Tag Archives: design

Craft in Parallels

Click to see full image

Click to see full image

After the Parallels conference at the National Gallery of Victoria, I was left thinking about the broader context for crafts in Australia. The conference was initially set up as part of the National Craft Initiative,  a strategy put in place after the de-funding of Craft Australia to review what is needed by the craft sector in Australia. But naturally the event took on the interests of the host, which by charter seeks to grow its collection of unique and valuable art works.

Parallels seemed to be focused on the opportunities afforded for craft by collaborations with designers, who sell their work at international design fairs, such as Design Miami and Milan Furniture Fair. Figures like Wava Carpenter offered entre into these worlds through diverse forms of curation. The suggested strategy was to nurture these ‘facilitators’ who would help develop those international connections.

There’s no doubt that such markets help stimulate some extraordinary works, as was evident in the presentations by allied designers. Craft naturally benefits from patronage, whether it’s from monarchs, government or rich collectors. But the focus on this 1% of the 1% as direction for the Australian craft sector did seem rather narrow.

This came out in the Craft – The Australian Story symposium held the following Saturday. We heard then particularly about the other end of the spectrum – makers. Marcus Westbury, host of the ABC series Bespoke, talked about a continuum between the maker movement and studio crafts. Ramona Barry, soon to launch Craft Companion with co-author Rebecca Jobson, showed page shots that juxtaposed craft exhibition works with domestic production.

This led me to think about the different contexts in which studio craft finds itself. So I had a go at a mind map, which you can see above. I’m sure there are elements missing, don’t you think?

Studio craft is an art form that emerged post-war, along with art photography, to join the pantheon of visual arts. From the 1970s, it stood as an equal in the original Australia Council alongside visual arts, literature, music and dance. But from the 1990s it has gradually been subsumed into visual arts. Is this inevitable, or a failure of political nous?

It’s common now to hear the statement that craft is no longer a meaningful term. ‘What matters is whether it looks good!’ ‘Aren’t we over the old art/craft debate?’

Is that it? As a rusty Marxist, I tend to see this as a symptom of a consumerist society, which has lost touch with how goods are produced. For me, craft opens up the bigger picture. We don’t just as, as we would an art object, ‘What does it mean?’ We also ask, ‘How was it made, and by whom?’ We engage with an appreciation of skill, tradition and understanding of material.

But it was clear by the end of the Saturday symposium, led by the rousing Susan Cohn, that many thought craft in Australia needed to find its voice again. While our craft organisations work tirelessly for the sector, the voice of the grass-roots needs to be heard. This is a voice that asks for respect – respect for the special contribution that craftspersons make to our broader culture.

Thanks to the NGV for allowing us to hold the symposium and listing it as part of the Parallels program. Let’s hope it’s a sign of willingness to consider craft in its broader context – not just as an exotic back story, but also as a space for popular empowerment in a post-industrial world.


The Unknown Craftsperson in Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

Unexpected Pleasures is an extraordinary achievement. Curator Susan Cohn has gathered together more than 200 key works reflecting the international scene of contemporary jewellery. This mass of work is surprisingly digestible. Rather than arrange them by country or historical movement, she has offered a taxonomic system that maps the creative energies at play in individual pieces.

These ‘idea clusters’ are quite different to the more reductive classifications that might otherwise be found in museums, based on materials or techniques. For instance, ‘Logical solutions’ attends to the creative dimension of componentry in jewellery works. The propositional nature of such groupings engages the visitor more actively than those based on academic criteria.

There’s much more that can be said about the exhibition as a whole, but I would like to respond to one of the specific challenges laid in the section titled A Fine Line. This closed installation at the centre of the gallery functions as the ‘navel’ of the exhibition, identifying the ‘origins of contemporary jewellery today’ in Art, Design, Fashion and Craft.

Practically, this is an opportunity to feature iconic works, such as Annie Alberts’ ‘Necklace’ made from paper clips that prefigures more experimental work to come. More generally, this contextualisation locates contemporary jewellery in a broader kinship system of creative arts.

This is by no means a neutral context. There is a clear value system at work in the way these origins are presented. While works by artists such as Alexander Calder are celebrated, Art as a framework for jewellery creates a remove between the artist and the work. Artists are seen to create jewellery as mostly a secondary concern, akin to merchandising. This distance from making applies to Design as well, though the designer is more comfortable the process of production:

A designer with the ability to create effective jewellery has the sensibility to understand industrial objects with a certain sophistication.

