Craft is cooler than ever…

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 4/ 2015: A Golden Age of Craft

When I started editing Norwegian Crafts Magazine in May 2010, I became aware of an editorial statement by Crafts magazine’s Grant Gibson: “craft is cool”. Gibson said this in an ongoing discussion in British media about the fact that the fashion brand Louis Vuitton had mounted an advertising campaign implying that their products were handmade, which they were not. The advertisements were taken down due to false advertising, but the point was clear; the fashion house wanted to be associated with values of craft.

Now, five years later, we see that Louis Vuitton was right on target. Craft appears to be everywhere, and everyone wants to be associated with the values of craft: skills, material knowledge, tactility, practical know-how, do-it-yourself, care for the environment (even though making isn’t necessarily “green production”), locally handmade things and other values that we associate with making.

Throughout 2015 this has become evident in Norwegian media too, through a number of articles claiming there is now a “renaissance of crafts”. Art critic Tommy Olsson wrote earlier this year in the leftist newspaper Klassekampen that “craft is the new ice cream”. “Who would have thought that crafts could be cool?”, he asked. There has been a focus on crafts in design magazines, interior magazines, Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten and in various national and international websites: craft is cool and Norwegian crafts are potentially the coolest of all … as we will see in one article celebrating Norwegian crafts in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine.  

«craft is the new ice cream»

Tommy Olsson

Craft-based art practices no longer stand in contrast to the design industry and contemporary art, nor do they appear as a less-valued field from which the other two fields differentiate themselves; these practices now have equal status as part of an undifferentiated aesthetic and cultural field.

This can be seen in contemporary craft practices, not just in Norway but also internationally, and it seems to coincide with a renewed interest in the values we associate with modernity and modernism. Following the “spectacle” or “orgy” of modernity (to use terms from Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard), which seems to have ended in a frenzy of images and social media culture that are exhausting us with non-tangible information, there has been a shift in focus: from clean conceptual expressions and frictionless digital hyper- reality back to the sloppy and tangible material reality that surrounds us.

Making something by hand involves a process of creation defined by practical thinking and a constant dialogue and negotiation with material. This doesn’t mean that craft artists are not conceptually oriented, critical or political, but that material culture and physical objects are subject to revaluation and become important for conveying conceptual, critical or political content.

In fact, one thing that makes craft seem extremely apt for dealing with societal problems is the resistance surrounding such practices. To quote Rosy Greenlees’ article in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine:

“Makers bring a unique perspective to the world. They explore problems and open new questions through the process of action, reflection and change /…/. Making is in itself a way of understanding the world, that involves working with and around resistance, rather than avoid it or try to defeat it.”

To work in clay, metal, wood or textiles is a slow process, and to shape the material may be demanding for the maker (although skill is exactly what makes a virtuoso maker able to produce crafted objects at high speed). Time-consuming processes and the resistance of matter enable a kind of dialectical thinking that may be highly critical.

This investment of time also makes the work valuable. The work bears witness to the time spent, and since time is a luxury in our fast-paced society, this also adds something significant to our experience of the work. Spending time negotiating with a material gives the maker opportunities to apply a wide range of nuances that may be inaccessible to the artist or designer who mainly develops an idea to be produced by someone else.

«Making is in itself a way of understanding the world, that involves working with and around resistance, rather than avoid it or try to defeat it»

Rosy Greenlees

In Norway the board of directors and members of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (Norske Kunsthåndverkere) have for 40 years been key actors in maintaining a space for craft-based practices. Through establishing governmental grants, exhibitions, a periodical magazine, galleries and so forth for contemporary makers, the association has secured a space where this type of art can develop and be discussed, shown and reviewed. The magazine’s consistent discussions and articulations of craft-based practices have been especially important for understanding the practices as forms of visual art in their own right.

There is now a diverse field – ranging from studio pottery to digitally rendered textile works, from conceptual jewellery to found objects – and it seems always to be conquering new ground. Contemporary craft artists are rarely intimidated by technology: they enter into dialogue with digital tools just as they do any other tools. In fact, to be a craftsperson is closely linked to the use and development of tools, as Glenn Adamson has pointed out in The Invention of Craft (2013). To Adamson this is also related to craft’s role in modernity as an inventive and progressive “problem solving” discipline.

In celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts has put extra emphasis on highlighting the diversity of craft practices throughout Norway. We’ve looked to the organization’s beginning, a time when makers where eager to define their practices as part of a larger field of visual art. They did not want “merely” to be defined as designers. Wanting to exhibit works in galleries and museums, they established an annual exhibition in 1975, in order to show the quality of their work. This exhibition is still among the most prestigious arenas for showcasing contemporary craft. This year the exhibition received good reviews and marked the 40th anniversary and the “renaissance of craft” in an interesting way. It included a broad range of works that challenge our notion of what craft can be about, from large-scale sculptures and installations in ceramics, site-specific works and performance, to hand-carved wooden spoons and art jewellery.

The anniversary has also been an occasion to look at recent trends and discuss the future. It has been a year of pop-up shops and galleries emphasizing a new interest in utility and function amongst young makers.

«Responding to the exhausting times we live in, craft-based artists, designers and contemporary artists are re-evaluating modernity and looking to the not-too-distant future»

At the same time we experience that crafts have new status in the design field and in contemporary art. Amongst some designers there is an interest in working with materials like clay and textiles, and to make small series of handmade objects rather than producing in large scale from prototypes. This was exemplified and investigated in the exhibition At first glance this division would appear to be more rational at Galleri Format Oslo earlier in 2015. The exhibition was curated by Victoria Günzler, herself a kind of hybrid between a designer and maker, and she included works by HAiK, Hunting & Narud, Aurora Passero, Pernille Pontoppidan Pedersen and others – fashion brands, designers, textile artists and makers – to present a new perspective on craft as a category.

In contemporary art, the interest in crafts-based art practices was made explicit in dOCUMENTA i 2012, where works by the weaver Hannah Ryggen were placed in a central area of the main exhibition. At Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, in the exhibition NN-A NN-A NN-A – New Norwegian Abstraction earlier this year, the tendency to work in material-based and craft-based ways seemed to be the common denominator between the participating artists. “Practical thinking” seemed to be fused with conceptual thinking. The exhibition was flooded with materiality, tactility and sensuous works.

It appears that young artists are searching for strategies that expand the dry conceptual approach that has dominated contemporary art since the 1960s, and that designers are tired of post-war mass-production that, in retrospect, seems primarily to have tried to satisfy a middleclass hunger for cheap consumer products.

Responding to the exhausting times we live in, craft-based artists, designers and contemporary artists are re-evaluating modernity and looking to the not-too-distant future. They seem to be asking both practical and existential questions: How can we add meaning and substance to our contemporary world while taking into account care for the environment, non-exploitable production, the qualities of materials and skills, and societal challenges? How do we experience the material world and our physical presence in it?