Design & Craft I

Tradition and Innovation in Crafts

Mar 26, 2019 · 7 min read

Part I of a series of dispatches on Design’s relation with Craft

Review of Designs on Craft, DeNicola & Weber (D&W)

Modern Craft discourses by designers often describes the craft as ‘traditional’ and ‘handicraft’ or something to be preserved, often missing the ‘everyday socio-economic interactions where authorship,expertise,purpose and history are negotiated’ but instead the way the crafts are described often ends up ‘weigh down the ideological conception of labor’. The discourse also helps reinforce class and power difference between craftsmen, designer,NGOs and so on often downplaying the complexity of craft production in which a single ‘craftsman’ can take multiple roles in a single career moving between labor-producer-middleman-entrepreneur-institutional teacher.

This simplified way of talking about craft also tends to create a contrast between ‘a generic tradition-bound crafts worker’ and ‘designer or development worker whose knowledge and capacity of creativity is superior and uncontroversial’ further muting the voice of crafts people in the forums design operates.

The Development Worker

They also talk about the shift in the way we talk about ‘knowledge,work and creativity’ and ‘crafts and labor’ perhaps we have created a distinction between both. They attribute it to post 1990(globalization) shift from ‘the language of co-operatives and grassroots mobilization’ to talks about ‘marketing, business models and entrepreneurship’. The change in priorities has placed middlemen between the maker and there access market and that can be observed as ‘growing assertion among designers to intervene in even more fundamental ways in the process of making’.

According to D&W

‘Designers are elite cosmopolitan person who institutionally contribute to a ‘Global Hierarchy of Value’ in which ‘Homogeneous language of culture and ethics has become pervasive and commonsensical and claim that sometimes the ‘expert’ inputs from the designers can limit the craft from becoming contemporary through their own innovation.

The design discourse tries to establish the Designer as a person who understands the global market and modern needs and tastes and thus acts as a mediator between the tradition and modernity but instead of “reproduces the presumed tension between innovation and tradition”. The designers which are primarily middle class often tend to to see themselves as people who can “uniquely span the divide between makers and the consumer” and this is direct result of the “evocative dualism of cosmopolitan vs provincial” the middle class designers draw from according to Fischer.

The discourse of Innovation vs Tradition especially puts an expectation on the crafts to be ‘traditional’ to be authentic and marketable, which according to venkatesan is an “Idealized space in which crafts,defined by the middle and upper middle class resides”

It’s almost seen a responsibility of the Modern designer to be the benefactor and protector of the ‘unmodern’ maker and the need is justified through ‘statistical evidence such as income,employment,education,trade,output and access to travel’ the objective forms of data help distinguish the ‘developed’ designers from the ‘underdeveloped maker’ and also necessitate projects to ‘assist’ them.

Later on, DnS bring out the oversimplified understanding of craft in which we tend to put craft in either ‘timeless’ or low quality everyday things, often forgetting the complexity which arises in between. They point out this idea of Craft getting closely associated to a patron, like a ruler or businessman leading to thriving of the highest quality of craft or in a way the ‘golden age’ but DnS say that there studies of crafts in India shows that this may not be always true. The narrative of the Golden Age is important as it provides a historical benchmark to our construction of the pre-colonial India and in multiple ways also constructs a national and regional identity, which was authentic and now in decline.

The ‘Traditional’ Worker

They bring attention to the distinction between mental and manual labor again in which the brain conceived the grand plans and the manual labor just carries out the instructions, often erasing the problem solving, creative and management skill of the craftsmen and often deskilling them. They put the forward the argument that most of these crafts have survived various socio-political upheavals in the past with ingenuity showing that perhaps our simplistic understanding of craft is flawed. Also stepping out of the urban cosmopolitan lens which puts the artisan as the lower class in great despair shows that often in rural context the same artisan can form the middle and upper middle class, often controlling the means of production and even driving the economy of whole geographical region.

