Lately I’ve been thinking about the marketplace to which my peers and I contribute. As a maker I am invested in the meaning of things. I am aware that the location of objects ‘out there’ is central to the way other people will make meaning out of them. The labels we attach to objects stick.
‘Craft and design’ has come to signify an important point of reception for goods and services in Australia. It is also a product category that is gaining currency. For me it denotes a place where craft is necessarily distinguished from the outcome of recreational activities and the broad arena of design narrows to focus on the creation of consumer items. Personally, I feel comfortable locating much of my practice here. This context elevates craft to a profession and adds value to design through association with the hand made. It is a term that is inclusive of a myriad of methods and scales of production, from hand to machine and from singular to multiple. Importantly craft and design implies a shortened supply chain that brings the maker into play as part of the story of the product. Heightened economic and aesthetic value, resonance with the maker, narrative if not conceptual content, and a sense of provenance within production take centre stage in these products, arguably positioning them within the broader field of visual arts practice.
This diverse range of activity, be it defined as artistic, artisanal or designer, represents an alternative to the dominant models of mass production and consumption. Here, ethically minded consumers can make a choice to carefully curate their own experience and, to some extent avoid the trap of contributing to the daily practice of making waste. This attitude finds its origin in the history of connoisseurship and the act of collecting, but increasingly is a mode of operation for people of diverse income levels looking to make their purchasing habits mean something.
Researchers tells us that we are happier when we spend our money on experiences than when we purchase objects. Experiences become part of the narrative of who we are. They are the way we form connections with others so the value of experience persists long after the novelty of a new object has faded. Crafted objects on the other hand buy into the ‘experience economy’ and represent a sustainable alternative to mass-produced, disposable products. Through their sense of provenance, heightened aesthetic and material value and the narrative of the maker, crafted objects offer a rich and more sustaining experience that endures in the lives of people, providing deep personal and cultural connections. The ‘have less, live more’ of the experience economy translates directly to the ‘buy well, buy once’ of the craft and design sector and carries similar sustainable outcomes.[i]
In 2014, Etsy, the e-commerce website for craft and vintage products reported annual sales of 1.93 billion U.S. dollars. However, the company also reported a global community of 1.4 million sellers and an optimal product price point of 50 U.S. dollars and below.[ii] Despite the merits of an extraordinary business model this noisy global bazaar may not be the place for professionals who seek to make lasting cultural contributions through their practice and be paid a sum commensurate with their effort.
The business model that underpins many operators in the professional craft and design sector is one that aims for economic growth balanced against the requirement for creative fulfilment and high quality production. This model places inherent limitations upon viability through high labour, low volume production that restricts distribution capacity and creates high cost product for a relatively small market. Makers have begun to overcome the geographic limits of practice through an online presence that extends their access to a global audience. This strategy is not without its challenges.
Clearly though, there is significant commercial potential where e-commerce and the handmade converge. Craft was once considered incompatible with the online environment and associated digital technologies. But the media-rich, multi-faceted and interactive experience of internet content makes it well suited for the dissemination of craft and design. Not only does it provide access for the maker to a global audience but conversely gives the audience access to the maker as part of the product experience. It is now part of the maker’s task to find ways of presenting their product and practice in context, and this can include their own life and local environment. For the buyer, purchasing directly allows them to feel that they have participated in supporting a local economy and the creative diversity of a community, what Ezio Manzini has referred to as ‘cosmopolitan localism’.[iii]
Ezio Manzini is a leading thinker in sustainable design and the designer’s role in a sustainable future. He has proposed that we are moving toward a new economic paradigm that offers a sustainable alternative to globalised models of mass production and consumption. He describes this new model as ‘small, local, open and connected’.[iv] The reality of sustainable organization of production and consumption is already evident in the slow food movement. Quality, local produce now competes at premium prices with cheaper imported product due to, on the one hand increased awareness that it is an ethical choice, and on the other an appreciation of the quality of the product and the time that this quality entails. Increasingly the act of purchasing is being understood as an act of ‘co-production’ of not only the product but also of the conditions that made its production possible. Because the consumer is informed the purchase is felt to be an act of care, support and investment in social values that translates to a sense of deep connection. The slow food movement was predicated on the notion that quality takes time, time to make and time to enjoy.[v] And in the case of food production this pleasure is seasonal and local, antithetical to the agro-industrial system of food production and the waste and pace it entails. It is not hard to see how this model can be extrapolated out to inform craft and design.
