Back to the Future: A Glance at Applied Art

Anette Krogstad
Cecilie Tyri Holt looks at the relationship between craft and function

The Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (Norske Kunsthåndverkere, henceforth referred to as NK) celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. Since the organization’s founding, so-called functional art has come in from the cold, even if the reasons for its acceptance by the wider artworld are different than those of consumers. Ceramics sell – both new productions and vintage objects – and contemporary artists, in their works, make references to a traditional understanding of what applied art is.

‘After several years on the barricades, we’re astounded that journalists haven’t discovered our professional field – that they still don’t know the difference between applied art and craft-based art (…)’, wrote Bente Sætrang and Gro Jessen in the inaugural issue of the journal Kunsthåndverk in 1980.[1]

NK was established in 1975 with the expressed aim of having craft-based art gain recognition as an art form, thus to take a step away from applied art in order for craft artists to gain rights that were comparable to those enjoyed by visual artists, particularly the right to apply for government grants.

Bente Sætrang and Gro Jessen wrote even more in the first issue of Kunsthåndverk:

'Is it only the craft artists themselves who see what is happening in marking a natural professional distinction between craft-based art, industrial design and handicrafts made in the home? This distinction has partly been interpreted as an attempt to move closer to visual art. Let it be said immediately – we do not identify ourselves with [painters, sculptors and the like], but do see ourselves as autonomous artists, – free to pursue craft-based art practices, – for use, for autonomous enjoyment, – autonomous production.'

Today, many writers, critics and arbiters of opinion feel the need to stress the unfixed boundary between craft art and contemporary art, as if marking the similarity was something new. This is not at all a new observation. Craft-based art practices have for many years been compared to contemporary art and applied art. The constellation of issues related to ‘applied art versus craft art’ date back to at least the 1930s, as exemplified in the institutions Foreningen Brukskunst (an association for applied art) versus Norsk Prydkunstnerlag (an association for decorative artists).[2] Is it not legitimate to admit that craft-based art is now in a ‘both-and’ position? Or is it that the ‘applied art’ label downgrades the seriousness of craft-based art, while the references to visual and conceptual art have the opposite effect?

‘A teapot is always more than a teapot’
A blue teapot by Elisa Helland-Hansen
Tureen by Elisa Helland-Hansen

«This pot is not a picture of a pot. It’s a pot. It is the pot, this pot here. It doesn’t point to anything other than its own form and maybe its function»

Stein Mehren

A problematic teapot

As part of NK’s 40th-anniversary commemoration, a book about the organization’s history is being published in the spring of 2015. When I was doing research for one of the book’s chapters – on the history of the journal Kunsthåndverk – a flyer fell out of one of the first issues from 1980. On this flyer is a picture of a teapot by Lisbeth Dæhlin (1922-2012). Above the picture, written in large letters, it says ‘A teapot is always more than a teapot’. The ceramist Nina Malterud, one of those who initiated the journal and a member of its editorial committee for many years, enlightened me, explaining that the flyer was a response to an antithetical claim by the author Stein Mehren.

When Gro Jessen (1938-2003) received NK’s honorary award in 2003, she spoke with a journalist from the newspaper Aftenposten, and in the conversation, referred to the story behind the flyer:

'We responded to Stein Mehren’s claim that ‘a pot can never point beyond itself’ – in other words, that a thing with a function cannot have spiritual or immaterial value – by making the counter-claim that ‘a pot always points beyond itself’.[3]

Mehren’s text – which set minds ablaze – is published in the essay collection 50 60 70 80[4] and reads as follows:

'Take for example a porcelain or ceramic pot. This pot is not a picture of a pot. It’s a pot. It is the pot, this pot here. It doesn’t point to anything other than its own form and maybe its function. And the form and function are integrated in a special way. The form points to the function. And the function is imbued, like an open picture, in the form. But the form is also something other, and more than a function. It is mysterious, non-reducibly mysterious, like a stone or a colour. (…) We can examine how the object is formed. And we can value it as decoration. Describe it. But we cannot explain or interpret a form.'[5]