Fashion includes elements of art, design and craft, but it has the additional capacity to engage with sub-cultures in which individuals adapt clothing to create their own identities.

The final origin, Craft, is presented as ‘problematic’. The text argues that it is better to avoid the word in order to overcome ‘ultimately futile questions about the allegedly nostalgic connotations of craft.’ Parallel to fashion, this origin is presented as ‘vernacular self-expression in the anthropological sense.’ There’s a certain unresolved tension here between making and empowerment that prompts further consideration.

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

In the book accompanying the exhibition, craft is illustrated with a Bella Herdsman’s pendant from Birkina Faso (1976) and a photo of an ash-covered Dinka elder (1976) wearing a necklace of Dutch beads and smoking an elaborate silver pipe. In the exhibition itself, craft is represented by an armband from Arnhem Land (1993). We see craft through these works as something distant from Western culture.

While the craft section does state that making is relevant to contemporary jewellery, it is positioned in the exhibition as something performed by those ‘other’ to our culture. There are precedents for this. Primitivism has been a key influence in contemporary jewellery, particularly in our corner of the world with Peter Tully and Warwick Freeman. But this primitivism has been mediated by the artists themselves, rather presented as museum pieces.

So what’s happening in this return to ethnography in contemporary jewellery? Maybe it’s progressive. This return could be seen as part of a wider concern to give indigenous arts themselves a platform. Rather than have white artists represent non-Western cultures, it is better to give a voice to those who belong to those same cultures, as in the emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal and Maori jewellers. However, the works identified as ‘craft’ in Unexpected Pleasures are anonymous, so there is little opportunity to enfranchise non-Western artists.

The other side of this is the implied detachment of contemporary jewellery from craft. I think there are two currents at play here. The first is the exhibition’s resolutely cosmopolitan approach. While there are some references to place, such as the Dutch collar of Paul Derrez, contemporary jewellery is represented here as a relatively placeless activity. It is perhaps a sign of maturity that it, like other disciplines such as science or architecture, is presented as an autonomous profession which prizes originality above political correctness. The framework of Craft is at odds with this specialisation. It tends to be more location specific, reflecting traditional skills and local materials. Craft’s implied responsibility to place has potential to compromise creative freedom.

This is a different case for Craft than the one which Robert Baines would make in criticism of the exhibition. Baines champions the discipline of skill and tradition in contemporary jewellery. I would argue that skill does have a link to place. The logic of outsourcing in late capitalism has helped us overlook this.

The second current is the exhibition’s attempt to celebrate the wearer. This is critical to an exhibition which has the capacity, in an unparalleled way, to open up the closed circle of contemporary jewellery to the broader public. Unexpected Pleasures is cast initially to fit the National Gallery of Victoria, which has never before offered a survey exhibition of contemporary jewellery. Craft in this context provides a more internal framework of skill and mastery best understood by the makers themselves. It thus has potential to alienate the broader public.

At the other pole, the exhibition must satisfy the interests of the London Design Museum. A natural framework for Design is to consider contemporary jewellery in terms of its role in everyday life. How does jewellery affect the way people behave in the street? Certainly, the works in Unexpected Pleasures can be read in terms of user experience, such as the framing neckpieces of Gijs Bekker and Otto Künzli. But could this go further? The majority of works are still made primarily for exhibit rather than use. We don’t see work than has been subject to the additional discipline (or compromise) of the market.

Ironically, the one contemporary jeweller who seems to embrace this element of design most fully is Susan Cohn herself. The necessary absence of her work in Unexpected Pleasures is one of the few weak points.

Unexpected Pleasures is likely to prove a seminal moment in contemporary jewellery. It shifts the focus away from the subjective experience of the maker to the desires of the wearer. While this seems a necessary move, it leaves making itself in an uncertain place. Its association with indigenous culture is perhaps a holding position, acknowledging the presence of Craft while separating it from mainstream practice.

This lack of resolution opens the potential for a counter move. The alternative is more about treasures than pleasures—jewellery as a means to forge new and recovered collectivities.

