Making by hand, automation and the craft revival

Nick Basannavar

The houses of consumerism are changing. Take a walk. What do you see?

 

A café here, hawking hand-roasted ‘third-wave’ coffee out of minimalist brown paper cups.

 

The pub there, with twenty beer taps brandishing colourful labels and evocative names: Howling Hops; Liquid Mistress; Tiny Rebel; Broken Dream.

 

The restaurant offering seasonal small plates, counter dining and carefully curated ‘low-intervention’ wines.

 

We are in the middle of a wide-ranging craft revival in consumer culture. 

In art and craft, the same forces have produced a world of Etsy, ArtFinder, Trouva, and Not On The High Street. In 2015, Guy Salter launched London Craft Week, proclaiming that “we have London Fashion Week and London Design Festival; the other part of the trinity – the actual making – needed its moment in the sun.”

 

Such examples are notable for what they are not, just as much for what they are. They are not, apparently, on the high street; not corporate, soulless, anaemic, unoriginal. The products found on these platforms are authentic, handmade, unique, individualist, forged with warmth, skill and care. Making by hand brings value and worth to both creator and consumer, and engenders closeness between these two parties. We live in an increasingly inauthentic, automated digital world of fake news and big data. Trust in established large organisations is at a low. Products that appear unique or authentic, or at least trumpet authenticity, carry enormous cachet.

 

This is not a new or unique phenomenon. There are prominent traces here of the original Arts and Crafts movement that started in Victorian Britain in the mid 1800s.

 

Then, there had been a reaction against industrial machine making and the inferior, formulaic product design that was supposedly stinking out 1851’s Great Exhibition. More than 130 Arts and Crafts associations were founded in Britain between 1895 and 1905. They tended to follow William Morris’ famous maxim that things in the home ought to be useful or beautiful – or both. Micro-businesses and sole-traders, often female, forged a renaissance in the craft not only of household furniture and adornments – desks, chairs, cabinets, vases – but also in consumable goods such as cider, beer and bread. 

A view from The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Image taken from Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Red House, Bexleyheath painted by Walter Crane. Red House was built by Philip Webb for the artist and designer William Morris.

Image taken from from Pamela Todd, Pre-Raphaelites at Home, Watson-Guptill, 2001

History repeats. Or rather, it goes in cycles. Perhaps it is time to state that we are living through Arts and Crafts 2.0.

 

However, there are two key differences between now and then. One: our new revolution is universal, being visible and accessible to all. Whilst Morris and his acolytes broadcast socialist ideals, their movement and the products it spun ended up being open only to a privileged few. Today we live in an Internet-inspired knowledge economy, as Salter has it. People know more, quickly. Knowing more, we buy more widely but also more specifically. The information revolution has helped independent craft business to open up, allowing direct access from buyer to creator.

 

Two: where the original Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to inferior machine-based products, we might consider Arts and Crafts 2.0 a response to improving product quality. Automation has brought a finely honed, mass-produced blandness to household items. The response has been a desire for human, imperfect, handmade objects, encapsulated in the wabisabi tone found in pockets of modern craft.

 

Indeed, when we start to unpick the influential role that technology plays in this process, we encounter a paradox. The new arts and crafts movement rejects aspects of modern technology that lead to automated blandness. Yet it is these same technological advances that are also facilitating its growth.  

 

Take the company Artfinder, an online marketplace for artwork that uses automation and machine learning to market work from its 10,000+ artists to its 500,000+ subscribers. Or Etsy, which in 2016 spent $32.5m acquiring an AI-focused start-up – Blackbird – to improve product searches and match buyers to sellers. Some craft advocates may find a sad irony in the fact that Etsy, with transactions totalling almost $2bn in 2015, is becoming the kind of corporate monolith far removed from the quaint and unique products it champions.

From cutting edge online marketplaces, to artists who use robots to paint for them, to artisans adopting the use of 3D printing: technological innovation is increasingly central to both commerce and the productive process. Can we reconcile our complicated relationship with technology, and continue to uphold the fundamentally creative – and human – nature of art and craft? 

Ceramic 3D Printing by Studio Under

Nick Basannavar is completing his PhD in History at Birkbeck, University of London (expected 2018/19). He specialises in the cultural, social and sexual history of postwar Britain. Other research has explored the relationship between political agency and mental health (taking Richard Nixon as a case study), early 20th-century Indian communism, and the perennial tragicomedy of the England football team.