What is the place of craft in the global marketplace? It is hardly a new topic. In fact, handmade objects were once the world’s most important cultural ambassadors. Ceramics, textiles, and other goods traversed linguistic barriers in a way no written text could. As they traveled along the Silk Road or on naval routes, handmade commodities introduced decorative and functional ideas to places many miles distant from their sites of manufacture. Whether they traveled in the holds of ships or on the backs of pack animals, craft objects were silent carriers of knowledge. They were avidly bought, used, copied, altered.
Today craft has quite another reputation, as something rooted in the local. Centuries of investment in mass production and communications technology have resulted in a situation in which the things that seem to bind us together most strongly are either generic goods, whose place of origin is disguised, or else entirely immaterial—web-based social networks, media broadcasts, and other floating signifiers. Increasingly we experience a single, shared “everywhere.” In this pervasively shared infoscape, craft is cast in a backward role: a stick planted firmly in the mud.
I am here to tell you that this is ridiculous. Even if craft were entirely bound up with traditional forms and techniques—which is far from being the case—it would still involve innovation. As anyone who has tried their hand at a traditional craft knows well, preserving established forms requires a great deal of resourcefulness and flexibility. Materials, tools, clientele, distribution mechanisms: all change constantly. The successful artisan is the one who can use their skill to navigate the dynamic forces around them. In this sense, craft is not a stubborn holdout against the transformations of the 21st century. It is, indeed, a template that suggests how we can keep our wits about us as the world surges unpredictably onward.
There were a few pioneers who saw this truth early. Among them was the philanthropist Aileen Osborn Webb, founder of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (later the American Craft Museum and now the Museum of Arts and Design), which I recently joined as Director. Webb was the visionary force behind most of the key organizational lynchpins of the craft movement in the U.S.A. Among them were the American Craft Council, the School for American Craftsmen, and the journal Craft Horizons, which suggested the title for this special issue of the Brooklyn Rail; and, exactly 50 years ago, the World Crafts Council (W.C.C.), which held its first assembly on the campus of Columbia University in New York City.
When Webb first proposed the idea for the W.C.C., it must have seemed ambitious to the point of improbability. After all, only five years earlier had she managed to stage an inaugural meeting of leading makers from across the U.S.A., at Asilomar in California. (So unprecedented was this gathering that many craftspeople had the experience of meeting their peers, kindred spirits, for the very first time.) Now she wanted to do the same, but on a global scale. Over a few days in 1964, and coinciding with the New York World’s Fair of that year, representatives from across the globe gathered on the campus of Columbia University to discuss the present state and future possibilities of craft. The groundwork for this General Assembly had been laid by an intrepid friend of Webb’s, Margaret Merwin Patch, who spent nearly two years traveling on her own through Asia, behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and through Africa and Latin America, to make contacts for the new organization.1
Thanks to Patch’s efforts and Webb’s connections the conference boasted a dream-team of speakers, including the art theorists Rudolf Arnheim and Harold Rosenberg, novelist Ralph Ellison, designer Tapio Wirkkala, architect Louis Kahn, and René d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Craft advocates attended from around the world: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar from India, Czeslaw Knothe from Poland, Dr. Rubin de la Borbolla from Mexico, Remy Alexander from Italy, and Native American specialist Frederick J. Dockstader.
It was a bold start, and there was more to come, with follow-up events held biannually at Montreux (1966), Lima (1968), Dublin (1970), Istanbul (1972), and other cities since. The organization was then in its expansive phase, and attendees of these events describe the assemblies as wonderful, revelatory experiences. Yet we were a long way from what still exists today. With the possible exception of Chattopadhyay, who is still remembered well (at least in India) for her work in reforming textile production, a project inspired by her close association with Mahatma Gandhi, few of these names will register to the contemporary reader.
In fact, Webb herself has become a somewhat forgotten figure. In my new role as the director at the Museum of Arts and Design, I am trying to correct this.2 Many have contributed to the cause of skilled making in America: critics, collectors, gallerists, curators, and of course makers themselves. But Webb deserves to be seen as the paragon of modern craft in America—as Henry Cole (another great institution-builder) or William Morris are seen in Britain. Like those two great men, she led not only by the example of her own work—in her case, principally as a philanthropist—but also through her ideas. She was committed to the humanizing effects of craft, the way that carefully made things infuse the environment with meaning. She was by no means a narrow ideologue. Industry held no horrors for her, and in fact she saw a role for the artisan (she used the term “designer-craftsman”) within the factory system. The skilled practitioner, she thought, could create prototypes for factories, or else set up shop to create limited runs of goods—high-quality industry in miniature.
Arguably, it is only with the coming of the digital age that Webb’s original vision has begun to be realized. In a parallel to the more widely discussed phenomenon of “mass customization” (which has so far proved to be mainly a marketing gimmick, a way of tricking out your car or your trainers, rather than a form of genuine empowerment), the 21st-century artisanal economy is booming. The Internet enables small businesses to source materials and knowledge easily, and to reach a worldwide audience. These days you can easily have a business in Chicago, fabricate your wares in China, and sell them in Chile. Though quality varies hugely, as in any viable economy, online marketplace companies like Etsy, Folksy, and Poppytalk Handmade have become support systems for entrepreneurial makers, just at a time when funding for crafts in the educational system (from kindergarten to Ph.D. level) has been decimated.
The implications of these shifts are massive, and range from the very local to the worldwide in scale. Craft fairs—only 30 years ago, humble affairs held in fields with folding tables—have increasingly come to resemble contemporary art biennales. From Chicago (Sculpture Objects Function Art, S.O.F.A.) to South Africa (the Design Indaba) to South Korea (the Cheongju International Craft Biennale), the staging of global encounters through handmade objects has become increasingly commonplace. Webb would doubtless have been gratified to see these developments, but I like to think that she would also have been alert to certain problems. Craft has always derived a great part of its value from a sense of place; could it become homogenized, in the same way that fine art and design have? Even more importantly, does a shared experience of global craft redress the political asymmetries mentioned above, or simply re-enact them in aestheticized form?
Webb saw the value of beautifully handmade things, but she was even more concerned for the people who created them. That is why, throughout her long career of advocacy, she was constantly getting people into a room together. We should remember this precedent. Someone, somewhere, made everything you own. That fact becomes evident only when the hand of a maker presents itself with force, prompting wonder about that person’s experience and the way it connects to my own. Craft can do this for us like nothing else. In the 21st century, that matters more than ever.
- Margaret Merwin Patch, “The Craftsman” (1962), unpublished manuscript reprinted in The Journal of Modern Craft 5/1 (March 2012), p. 99-107.
- What Would Mrs Webb Do?, an exhibition about her contributions and our current interpretation of the mission she set for the organization, will open at the Museum of Arts and Design this autumn.