The journey begins

Moe Chiba opening the Visible Hand forum

Moe Chiba opening the Visible Hand forum

Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform was launched in Melbourne on 21 July.  

During the day, RMIT Industrial Design hosted the Ethical Design Laboratory’s workshop into ethical labelling. Experts from around Australia met to develop a set of standards for creative collaborations. Representatives from law and design, alongside leading practitioners, considered best practice for labelling of transnational cultural products. These protocols contribute to the development of a Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, supported by UNESCO. The results from Melbourne will be published on the website for discussion next month and then presented in Delhi at the mirror event on 21-22 October this year. 

In the evening, a panel considered what it means for an Australian designer to work in India today. The coordinator Kevin Murray opened the session with a reflection on the strength of Australian designers, coming from country whose experience of reconciliation grants a sensitivity to cultural difference. This included included video messages from four designers in India. The panel was led by Moe Chiba, the section head of culture for UNESCO New Delhi, who highlighted the role of designers in sustaining India’s cultural heritage, particularly in the crafts. Local textile designer Sara Thorn defied received wisdom about authenticity and argued for the virtue of artisans working with machines in India. Architect Chris Godsell reflected on his experience in building sports stadiums for the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010. While providing a cautionary tale about potential pitfalls, he spoke positively about the energy and capacity of Indian partners. Finally, Soumitri Varadarajan talked about the impact that design can have in India, focusing on the issue of maternal health. Afterwards, the panel was hosted at a network dinner at the City of Melbourne, including leading figures from the Indian community and government. (A recording of the forum is available here).

Overall, the evening generated a positive reflection on the opportunities for Australian designers working in India. But at the same time, there were some important questions posed that will remain challenges for the project:

From the Australian perspective, India has much to offer in terms of rich decorative traditions and expanding market. But what then from an Indian perspective might Australia have to offer in exchange? The answer for this question will unfold at the mirror forum in Delhi later this year.

In terms of developing standards for collaboration, there is much interest in focusing previous discussions towards a set of principles that can build confidence in product development partnerships between designers and craftspersons. The next challenge is to link those standards to the market, so that they can have direct economic benefits for those involved. This a matter for future workshops that will explore models of consumer engagement, particularly with social networks.

The journey began with a buoyant march, but steep mountains loom ahead. To follow, go to www.sangamproject.net and subscribe to email updates.

Collaboration in Experimental Design Research symposium 5-6 August

Symposium Organised by : RED Objects, Research in Experimental Design Objects, School of Design Studies, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Call for Papers: 500 word abstract due 30 June 2011

Over the last ten years international collaboration in practice based research in design, craft, and visual art in  various social contexts across the globe has accelerated, yet little focussed reflection/scholarship has emerged  on the topic. As a result, theories of collaboration remain implicit, relying on tacit and indirect knowledge of  the interdependencies and complexities that can arise in design collaboration. Further, studio based practitioner  insights about the changing parameters influencing collaboration are elided in design scholarship. One factor  that contributes to the difficulties in reflecting on collaboration is the multiple variations in which collaboration  is shaped. Similarly, the ethical implications of overlooking assumptions regarding cultural conventions are  rarely elaborated. This symposium maps out a broad range of perspectives on design collaboration in the global  socio-economic contexts of the Asia-Pacific region, including India, Malaysia, Japan and Australia. Emerging  issues of design collaboration include: design in indigenous cultures; scientific developments in design  materials and process; historical design models for global collaboration; complex data visualisation in the  global context; and, the social consequences of new technologies.

The RED Objects research group invites you to contribute a presentation to the two-day symposium on Collaboration.

Confirmed keynote and participants include:

  • Fiona Raby, Architect, partner in Dunne and Raby; and Royal College of Art, London,
  • Dr Kevin Murray, writer and curator, Australia India Design Platform.
  • David Trubridge, Designer and maker of contemporary furniture, New Zealand.
  • Yoshigazu Hasegawa, Green Life 21 Project, Nagoya, Japan.

Symposium Themes

Intermixes of collaboration: the emergence of collaboration as a social phenomenon.
What implicit conventions guide collaboration between designers, artisans, artists, manufacturers, and distributors?

Theorising the complexities of contemporary making, making and manufacturing and parameters of globalised collaboration.
What are the parameters and constraints, and opportunities and dangers for future design collaborations?