According to Mehren, an object’s functionality simultaneously excludes the possibility of its interpretation. It is interesting to see that even though the establishment of NK in 1975 can be grounded on the desire – and need – for distinguishing between applied art and craft-based art, the craft artists themselves were keen to argue that a teapot could indeed point beyond itself and have intangible, non-material value.

günzler.polmar: Marbled Containers

«One must distinguish sharply between functional objects and autonomous works»

Ingeborg von Hanno

Function versus the pursuit of originality

Gro Jessen and Bente Sætrang’s claim from 1980 – that journalists didn’t know how to use the concepts kunsthåndverk (here referred to as craft-based art) and brukskunst (applied art) – can be exemplified by the Norwegian-language magazine Bonytt’s regular column anno 1981, which had the somewhat abnormal, dash-ridden title ‘Bruks-Kunst-Håndverk’ (Applied-Art-Handicraft). This column was meant to showcase an object and its maker, ‘regardless of whether the maker calls himself/herself an applied artist, a craftsperson or anything else. The good object – which surfaces on the crest of one or another wave in the billowy grey-green-muddy sea of knick-knacks, not produced in Hong Kong. But nurtured as much in Poland as in Peking or Paris’.

A report in Aftenposten in 1972 legitimates NK’s effort to define craft-based art as an independent art form. In the report, the exhibition Statens Stipendieutstilling (an exhibition featuring works by artists who were applying for government grants), which was held at the National Museum of Decorative Art, was analysed by Astrid Aure, the director of the Norwegian Consumer Council, and Ingeborg von Hanno, a teacher at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry:

‘A great deal of this is absolutely not applied art! Instead, many of the objects must be characterized as autonomous art, and they don’t actually belong in this exhibition, was Astrid Aure’s first comment after walking through the gallery rooms. (…) Is there something wrong with the applied artists’ education, which promotes this pursuit of originality? asks Mrs. Aure. (…) One must distinguish sharply between functional objects and autonomous works. Many of the things in this exhibition should have been sent to the grant exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, says Mrs. von Hanno. She believes the time is ripe for applied artists to begin to re-establish respect for their original profession. Applied artists’ mission is to work for people, to create things they can use in their homes.’[6]

The journalist informs readers that ‘in our “supporting documents”, there is a stack of foreign-language journals showing that applied artists trafficking in autonomous art is an international phenomenon’.[7] Three years later, NK defined craft-based art as an art form, marking distance from applied art’s relation to industrial production.

Anette Krogstad

«Applied art has received its renaissance, both inside and outside the gallery world.»

By hand

In a newspaper article in Dagbladet, there was a comment about an episode of the radio program Revyen, which discussed applied art. Revyen’s host Birgit Gjernes wrote that ‘I see applied art as being some of the most important phenomena produced in our era (…) I am convinced it will eventually have its renaissance, once it becomes increasingly seldom that anything is made by hand’.[8] This could have been written today, and indeed it has. The hand-made object has its renaissance, for various reasons. Trend analysts, and art historians for that matter, are keen to point out the need to return to something authentic and genuine, the desire not to support the mass-production of things people don’t need, and to be able to trace a product back to the moment of its creation.

The handmade as a trend affects most areas of our life today: food should preferably be grown at home in our gardens, using our own compost; the meat we eat should preferably be bought from the local butcher, who is supplied by a farmer we are on a first-name basis with – and it goes without saying that the ecological coffee we drink should by brewed by hand. In this trend, which extends to most of the contexts we find ourselves in, applied art fits in perfectly. The Oslo-based restaurant Maaemo, which has won two Michelin stars, serves its dishes on ceramic dinnerware signed by Anne Udnes, and Ylajali, another restaurant that has won a coveted star, collaborates with the ceramicist Anette Krogstad. The design studio günzler.polmar, which is run by Sara Polmar and Victoria Günzler, has received marked attention for its Marbled Containers, a series of slip-cast reproductions of traditional ceramic pots. The casting seams and irregularities caused by the casting moulds are preserved. This, in addition to the marbling technique, which is unpredictable, renders each porcelain work a unique object that retains traces of its creation process.

