It’s strange to think that not so long ago ‘craft’ was a dirty word. For many, it (wrongly) contained connotations of amateurism, appearing homespun and deeply unfashionable.
Scroll forward to the present and things look very different. Tom Daley made headlines at the Olympics, not only for winning medals but also for knitting a commemorative cardigan while supporting Team GB in the stands.
Our TV schedules are overrun with shows devoted to sewing, repair, pottery and jewellery making. And brands from Loewe to Kettle Chips have celebrated craft (with different degrees of credibility) through awards and marketing campaigns.
What changed? I would posit that the craft revival started in 2008, with the combination of the banking crisis and the publication of a hugely influential book, The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. Historically, craft does well in recession, when people pay more attention to the value of things and are more willing to entertain the idea of repairing possessions rather than simply binning them.
So the field of craft has garnered some (long-overdue) kudos. But what’s next? And who are the people taking it forward?
According to Annie Warburton, CEO of Cockpit Arts, London’s leading studios for contemporary crafts, ‘Craft is advancing on several different fronts.’ And one of those fronts is the collectibles market. Last year, for instance, studio ceramics auction house Maak sold a piece by Magdalene Odundo for £240,000, a record for a living ceramic artist.
In June, Design Centre Chelsea Harbour launched Artefact, a new fair devoted to high-end craft, while craft galleries such as Adrian Sassoon and Sarah Myerscough have become staples at international art and design shows like Masterpiece and PAD. As Warburton points out, compared to the fine art world, there are potential bargains to be had: ‘People are realising that, at the moment, the field is seriously undervalued in terms of price. Canny collectors are getting in on collectable craft.’
Makers themselves are also expanding craft’s horizons through a combination of technology and material experimentation.
Gareth Neal is a designer and maker, whose work in wood has ranged from investigating the traditional Orkney chair to working with cutting-edge CNC (computer numerical control) processes to create ‘Ves-el’ vases, in collaboration with the late Zaha Hadid. Most recently, he has been experimenting with 3D-printing sand (in a process called binder jetting) to create a huge, ribbed vessel that’s a little under two-metres tall.
‘I see technology as another tool,’ he says. ‘It’s just that nowadays tools are no longer something you carry about in a box on the back of a cart. They’ve outgrown the traditional workshop.’ Interestingly, Neal shies away from describing himself as a craftsman preferring the term, ‘craft explorer’. ‘I’m someone who is trying to find new territory and uncover different areas to play in,’ he says.
While Neal is using technology to challenge established notions of craft, James Shaw is fascinated by how we place value on materials. He has eschewed current fashion and has become an advocate for plastic.
‘I was quite interested in the hierarchy of materials, where plastic comes way down at the bottom,’ he explains. ‘I thought maybe there was some connection between that and the silly things we do with it, like using it for a few seconds and throwing it away. I figured if I applied the skills, understanding and time that a craft practice brings, it might unpack some other aspects of the material.’
For his ‘Plastic Baroque’ series, Shaw takes high-density polyethylene pellets (recycled from packaging), which are heated, extruded through a kind of homemade gun, and then rapidly manipulated before the gooey substance cools down, to create objects that are subsequently sold on the collectibles market.
He is by no means alone in working with materials more often thought of as waste. Emma Witter is a maker and artist who uses animal bone to create wonderfully delicate sculptures. She began working with the material for practical reasons.
‘It was about having no money and working with what was around me,’ she explains. ‘If I wanted to use metal, for example, I’d have to go to a foundry, which is expensive. So I was collecting things that were to hand and free.’ She picked up her first bones from her own meals and at dinner parties. ‘On the odd occasion we went to restaurants, I’d put them aside,’ she tells me, with a hint of a giggle.
Importantly, too, there has been a collective realisation in the craft world that it needs to expand its base and appeal to a more diverse cross-section of the population.
Over the past 18 months, for example, it has been fascinating to watch the rise of Chris Day, a mixed-heritage glass artist, who graduated from Wolverhampton University in 2019. Since then, his extraordinary work, which focuses on the Black experience in the UK and US, juxtaposing glass and copper piping and wire, has been shown at London’s SoShiro and Vessel Gallery. He currently has a genuinely moving installation at All Saints Church at Harewood House, just outside Leeds.
The beauty of craft is that it is light on its feet. Makers are playing with new techniques and materials that could inform all our futures. And it has something to say on a range of topics, too, from sustainability to discrimination.
In short, craft is not to be underestimated.