News from the frontline: collaborative relationships between design and conventional and emerging fields.
What are the implications of recent design collaborations?

Papers presented at the symposium will be considered for electronic publication in 2011 and made available on the RED Objects website (currently under construction).

Symposium: Collaboration in Experimental Design Research
Organised by : RED Objects, Research in Experimental Design Objects, School of Design Studies, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney
Dates : Friday 5 August 2011 and 10am to 5pm Saturday 6 August 2011
Times : 1pm to 8pm Friday; 10am to 5pm Saturday.
Location : COFA Lecture Theatre corner Oxford Street and Greens Road, Paddington, NSW, 2021.
For all enquiries please contact the RED Objects group via email: redobjects@cofa.unsw.edu.au or Liz Williamson on 02 9385 0627 or email: Liz.Williamson@unsw.edu.au

Kala Raksha: Three initiatives for the artisan designer

There is an old, ongoing, and passionate debate about the difference between art and craft. This debate will probably never find consensus, but it makes us ponder and observe. Years ago, three very successful traditional artisans of Kutch gave their opinions: Ismailbhai said, “The difference is imagination and skill.” “Art is what you do the first time; after that, it is craftsmanship,” Ali Mohammed Isha elaborated. And Lachhuben added, “Everyone can do craft, but not all can do art.”

Art requires concept, imagination, thought. All craft is not art. If the artisan is simply executing patterns or rote copying, it is not art. The head and the heart are as essential as the hands.

The debate matters because it has critical implications for not just the survival but the flourishing of traditional artisans. The economic standards by which art and craft are valued are night and day apart. More than that, cultural hierarchies play out in the terms used. Craft connotes charming diminutive workers, while Art commands respect.

In art, the individual conceives an idea and executes it in his or her medium. It is an activity of self expression. Traditional arts or crafts were usually more functional. A product was created as a communication between maker and user. But as in art, the artisan both conceived the product and created it.

When the relationships between maker and user broke down, design emerged as a separate entity. In craft, it is usually called design intervention, and it indicates a separation between concept and execution. In the process, the concept retains its value, while the execution becomes labour.

In order to reverse the trend, Kala Raksha started Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. Here, artisans learn design in order to be able to create more effectively for new, distant markets. The unique concepts of each artisan designer are valued, consciousness and confidence increase, and the art aspect of craft reemerges. Artisan Design emphasies the aspect of the artisan’s thought.

Now, Kala Raksha has added a logo to this concept, in order to create visibility and value for the individual’s creative effort. Artisan Design also creates value for the integrated spirit of tradition. This is the symbol of integration of concept and execution, and of raising status of the artisan. It is a new fair trade idea—fair trade for the creative spirit. Artisan Design certifies that a product is an artisan’s own creative innovation. It celebrates the individual’s heart, mind and hand.

The second initiative is e-portfolios of the Artisan Designers who have graduated from Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. Each graduate has invested a year of hard work and incredible creativity, to embark on a unique artistic path. Through the e-portfolios, Kala Raksha will facilitate contact to world markets for each of these artists. The contemporary market has a critical role to play in recognizing and honouring the spirit of the creator. With information technology, emerging artisan designers can be discovered by people who can value their work. The portfolios will be maintained on a new website www.kalaraksha-vidhyalaya.org to be launched in January 2011.

The third initiative is live in time for the holiday season. It is a collaboration with Equal Craft, a socially conscious marketplace that provides world citizens with excellent world art, and artisans with true global market value and recognition. www.equalcraft.com

Combining age old tradition and the latest technology, Kala Raksha and Equal Craft are breaking social barriers. E-commerce makes it possible for rural artisans to directly connect with long distance markets. The fact that one can ask what is the difference between a quilter in Vermont selling her quilts on Etsy.com and Lachhuben Rabari selling her embroidered bags on Equalcraft.com says it all. There is no difference. The venture is leveling the playing field. The difference is that now Lachhuben can sell her embroidered bags directly to anyone in the world—and she can get direct feedback from her customers!

Equal Craft’s contemporary technology makes it possible to sell the story– the cultural and personal context that creates value –along with the product. You can follow what else Lachhuben has made. And you can ask this Rabari woman what she thought about when she created it—and get her response.

