August 15 2012
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Defining Craft

I was inspired to write about the evolution of craft after a colleague observed, while I was using the CNC machine, that there was “no craft left in making things these days”. In this post I attempt to define what craft is, and look at our perceptions of crafted objects.

Craft: [kraft, krahft]

An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill: the craft of a mason.

Craft is measured by level of skill; the higher level of skill involved in making a certain product, the easier it is to establish the fact it’s been crafted. But I’m interested in where the lines begin to blur within the world of craft, and how difficult it is to define.

Traditionally, craftsmen are highly skilled, and have usually been taught their trade through a ‘master – student’ relationship, or an apprenticeship. Although ‘craft’ is related to high skill, I find its current perception quite ignorant of new technologies, and this puts a limit on what the craftsman can potentially achieve. Because there is a master-student relationship which is mainly focused around a process, why would there be a need to introduce new technologies into the equation? Skills are handed down through generations, often with little change. Endless boasts of “using the same process for hundreds of years” appear all over brand advertising campaigns. Jack Daniel’s – “Whiskey as our Fathers made it” and Lindt – “Master Chocolatiers since 1845” are just a couple that instantly come to mind. My question is why this is seen as a good thing? Of course keeping traditional values and the ‘handmade’ touch, is a valuable trait and I doubt we will ever lose it. But why do we value such tradition? Our perceptions of craft seem to revolve around the basic and traditional. For example, which of these images best represents ‘craft’?

I would say the latter best represents craft as we know it, but once we dissect what ‘craft’ means, and once we can appreciate the process and skill involved, I believe we can look at objects made through a high technology process in a new light.

Is craft the process of making, or the object that is made? For example, when discussing this topic with others, a friend described a crafted object as “something which isn’t perfect”. Which I understand because it means that no two objects would look the same and have human error glitches, which brings a product down back to earth from the manufactured, all perfect world which we keep getting warned about in science fiction films. A few years ago, I bought a cheap Chinese camera, the Holga. It comes in a box, along with some insulation tape to deal with light leaks. So after buying the camera, you’re left to deal with the mistakes from the design and manufacture process yourself.

This, I would strongly argue, is not a crafted product, yet it isn’t perfect.

And where would a process such as programming fit into the spectrum of craft? Let’s take an example of a product which I considered to be ‘blurred craft’;

Simon Blackmore’s Weather Guitar is a robotic guitar which responds to variations in weather conditions. It certainly has all the elements to point to the fact that it’s a crafted product using a high level of skill and it’s completely individual. Yet, all the technical skill involved is within the programming of the way it works, which isn’t obvious to anyone who can’t appreciate the level of coding involved to reach this goal. We can compare this to Scott Weaver’s model of San Francisco made entirely of toothpicks, whose process is easily understood, and therefore technical skill can be appreciated. But for someone with a deep understanding of coding, the appreciation level may differ. Craft depends on the audience.

I take you back to my colleagues comment “There’s no craft left in making things these days”. Maybe to someone who hasn’t the understanding of a particular process, but to those who can appreciate it, maybe the world of craft is now a broader and more appealing place to be. I believe this to be true in any industry where things are being produced.

As long as we can relate and appreciate that the object produced, involved a high level of skill, I believe we can define it as a crafted object.

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Posted by PDD

Languages spoken: Global.
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
My dream project: A project that makes a difference in the world.
My obsession: Develop successful, award-winning and world-first products and experiences.