Optimism and Challenges

Monika Patuszynska : TransForms Plus (Bastards series), 2013 (The prize of the Federation Wallonia Brussels Porcelain)
The dynamic energy, confidence and ambition of the craft sector has never been more apparent.

From the fashion for traditional tailoring to the growing market for secondary sales of contemporary ceramics and from knitting circles to high-tech maker labs more people are exploring, buying, using and making craft.  This is taking place in the context of a growing recognition of the value of craft’s cultural value and resurgence in the appreciation of skill. These opportunities provide us with potential to increase our audience and achieve greater profile.

«Craft can provide an alternative to, rather than be validated by, the conventional notion of luxury or consumption.»

Rosy Greenlees

First, we’re currently seeing huge consumer interest in the handmade aesthetic – in mass produced goods embodying qualities more often associated with craft. Our immersion in the digital world has led us to value the physical and the tactile in new ways: that an object with ‘imperfections’ feels more authentic and has more personality, for us, than just another digital device. The term craft has been adopted as a validation of quality and value by brands and more widely.

 Mass production has created a gap between the consumer and producer except where craft provides the experience of acquiring something that completely fits your needs, the satisfaction of developing a relationship with the maker and of course the sustainability benefits of objects that can be repaired, revised and improved many times over.

Luxury assumes the use of high value material based on a conventional hierarchy of precious metals and gems for example. In a world of over production maker are re-using existing objects or everyday materials: elevating these materials – through skill and ingenuity – to a much higher level of value.

Maker’s use of function, technique, materials and aesthetics is predicated on the principle of going beyond the normal or necessary and taking time, care and effort to produce something which not only provides a solution bus is exceptional as well. Craft can provide an alternative to, rather than be validated by, the conventional notion of luxury or consumption.

Patricia Domingues: Many & Deliberated, 2014 (The Young Talent Prize, the prize of WCC-Europe Necuron)

Secondly, craft makers today work in a far greater range of contexts than is widely realized.

They are collaborating – like other creative people – with scientists, technologists and engineers. These collaborations produce scalable innovations, capable of enabling growth across a range of industry sectors; and unlock further innovation potential within the creative and scientific communities, by creating new tools, material and knowledge. We’ve all seen how designer are using 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies, connected to online use interfaces and smart materials, to bring qualities previously associated only with the handmade object, to mass production. At the same time, these same tools – and others – are being not only adopted but also creatively transformed by makers.

Makers bring a unique perspective to the world. They explore problems and open new questions through the process of action, reflection and change rather than test hypotheses in the way scientists work. 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.

Secondly, maker’s human sensibility provides an intimate understanding of how people respond to materials and objects. This understanding includes how   to convey and evoke human responses through materials and form, as well as to create objects that fit the body and function as well.

«contemporary makers are constantly re-thinking and re-inventing their practice»

Rosy Greenlees

Third, makers are material specialists. They develop un-paralleled craft skills and knowledge about the materials and techniques employed in their work. As a result, they often see opportunities overlooked by others and have the will and tenacity to see these opportunities through to innovation. This craft knowledge is invaluable to our society.

Despite this optimism the current context has been a challenging one with many European countries in recession and the strength of the European Union under pressure.

The arts have suffered from the reduction in public funding and the crafts sector equally threatened.

However, there are some indications of improvements in the economy and the EUs creative industries, innovation and growth and cultural programmes offer opportunities to the WCC.

The Report and Recommendations of the European Design Leadership Board to the EU identified the importance of craftspeople in innovation and using their material skills to benefit other industries. Craft enterprises form a significant part of the economy of Europe as the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry noted. 

Across Europe there is a wide spectrum of activity. The language used, and forms of craft, range across a continuum from the folk and heritage craft of Slovakia and Portugal through to artisan craft of Florence and métier d’art of France; from contemporary crafts of Ireland and expressive studio glass of Eastern Europe to the design craft of Finland and Denmark.

Similarly, business models vary from the individual maker in their studio to the workshops of small scale production employing larger numbers. Many of these aspects of craft are represented in the members of WCC Europe.

Typhaine Lemonnier: Venus studies 3, 2015 (The Prize Mons 2015)

As part of an on-going debate about crafts in the 21st century WCC Europe members identified issues that need to be addressed to ensure craft continues to thrive and benefit from the opportunities available. The breadth of craft is a strength but there is need for a common identity and greater public recognition of the value of craft and the decline in craft education at a time when those skills are being recognized for their economic value is at a critical stage. We need a call for increased government support to sustain and develop craft; and for the inclusion of the craft community in debates about the creative economy.

The WCC exists to address these questions and to create the network that can ensure craft organisations across Europe have knowledge and support. The European Applied Arts Prize is just one of the ways in which we can promote and showcase the fantastic work of craft.

Drawn from hundreds of submissions this exhibition gives you a snapshot of the great diversity that is European craft.

Craft speaks to deep-seated human instincts; the value of distinctiveness, pride in quality and the worth of skilled craftsmanship. Whilst craft today remains connected to materials, processes and techniques from its past, contemporary makers are constantly re-thinking and re-inventing their practice, drawing on those strengths and ensuring that craft not only flourishes in a changing world but helps shape it.

This article was first published as foreword to the catalogue for European Applied Arts Prize 2015 (published by World Crafts Council – Belgique francophone, asbl)