Seen through the lens of Manzini’s small, local, open and connected, the socio-economic value of the craft and design sector begins to takes shape. Small-scale enterprises are nimble and responsive to change and tend to be networked with other small-scale operators. By remaining embedded in the local community they can benefit the local economy and reflect the values and culture of their origin. There is something of the ‘keeping it honest’ to the local as this is the site in which feedback is incorporated and the iterative process of producing quality outcomes takes place. Meanwhile they can remain open to the world market and connected to a global community that provides a link to the latest developments in research and technology. This kind of operation is what constitutes some of the best independent craft and design practice in Australia and to a large extent is an enabling structure required to facilitate both authenticity and innovation in the products produced.
The idea of the ‘co-producer’ as opposed to the passive consumer implies that on both sides of the product equation there is an investment being made in something beyond the product itself. In the slow food movement it is the ‘right to pleasure’ and the responsibility to protect the heritage of food production that facilitates this pleasure. The culture of craft and design is also about pleasure, but the real significance here is a return to a sense of care for objects. A sense of care that starts with their crafted production but does not end there. In a world dominated by unsustainable production and waste making, taking the time to care for things, invest in their longevity and collect objects that will endure is a profound and moral act. One of the small but significant things makers can do, for themselves, for each other and for the planet, is to remain open and connected to their audience in a way that invites their participation as ‘co-producers’ of a sustaining and sustainable material culture. In order to achieve this at the highest level we need to be able to speak as a sector with a single voice about the most important things we collectively contribute.
In an increasingly connected world new organisational structures and systems of consolidation are required to cut through the noise of the online environment. One example of an enterprise that is attempting to do this is the Australian e-commerce website Handkrafted.com. Described as ‘a community marketplace connecting people with passionate makers to commission quality bespoke goods’[vi] Handkrafted is at present a national directory of independent furniture makers but the website indicates plans to extend to other crafts. Customers are able to register and upload a brief that is then available to registered makers to respond to and appropriate connections are formed. It is the kind of simple enabling system that has the potential to provide a platform for the growth of a creative community. This is a highly nuanced area and the ability for online to capture high quality, high value, bespoke craft and design and broker projects with real commercial outcomes is yet to be truly tested. Crowdfunding platforms, blogs, online retail and emerging models of connection all attest to the fact the online environment will play a part in either the development or demise of markets for innovative and authentic local product.
This raises important questions for the craft and design sector that may be the catalyst for defining opportunities moving forward. How can our new ‘borderless’ socio-technological landscape help us to produce a map of the present that augments our local economies and physical experiences rather than replacing them? What is the call to action needed for likeminded artists, craftspeople and designers to participate in an ongoing connection? What are the services needed to count these voices and produce a robust aggregate representative of the real sector?
In this extended explication of my own perspective I have looked at craft from an economic and environmental perspective. It is a view particular to the conditions I find myself working within as a maker and also in my role as Creative Director of the JamFactory Metal Design Studio in Adelaide. I have attempted to outline some broad and common values that may unite us as a sector. I have chosen not to discuss the research based and speculative approach to practice that is integral to the health of our culture and arguably an area made most vulnerable by contracting arts funding. However, proper recognition of craft and design as a sector can only help to establish a broad attitude that sees this area appropriately valued for all that it contributes. In the spirit of participation I’d like to ask you to offer your perspective, through whichever means you have at your disposal, that may add to or counter my own. Because in growing the voice that will define our future the advocacy we need most is yours, the makers and co-producers of culture.
[i] Co.Exist. Jay Cassano.http://www.fastcoexist.com/3043858/world-changing-ideas/the-science-of-why-you-should-spend-your-money-on-experiences-not-thing, Accessed 7th April 2015
[ii] Etsy. http://www.etsy.com/au/progress-report/2014/community. Accessed 1st July 2015
[iii] Ecologia Politica. E. Manzini,http://www.ecologiapolitica.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Resilient-systems-and-cosmopolitan-localism.pdf, Accessed 2nd June 2015
[iv] Singapore Management University. E. Manzini,https://centres.smu.edu.sg/lien/files/2013/10/SocialSpace2011-The-New-Way-of-the-Future-Small-local-open-and-connected-Ezio-Manzini-.pdf Accessed 2nd June 2015
[v] Social Innovation Generation. E. Manzini,http://sigeneration.ca/documents/SustainablequalitiesbyEzioManziniandVirginiaTassinari.pdf Accessed 2nd June 2015
[vi] Handkrafted. https://www.handkrafted.com/, Accessed 1st July 2015