In the way that Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya offers design education to artisans with no formal education, Equalcraft.com makes social networking possible for artisan designers who may not read and write.

A Fair Trade for Creative Labour – forum

The following forum is an opportunity to bring together critical perspectives on cultural partnerships with the real-life demands of those working in the field. It will provide the context for the development of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations

Title: A Fair Trade for Creative Labour: How to sustain trust in north-south collaborations
Date: Monday 19 October 1-2pm
Location: Design Research Institute, RMIT University Level 3, 110 Victoria St, Melbourne


  • Dr Linda Chalmers, Product Manager, Oxfam Australia
  • Professor Donald Feaver, Associate Professor of Law, RMIT University
  • Professor Mark Minchinton, Professor of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, RMIT University
  • Associate Professor Tim Scrase, Director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies , University of Wollongong

Globalisation threatens cultural diversity through the loss of local markets and commodification. In response to this, there is increasing interest by consumers to support local producers through their purchases. Fair Trade has emerged as one attempt to guarantee producer benefits.

But there are problems. Fair Trade sometimes appears as a reasonably blunt instrument that does not reflect the complex relations between rich and poor worlds, such as when a designer seeks to develop a product with rural artisans. Are there ways of strengthening such forms of accreditation to reflect the complex negotiations about issues such as cultural authenticity that arise in product development?

Meanwhile, we are seeing the emergence of various ‘soft laws’ to regulate global industries and maintain consumer trust. What instrument might assist in collaborations between designers and artisans? How might this inform the concerns of consumers in their desire to do good by purchasing these products? Is there a place for this in projects that involve Australian Indigenous craft and design?

This panel discussion provides an opportunity to consider the role of a code in cultural industries involving relations between peoples on either side of the global divide. The participants offer alternative and important perspectives on this process.

Organised by Dr Kevin Murray, Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University. Please RSVP Monday 12 October to Emma Barrow for catering purposes. emma.barrow@rmit.edu.au

A cultural future, made in Italy

The first UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries occurred at Monza, near Milan, 24-26 September. It brought together around 200 participants from areas of fashion, business, politics, design and craft. There were a broad diversity of nationalities, with strong representations from Italy, France, Uruguay, South Africa. As the only representative from the Pacific region, I felt a little isolated initially, but soon found strong connections particularly from other countries of the south.

The event was well-organised, strategic, relevant and in particular, provocative.

The premise of this Monza gathering was that cultural heritage can benefit from an association with business, and vice versa. According to the brief:

Cultural industries, notably in the areas of design and fashion, embody a continuum between traditional inspiration, the fruit of identity, and modernity. They would benefit from being more deeply rooted in traditional know-how. Cultural industries must be able to give life to and be nourished by know-how through adapting to a changing world. In so doing, they can embody a constant dynamic of renewal.

This move towards the private sector a shift from the focus that many associate with UNECSO, which would be to work with state institutions such as museums and universities to sustain traditions. Previously, the operations of the capitalist market would have been seen as a threat to cultural heritage. Not so today. This link between culture and business has become a familiar conversation in Australia, so how does it sound on the global stage?

Given the support of its hosts, it is understandable that the Italian perspective was strongly featured in the forum. The Italians have much to gain by associating their products with their cultural heritage. This gives them an obvious edge over countries like China, particularly in luxury brands.

It was surprising to see how strongly craft figured in this. In the opening session, Sandro Bondi the Italian Minister for Cultural Heritage and Activities spoke of the close link between the handmade and an aesthetic sensibility. Roberto Formigoni, the President of the Lombardy Region, saw craftsmanship as the essential basis for successful industrialisation.

Complementing this were some high-powered presentations from business consultants about ways of marketing craft. Tom Pigott, the CEO of BrandAid, spoke about their pilot project in Haiti, where they recruited Hollywood celebrities to support local metalsmiths. He made the emphatic point that ‘Poverty needs marketing’.

This was one point that warranted critical reflection. It’s a curious statement, when you break it down to its components. The implied aim is to improve the standard of living for artisans, so their craft can flourish. One way to do this is to sell their very impoverishment as something attractive, particularly to consumers whose only real lack is lack itself. Yet, the success of this will inevitably destroy the very quality on which its success depends – poverty. Hopefully, future forums will be able to work through this contradiction.

