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The Craft of Design

The Craft of Design

The Craft of Design

December/January 2013 issue of American Craft magazine

Craftspeople are joining forces with retailers and manufacturers and finding that they're good together.

We’re living in a new golden era of good design, and craftspeople are largely to thank for it.

Just look around any home décor emporium or design boutique. From high-end luxury items to that simple, artful mug, there has never been a richer selection of ingenious, expressive, well-made merchandise on store shelves. The common thread? No doubt about it: directly or indirectly, a maker’s sensibility.

This, of course, is part of a larger trend. Nowadays both your beer and your pretzels can be “artisanal.” But in the marketplace for quality lifestyle goods – housewares, furnishings, accessories, fashion, even tech gadgets – there’s something deeper going on.

As consumers, we’re more aware of materials now – not just their visual and sensual appeal, but also where they come from, why they matter. Our expectations for function are higher: We like everyday items to work smart, almost intuitively. We’re more curious about how things are made and who made them; we watch TV shows about it. With social media as our global platform, we’ve all become tastemakers, critics, and curators, happily expressing our individuality and style in every possible way. Yet we spend so much time staring at screens that our spirits yearn for physical objects, especially ones that feel good in our hands. We like a touch of art (literally), a dash of innovation, and a little bit of soul in our stuff. And we really enjoy attaching a maker’s name, face, and persona to the things we live with and use every day.

In other words, we want everything that craftspeople have always stood for and expressed in their work. The zeitgeist has finally caught up with makers, and the market has taken note.

So savvy manufacturers and retailers (Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, West Elm, and Restoration Hardware, to name a few) are going right to the source, engaging craftspeople to design original products. What’s more, they’re putting artisans’ names and stories front and center as a marketing strategy. Meanwhile, on the entrepreneurial side, enterprising artisans are making the leap to become designer-manufacturers in their own right, expanding their operations and product lines to build their own companies and brands.

The result? For all of us, great products. For craftspeople, new creative directions and career opportunities. 

To be clear: We’re not talking about one-of-a-kind objects conceived and handcrafted from start to finish by a single person. That special act of creation goes to the heart of craftsmanship, and it has its own active market. We’re talking about a “product” in the industrial sense, specially designed by a craftsperson – someone with an artistic vision steeped in a hands-on understanding of material, technique, form, and function – that gets replicated, somehow, in significant quantities.  It could be a limited run of, say, 100 chairs, made through some combination of hand and machine methods, by teams of craftsmen employed by the designer-woodworker whose name goes on the collection. Or a signature line of dinnerware by a ceramist, mass-produced at a factory. There are different ways to do it. What matters is that the product be made efficiently and still convey the artisan’s unique vision and aesthetic – that, and sell.

The worlds of craft, design, industry, and commerce may have their differences and periodic clashes; a handcraft revival seems to sprout every few decades as a reaction to an overload of technology and consumerism. But they’re inextricably linked and fundamentally good together. The 1940s, ’50s and ’60s – the time of the modernist “designer-craftsman” – gave us china by Eva Zeisel, barware by Dorothy Thorpe, silver services by John Prip, and all those fabulous furnishings we see on Mad Men. Dorothy Liebes applied a weaver’s sensibility to textile design, as did Jack Lenor Larsen, whose firm brings a sophisticated handmade aesthetic to the fabric industry to this day. Other, more recent, craft/design exemplars include ceramist Dorothy Hafner, who partnered with the Rosenthal company for her line of distinctive, exuberantly patterned ceramic wares beginning in the 1980s; jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris, now selling his RLM Home collection to a mass audience on the QVC channel; and Heath Ceramics, the historic California factory that thrives by offering its classic designs along with new work by contemporary artists and designers. Then there’s Jonathan Adler, who started as a potter and built a design empire with a mind-boggling range of products, from coasters to needlepoint pillows, sold in his own stores throughout the United States and in London.

So if you’re a craftsperson, how do you get in on this? And what if you secretly fear that venturing into design somehow equals selling out? Obviously, it’s not a direction for everyone. Many are recognizing, though, that if they’re going to make a living at what they love to do, they have to find ways of turning their art into commerce. The good news is, it can be done with authenticity and integrity, and you can make enough money to support yourself and your creative endeavors. The key, especially in a volatile economy, is to be open to possibilities. 

“The most successful people are those who aren’t spending their time worrying, ‘Am I a craftsperson? Am I a designer? Am I an artist? Where do I sit in this scheme?’ They’re putting good work into the world, by whatever means,” says Megan Auman, a consultant on craft, design, and business, as well as a jeweler and designer of home décor products. Her advice to makers: “The most important thing is thinking of yourself as a brand. The truth is, the majority of the public doesn’t understand craftsmanship and labor, what it takes to make a product. What most consumers do respond to is this idea of a brand – that when they spend more for something, they’re doing it because it’s a name they recognize. To me, this is the best opportunity for craftspeople to get paid well for what they do. And there are many ways to go about it. ”

“Not all craftspeople think as designers, nor do all designers think as craftsmen,” observes fashion/design maven Rose Apodaca, co-owner of A+R, a hip home accessories store with two locations in Los Angeles. “But you do have those rising to prominence who are able to merge what you might call those two sides of their brain. They’re using craft-y methods, and applying those notions in ways where items can be produced on a larger scale – maybe not a Walmart scale, but certainly one that means a good business and living for them,” she says. “Along with this, we’ve seen the emergence of independent design retailers like ourselves, who are very happy to showcase these kinds of products.” 

It comes down to expanding one’s mindset. “When I meet artisans with a particularly good design sense at craft fairs, I encourage them to think bigger,” says Susan Harkavy, a New York-based public relations and marketing consultant who has specialized in design and craft for 30 years. “Why not promote their skills to a broader audience by connecting with the world of design – boutiques, manufacturers, journalists, stylists, interior designers?” she asks. “Now more than ever, these ‘influencers’ are on the lookout for talented craftsmen with an artistic perspective who can create something unique. In this age, where you can get almost anything from Amazon and it all tends to look the same, craftspeople offer that element of poetry.”

Here we present a handful of successful designer-craftspeople (heck, let’s resurrect the term and update it) who did it their way, offering their perspective on the challenges and rewards of the paths they took. 

Frances Palmer
Alison Berger
Tyler Hays
Molly Hatch
Annie Costello Brown
Denyse Schmidt
Thomas Moser
Simon Pearce

And they're not the only ones: We’ve upped the ante online with a set of bonus features on glass artists Tracy Glover and Annie Morhauser, ceramist Kathy Erteman, textile designer Elizabeth Whelan, business expert and jewelry maker Megan Auman, and more.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.