At first glance this division would appear to be more rational, curated by Victoria Günzler. Galleri Format Oslo
At first glance this division would appear to be more rational, curated by Victoria Günzler. Galleri Format Oslo

References to applied art

In addition to the trend outlined above, applied art has also gained new relevance in another way, paradoxically enough, in connection with contemporary art. When NK was founded in 1975, the artists who worked with craft-based art practices rejected applied art as the starting point for mass-production. Today, however, applied art is seen as the antithesis of mass-production; like craft-based art, it exemplifies the hand-made. Objects with references to applied art are being exhibited in galleries. Applied art has therefor received its renaissance, both inside and outside the gallery world.

Early in 2015, Galleri Format in Oslo presented the exhibition At first glance this division would appear to be more rational, curated by Victoria Günzler. The artists and designers who participated in the exhibition showed works with more or less explicit references to applied art and to a constellation of issues related to function. Marianne Zamecznik wrote about the exhibition, stating that on the whole, it shed light on various strategies for negotiating (or negating) traditions linked to a specific professional discipline, category of object or material.

'Pernille Pontoppidan, Victoria Günzler and Nathalie Fuica Sanchez deconstruct objects traditionally associated with ceramic material – pots – in playful and mischievous ways. Hilda Hellstrøm’s unearthly urns trigger questions about what they are made of and why. Such works pose questions of an ontological nature (What is it?), and are seen alongside works that alternate between revealing and occluding their nature. The design duos Vera & Kyte and Hunting & Narud elaborate on everyday objects’ narrative qualities. The objects can tell far more than their ‘innocent’ outward appearance reveals – they seem to want to do more than merely fulfil their function.'[9]

This brings us full-circle, back to 1980 and the craft artists’ confrontation with Stein Mehren’s claim that a pot cannot point to anything other than to its form and function. ‘We can examine how the object is formed. And we can value it as decoration. Describe it. But we cannot explain or interpret a form’, writes Mehren. Today, an object’s function is challenged through references to applied art. Applied art is no longer exclusively a hand-made object with a clear function. Applied art has – in light of its history – also become a category that an artwork can refer to. Applied art can be described, explained and interpreted.

günzler.polmar: Marbled Containers
günzler.polmar: Marbled Containers
günzler.polmar: Marbled Containers


[1] The Norwegian-language journal Kunsthåndverk is Norwegian Crafts Magazine’s sister publication.

[2] Marianne Hylbak ‘Brukskunst – Prydkunst’, Kunsthåndverk no. 1, 2015, pp. 30-33.

[3] Ragnhild Plesner, ‘Jessen hedres for modig liv og god kunst’, Aftenposten, 18 December 2000.

[4] Stein Mehren 50 60 70 80 (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1980).

[5] The text is also re-published in ‘Kunstverket og Kunsthåndverket mellom faktasivilisasjon og en opplevelseskultur’, in Det veltalende objekt. Norsk Kunsthåndverk 1975-1997 in the series Det tenkende øye (a collaborative project between Kunstindustrimuseet, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum and Norske Kunsthåndverkere, 1997), p. 32.

[6] ‘Norsk brukskunst på tiltalebenken’, Aftenposten, 29 November 1972.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Fra underholdningsromanen til brukskunst i «Revyen»’, Dagbladet, 5 January 1971.

[9] Marianne Zamecznik, ‘Let´s Get Physical’, (text accompanying the exhibition At first glance this division would appear to be more rational, Galleri Format, 22 January – 1 March 2015.