At the very theatrical conclusion of the forum, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini joined his Italian colleagues in offering the sumptuous building of Villa Real as the permanent site for the UNESCO forum, which would become an annual event.

The UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries faces the challenge of finding a place for itself amongst a number of similar global platforms, such as the recent World Summit on Arts and Culture in Johannesburg.

The forum touches a sensitive nerve in the status of world crafts. It resonates with the current consensus that heritage is a living process that must be able to respond to modernity. The support of rich consumers is a real alternative. I think there’s an argument for the benefits of such patronage in supporting excellence and diversity in crafts, especially in the land of the Medicis. But there are also real issues in the breadth and sustainability of those benefits.

So might this debate proceed? In my next post I’ll mention what to me were some of the productive threads of discussion that emerged at Monza.

On the one hand Spring, and on the other, Autumn



Today in the South our calendars tell us that this is the beginning of spring. But as trees come into blossom here, the leaves will begin to wither and die in the North.

In his novel Rasselas, Samuel Johnson attempted to discover the secret of happiness. After many adventures, he concluded that any happiness is always accompanied by a loss, ‘That nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left’. You can choose to have either worldly fame or a bountiful garden. It seems that full happiness can only be experienced collectively.

Two hands is a symbol of a world made from the separation of two halves – North and South, thinking and doing.

Aristotle saw the world as made by two kinds of persons: the user who determines the form and the producer who realises it. In much of everyday life, these two sides work together: we want a cup of tea and we find the materials and equipment to make one. As human society evolves, these two sides are drawn apart. In the West, there is a hierarchy that places the thinker above the doer, the architect above the builder. Globalisation has put increasing distance between the consuming ‘first world’ and the producing ‘third world’.

It seems this arrangement is reaching its limits. Environmentally and financially, the world is out of kilter. In the West there are movements such as the Slow Movement and DIY that seek to re-incorporate making into daily life. And in the emerging economies, there is a call for increasing consumption and agency. The Kyoto Protocol has set up a framework where the future of the planet depends on a consensus between these two worlds.

On the ground, there is increasing activity in a kind of product development that involves designers working with artisans. For artisans, this collaboration offers the opportunity to find new markets that can replace the local sales lost through cheap imports. For designers, there is the potential to add an ethical value to their products. In a small but tangible way, craft-design collaborations provide models of north-south partnerships.

Such collaborations face challenges. Some in the crafts believe it is essential to maintain a link with tradition – craft is a way of keeping our authentic cultural identity. They think design ties craft to a short-term fashion cycle, as the whims of a distant market dictate what an artisan can do. And some in design world see the making as unimportant: as long as it is good quality and cheap, designs can be produced by anyone anywhere. Good design transcends its materials.

Of course, collaboration is not for everyone. There are circumstances were ancient crafts need to be preserved for the sake of our cultural diversity. And others where design operates at a purely speculative level in order to forge new ideas.

But in our world today, it is essential that we construct a bridge to encourage traffic between the two. The water below is turbulent. A legacy of colonialism, dictatorships and exploitation make it difficult to bridge the two worlds. Dialogue does not imply the denial of difference. But a common interest in the success of a product can help develop trust. What’s needed is a leap of faith.

Craft Unbound is a place for reviewing attempts to bridge these worlds. One bridging project is the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations. It begins by gathering information from both sides – a frank and open review of the experiences of designers, artisans, community leaders, activists, historians, anthropologists, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Having surveyed the different perspectives, we can then bring together relevant organisations to construct a set of guidelines that best aligns the different interests.

To begin, we need to acknowledge that there a two sides to this story – the craft skills developed over millennia and the design concepts that give these skills a meaningful role to play.

Good craft is well-designed and good design is well-crafted.

Craft of management redux

A recent Background Briefing was devoted to the culture of MBAs. It claimed that the arrogance fostered in business schools like Harvard encouraged the reckless financial speculation which triggered the current global crisis.



The program featured the views of Will Hopper, an economist and author of The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream. He contrasted the lateral mobility of the MBA with the previous model of manager who worked his (or sometimes her) way through the ranks. For Hopper, it’s an issue of ‘craft’.

