In the spring of 2012, I took a class at CCA called Contemporary Issues of Craft Theory with Josh Faught. It was one of my most formative experiences at college and it urged me to examine and place my own theories about design, art, and craft into my practice. That wasn’t easy and it stretched my mind like Silly Putty and I’m forever better for it. This is my final paper, which is the digest of how I define design and craft.
Theories of Craft and Design: An Immaterial Dichotomy
The products of both design and craft processes take form as the objects, aesthetics, and practices that both construct and reflect the material experience of life. Despite the parallel functions of craft and design in our lives, the professional role of designer and craftsperson are frequently in contention with the other’s approach at creative production. The outcomes of design and craft are fundamentally alike in function and significance, but there is still prevalent struggle amongst many professionals and critics to define one against the other. In the world of objects in which we all exist, designers and craftspeople are the ones who create and perpetuate its reality. With regard to the aesthetic distinctions between fields (from where the problematic descriptors “crafty” or “designy” derive due to common visual or material attributes), the boundaries between them are permeable and often times arbitrary. In that way, they do not allow for complete compartmentalization in regards to contemporary making.
Often from a craft point of view, the distinction between craft and design is that they diverge at a point of moral undertaking. Howard Risatti poses:
Craft is important in contemporary society specifically because it embodies different, even conflicting values from those of design. Design’s values reinforce those of mainstream modernist culture and its vision of the world; this accounts for its prestige. The importance of craft is that its worldview casts a critical light on mainstream values, thereby encouraging us to make judgments about their validity. (269)
From this perspective, there are ethical standards embedded in the processes of both design and craft. The designer or craftsperson does not choose what moral content goes into either their craftwork or design work; rather, they make a decision upon whether to identify with craft or design, which then determines the objective. The flaw in this mode of thinking is the positioning of craft as a counter to design. Design comes out of craft, chronologically; the proliferation of design disciplines was an adaptation to the production of craft objects in response to the Industrial Revolution. This is where the outmoded attitude of contention between craft and design comes into fruition: because of the modernization of industry, design replaced craft as the way to fashion the products and materials, and consequently the values and culture, of contemporary society. Assuming that craft is separate from the desires of the consumer-driven market, and that design is wholly subservient to its requests, is a mistaken method of outlining the disciplines that neglects the fundamental distinctions as ways of making between two fields.
The perspective of craft as a counter to design because of design’s alignment with modern life is problematic in multiple ways. For example, in efforts to preserve craft against the advances of modernity, the field has been delineated by advocates such as William Morris as a reliquary for pre-industrial values. This attitude relegates craft practices to a fetishizing aura of nostalgia, perpetuating the marginalized status of handicrafts in contemporary creative practice by alienating it from the possibility of contemporary relevance. Viewing craft as an antiquated method of making neglects what legitimately defines it as an autonomous field: its inherent nature is the connection to materiality and physical connection to production.
There are further common assumptions about what divides craft and design, which also discount much of the potential of each field and tie them to problematic expectations. These distinctions, says museologist Helen Rees, do not hold designers or craftspeople to particular responsibilities of promoting moral values or making within the defined boundaries of their professional and creative roles:
Former polarities have become a spectrum, and the moral dichotomy between the factory and the studio lost its content and meaning long ago. Each craftperson and each designer is responsible for the values which they bring to and express through their work. Neither has a monopoly of virtue, nor does a higher degree of creative autonomy constitute greater moral freedom or responsibility. (135)
Defining craft and design as distinct fields by assuming they each posses inbuilt systems of virtue is a complex undertaking. It discredits the unavoidable uncertainty in which morals are associated with each discipline, as they are assumptions and culturally constructed perceptions of the characters that embody the label craftsperson or designer. Both design and craft can proliferate any kind of value system; they are simply platforms for creative production as much as any other forms of authoring, such as fine art or writing. It is not the discipline of craft or design itself to which an author owes a moral standard – it is the author themselves that determines the level of their engagement, whether in craft or design, with an ethical vision.
The common and accurate responsibility that craft and design both share is the creation of the materials that both construct and reflect our experiences in life. They are deeply embedded in the perception of the individual and society; craft and design are inseparably influential in how we view our identities and our lives. Rees explains:
Every designed object incorporates and expresses a set of assumptions and values about the way we live. Design is an argument, and so if craft. In fact, given the marginal status of the craft economy, its power is almost entirely rhetorical and symbolic. It is easy to overlook the arguments presented by design, because they constitute the mainstream and represent the dominant mode of production. (130)
While the associations of craft and design towards particular systems of value are arbitrary and problematic, they still exist and provide jumping off points for understanding the importance of creative production in culture. Both disciplines, as Rees states, are arguments; they are material voices through which our lives are represented. Understanding craft and design as platforms of producing meaning, as much as they are for product, can expose the flaws in perceiving design or craft to inhabit particular zones of morality. The objects, aesthetics, and practices that are associated with both design and craft are what build our material understandings of our lives. Recognizing this mutual responsibility to the world of objects exposes the flaws in viewing craft and design as an infallible dichotomy.
Furthermore, craft and design as methods of making are certainly not exclusive to each other’s practices. Craft is often an inseparable part of a design process, just as design is often part of a craft process. If the activity of design is defined by setting plans for production, then craftspeople engage in that activity almost every time they begin their process. If craft is defined by the method of producing by hand, or with more direct, individual engagement with the material, then designers are also constantly engaged in craft. The boundaries of design and craft are not unilaterally constructed by differences in methods of production or a definite moral purpose. They engage with one another frequently in ways that make such boundaries seem arbitrary. Often times in design, craft methods are utilized not for the sake of craft itself, but as aesthetic agency. At the same time, it’s often inescapable for those who identify as craftspeople to use methods of design production (such as screen printing or sewing) when crafting their works. This trading of associations between craft and design doesn’t discredit the value of each field’s work, but simply recognizes the state of making objects in the contemporary climate.
The debate between craft and design is no longer limited to the divergence in aims for mechanical reproduction. Craft and design exhibit parallel objectives – to create meaningful objects and experiences that give material form to our lives. Craft methods enable designers to create aesthetically rich work, and design thinking enables craft to participate in a contemporary setting. Negotiating the differences between craft and design while recognizing their fundamental parallels is important in understanding the elemental purpose that unites design and craft. Both design and craft theories simply amount to one method and one value only: the method is to make things, and the value is to make meaning.
Design and craft work through each other, and while craft distinguishes itself with a particular responsibility to material, they share more in common in terms of objectives than they differ from each other. Rafael Cardoso posits that “…perhaps design and craft will become synonyms too: complementary aspects of the same ongoing process of shaping experience through the interaction between people and things” (331). As the debate between design and craft becomes irrelevant with the conversation over production methodologies, the boundaries become blurred and the dichotomy dissolves, revealing the united purpose of craft and design in the world of objects in which we all exist.
Cordoso, Rafael. “Craft versus Design: Moving beyond a Tired Dichotomy.” The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2010. 321-31. Print.
Rees, Helen. “Patterns of Making: Thinking and Making in Industrial Design.” The Culture of Craft: Status and Future. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1997. 116-36. Print.
Risatti, Howard. A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.