of Indian design in 1958, they recommended that India should modernize by building on its artisanal traditions. The Cuban furniture designer Clara Porset advocated a similar strategy for her adopted country, Mexico.
Yet Porset and the Eameses were in a minority, as design’s cultural currency was rising, and craft’s falling. Craft also suffered from misogyny, having long been regarded as a female preserve. For decades, women were encouraged to study ‘feminine’ subjects like ceramics and weaving, even at supposedly progressive schools. During the Bauhaus’s early years of craft evangelism, both Anni Albers and Gertrud Arndt were forced to abandon their original plans to join the glass-making and architecture courses respectively, and to enroll in the textile workshop. Like so many other things perceived as ‘female’, craft was marginalized.
Equally problematic was the dismissal of the craft traditions of developing countries, even those with proud artisanal histories, on the grounds that they might impede modernization. In India, despite the efforts of the Eameses and other craft enthusiasts, the critical reputations of designers and artists whose work was associated with artisanal symbolism or techniques – such as the late potter Devi Prasad and Mrinalini Mukherjee, who made sculpture from hemp and other textile materials until her death earlier this year – suffered from this misassumption.
First published in Issue 174