Yes, this is a characteristic of what we call ‘the great engine companies’. The young man — and there were not many women in business going back to the 1950s and ’60s — but the young man would join the corporation from college, aged 21, 22, and he would work his way up to the top. And as he went, he learned two things. He learned the craft of management. Now I think this word ‘craft’ is extremely important. Management is something that you learn on the job under a master, just like an old-fashioned craft of carpentry for example. So the individual learned the craft of management as he worked his way to the top… And as the young man progressed up through the ranks towards the top, he would tend to move around all the departments, so he spent a little time in sales, a little time in accounting, a little time in manufacturing, and when he reached the top he would have acquired ‘domain knowledge’. He would know about the product, the suppliers, the customers, the method of production, the relation to regulatory authorities, movements in the market. He would be a master of the subject.
(ABC Radio National Background Briefing – 29 March 2009 – MBA: Mostly bloody awful)

It seems one of the great challenges of our time is to find ways of re-introducing the value of craft into how we manage our world. What survives of traditional crafts (pottery, weaving, metalsmithing, etc) provides a compelling theatre for these qualities. But that shouldn’t be seen as a kind of monastic order separated from worldly affairs. How can these values find their way into the way we heal bodies, manage our cities, grow our food and tell our stories?



April’s issue of The Monthly features an article by Gideon Haigh on Damien Wright. It’s a many-sided account of a contemporary furniture maker’s world. He helps convey the way Wright’s practice is more than just the construction of wooden tables, but also engages with critical issues in Austarlian culture – specifically how non-Indigenous Australians (‘gubbas’ down here) can work within an Indigenous context.

On a personal note, I’m quoted by the author as making a statement about design and the Platonic hierarchy. This reference to Plato may seem a little untoward as a quote taken out of its conversational setting with the author. So please let me fill in that context.

My point was that, broadly speaking, Western culture tends to see materials as secondary to the ideas that shape them. This theory of Platonic forms provides a metaphysical framework that underpins religious and class hierarchies. This reached an extreme expression in our era. The millennium drive to ‘smart solutions’ that transcend the messy business of making things fuelled a seeming air-borne culture that has just recently come crashing to the ground.

Design featured in that story as the way information-based capital could replace the loss of manufacturing, particularly in regions like Victoria. But the kind of design that flourished in this environment seemed largely about the consumption of imported brands. As many have argued since, design became a form of cultural capital that circulated between urban elites and those wishing to buy membership. This resulted in a few elegant and worthy objects, but also a sea of hype which submerged the less glamorous craft side of the equation.

Don’t get be wrong. I think design plays a critical role. Good craft needs design if it is to find a place for itself in the lived world. It’s just that the relationship is two-way. Design also needs to be in partnership with the skills and labour necessary to realise its ideas in the materials available. The logic of outsourcing that dominated the ‘smart’ years too often took the ‘making’ side for granted. Hopefully, no more.

I’m fond of the line by Mikhail Bakhtin that ‘Expression is the cradle of experience’. So we could also say that craft is the cradle of good design.

Time to take a front seat



Congratulations to Simone LeAmon for winning the 2009 Cicely & Colin Rigg Contemporary Design Award which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria last night. Her Lepidoptera chair continues the creative use of recycled materials that she had forged in her classic Bowling Arm bracelets.

Other entrants included Adam Cornish, Lambie Chan, Lucas Chirnside, Matthew Harding, Cathy Jankowsky, Joseph Keenan, Jacqueline Ying Jun Lin, Chris Connell, Stuart McFarlane, Ross McLeod, Drew Martin & Dale Rock (Rock Martin), Oliver Field, and Helen Kontouris.

Congratulations to all, but there are concerns.

This year’s award continue the NGV’s presentation of the Rigg award as an exhibition of ‘contemporary design’. Previous media have included ceramics, jewellery, hollowware and textiles. Presenting these in purely ‘design’ terms has the effect of focussing attention on the cleverness and fashion. It tends to marginalise more cultural issues expressed through the language of materials. In a country like Australia, wood has great power as a symbol of identity. 

Let’s hope that the next iteration of the Cicely & Colin Rigg award brings craft back into the equation. Design hardly lacks for recognition in our world. And the global financial crisis demands that we reconsider our own skills and culture. Maybe the 2011 Cicely & Colin Rigg Craft & Design Award will be for glass. I’ll drink to that.