For example the Chikan Craft in Lucknow is often labelled as a small scale craft industry, which in fact happens to be one of the largest employers in the city, on a sheer scale there is nothing non-industrious about it apart from the lack of machines and distributed production across various households. In economic terms, it’s a full blown industry. It is an industry in which the entrepreneur and worker is not a distinction but actually dictated by the market, often time the agents(primarily female) are also craftsperson who take up smaller commissions from patrons for finer work but other times source mass production to other embroiders working under them. They say that ‘fetishization’ of the craft as tradition often assumes that the central activity of a craftspersons daily life and thus discounting different roles and responsibilities of business,education, management, design and research the person takes. Design is about the industrial division of labour,in which the creative work lies exclusively with the designer , Craft is about the whole process.

The craftsperson is not always concerned with the ‘best quality’ of work they can produce, as there is no need to produce great work for a low wage and even sometimes just refuse. This is often seen as designer as a resistance coming from the inertia and solidity of a lower class but instead it is the outcome of the confidence in there own imagination and creativity which is sensitive and responsive to the external determinant, which the design discourse completely disregards.

Designers rarely conceive of their significance only limited to ‘bringin artisans work’ instead they take a role of re-inventing the craft where the craft is traditional and the improvisation of the craftspeople is disregarded, the designer dictates what must be preserved and what must be innovated

According to Ashok Chatterjee

“The indian craftsman was artist,designer and technician working in all three ways to serve his users’ needs.He was a source both of inspiration and problem solving, functioning always within the core of his society. With the advent of colonialism and industrialism, the integral quality of his role began to disintegrate. Efforts at craft regeneration during India’s freedom movement and in the years after Independence have not yet been able to draw craft back into the center of national consciousness”

On Tradition

They are particularly critical of the ‘revivalist’ approach to crafts which somehow keeps reviving itself. Revival is a project which never stops and keeps coming back every year,the media always use the terms such as “ancient” “forgotten” “lost” “revived” etc while describing crafts.Revival is always just about to be done, resurrection is always on the verge of being accomplished, and thus the artisan is always in the need of a design revivalist. They suggest either the past efforts have not been enough or simply ineffective and corrupt.

Finally on tradition, they say the word puts the working class at the periphery of middle class norm.Liechty and Ortner even suggest that “The very act of construction tradition undermines its political mobilization”.

Going further Guss says

“At the heart of all traditionalizing processes is the desire to mask over the real issues of power and domination. By classifying popular form as traditions they are effectively neutralized and removed from realtime”

In conclusion

DnW suggest that we should detach craft and tradition,allowing us to look at crafts with other economic activities. And they suggest the culture of pirates, recyclers, makers and DIY enthusiasts as an equivalent to craft practices.They say perhaps the refusal of formal industries, the resourcefulness and the strong understanding of effort and reward is where we can converge craft and contemporary maker culture. Instead of looking at innovation and tradition as separate buckets, look at mixture of both, which the end result often offers.

What did I learn out of it

The essay highlights a few important pointers for the project, the most importantly to stop looking as the project as a conservation of a craft or forcing ‘forcing innovation’ to the craft as a Designer.

I should be looking at the project as an urban craftsman and collaborating with the artisans, my role in the project is not to revive or open ‘global’ markets for the crafts in the future but to work in my capacity towards future and innovation together, sharing knowledge and skill with craftsmen.

It’s very difficult to agree with everything DnS are saying though, In criticizing the fetish of designers and industry they are themselves diving into a fetish of ‘Craft doesn’t need anything it’s already self sufficient’.

There approach is still important for me to not forget about the class and power structures and be highly self aware of my role in this imagination of craft future.

Future Craft

A research inquiry into the future of traditional,contemporary and tomorrow’s crafts and what it means for its practitioners and the society around it.


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Future Craft

A research inquiry into the future of traditional,contemporary and tomorrow’s crafts and what it means for its practitioners and the society around it.

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