Introduction 4.1

It is an honor to include, in this issue of  The Journal of Modern Craft, an interview with Dame Antonia Byatt.  This statement of practice, transcribed from a conversation that we had with the novelist last year, introduces several themes that run through the other contributions in these pages.  The most obvious link is with Elizabeth C. Miller’s discussion of  “slow print” in the work and thinking of  William Morris. Byatt’s most recent novel,  The Children’s Book, sensitively examines the ethical and personal considerations that attended craft at the end of the nineteenth century. Miller and Byatt alike are interested in the fragility of these hopeful ideals (Morris’s death is briefly noted in The Children’s Book as a symbolic loss of innocence), and also their continuing resonance today.

Yet Byatt is also supremely pragmatic, and suspicious of falling too deeply into an idealized dream state. In the interview she offers a lovely example of utopianism gone astray, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:  “We were going to have a new Elizabethan age and people were going to write verse plays, Shakespeare was going to come back, and energy and color and beauty were going to return to Britain. Buildings that had been painted green, cream, and a certain dirty brown were suddenly painted a very hopeful pale blue.  This was before the Clean Air Act and they very quickly became dirty.”  This is the sort of observation  —grounded in hard, sometimes unpleasant, material facts—that gives her fiction its grounding.

Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s article on the craft of patternmaking looks at a similar down-to-earth movement. She examines the career of American furniture-maker Charles Rohlfs (who, interestingly, began as a Shakespearean actor), pointing out that he could never have realized his magically ornate chairs and desks without long experience as a carver of patterns for a stove manufacturer—a professional training he later tried to hide. Here is one idealistic Arts and Crafts maker whose skills were nurtured within the context of industry. Fayen Scarlett argues that we should take this lesson to heart, not only paying attention to the craftspeople who work in factories, but also the part that their often-invisible skills play in shaping our mass-produced environment.

Joshua Stein also argues for the relevance of craft in an unexpected production context: computer-assisted architectural design. He applies the theories of David Pye and (a writer perhaps less familiar to our readers) Manuel De Landa to show how architects can shift across vastly different scales—from tabletop models to full-scale buildings—using digitally-fueled craft as a connective tissue. Stein finds in this method a way to invest even indirect operations with “material intimacy.” It is a phrase that Byatt might like. In the interview, she vividly describes the process of inventing her characters with her body:  “I sit there and I think their fingers with my fingers.  And if they get hurt I feel it.” It is a suggestive parallel with Anselm Stern, the beguiling puppet-master in The Children’s Book, and also with Stein’s architects, who try to invest their structures with tactility through remote control.

A final inclusion in this issue of the JMC is worthy of note: our primary text, an excerpt of Jean Baudrillard’s 1973 book The Mirror of Production. Here we have a writer who is definitely not reminiscent of Byatt—her carefully observed, empathic humanism finds little place in his critical theory. Interestingly, however, this passage shows him engaging in his own puppet act, manipulating craft for his own theoretical purposes. Baudrillard presents the artisan as a figure who inhabits a symbolic realm, outside of modern productivity. His target is orthodox Marxist thinking, which treats all work as exchangeable labor—rather than as an irreducible experience unto itself.  Against this conception Baudrillard offers a vision of craft that is completely contained within community and materiality—which are, in fact, two primary concerns of Byatt’s. Readers might be surprised to find some common ground between these two powerful, and very different, thinkers. But then, for both, common ground is what craft is all about.

The Editors
The Journal of Modern Craft

Table of contents 4.1

Journal of Modern Craft 4.1

The first issue of 2011 is now out, with writerly reflections on the nature of utopianism in craft.


Editorial introduction

Sustainable Socialism: William Morris on Waste by Elizabeth C. Miller

The Craft of Industrial Patternmaking by Sarah Fayen Scarlett

Speculative Artisanry: The Expanding Scale of Craft within Architecture by Joshua G. Stein

Statement of Practice

Interview with A.S. Byatt including Tanya Harrod and Glenn Adamson (PDF)

Commentary by Glenn Adamson

“The Artisan,” from The Mirror of Production by Jean Baudrillard

Exhibition Reviews

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 reviewed by Bibiana Obler

Japanese Sashiko Textiles reviewed by Moira Vincentelli

Book Reviews

Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era reviewed by Ellen Paul Denker

KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave reviewed by Sue Green

Introduction to Issue 2.3

The Arts & Craft connection

Almost two years ago now, the Journal of Modern Craft’s first editorial argued for a broad framing of our subject, one that would go beyond the studio crafts and their discrete disciplines, as well as the tendency to place craft in a series of continuous dialectics with modernity, industrialization, commerce, and fine art aesthetics. Our first Primary Text, by the late Reyner Banham, argued for an authentic species of craft embedded (and buried, out of view) within the routines of the factory. In more recent issues we have continued to seek out scholarship on craft well outside “movement” logic, in contexts such as tourist economies, public art performance, and industrial design. Yet the area of academic study most closely associated with the word “craft” remains, of course, the Arts and Crafts movement.

In that first editorial we expressed the hope that a major study would emerge that tackled the movement’s complexity and paradoxical nature. Gillian Naylor’s The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals and Influence on Design Theory, first published in 1971, set the bar high. It is salutary to consider that although there has been much valuable infilling in the form of newly discovered objects, good international surveys, monographs on individual figures, and detailed regional studies—both in our own pages, and in such exemplary recent publications as Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason’s The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest—there has been nothing quite as energetic, incisive and politically aware as Naylor’s pioneering contribution, written nearly forty years ago.

The last fresh contextualization of the Arts and Crafts movement was the decisive turn to Romantic Nationalism, a diffusionist approach that informed Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan’s succinct, admirable 1991 The Arts and Crafts Movement in the World of Art series and the papers in Art and the National Dream (1993) edited by Nicola Gordon Bowe. A key moment for reframing Arts and Crafts studies should have been 2005—when two major exhibitions were mounted (at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at Los Angeles County Museum). Both, however, were chiefly informed by Romantic Nationalist scholarship, choosing to explore the international nature of the movement by tracking its dissemination country by country. When nationalist agendas are examined in relative isolation, we miss the opportunities to see what is common to different experiences of craft reform, what hybrids develop, and why. Craft movements do not chart a simple, linear process of influence, but rather a series of asymmetrical and overlapping fits and starts.

Then there is the question of the relationship between the Arts and Crafts movement and later developments within modern craft and design. Alan Crawford’s remarkable, modestly entitled “The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Sketch”—in Alan Crawford (ed.), By Hammer and By Hand: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Birmingham, 1984—showed the way. As Tom Crook argued in our first issue of this year, the Arts and Crafts movement should be viewed as presenting an alternative option within (rather than an escape from) modernity, and its political and aesthetic transformations. A logical corollary is that historians should look beyond the chronological boundaries of the Arts and Crafts movement, finding continuities that might reshape our understanding of early modernism in design and architecture, and uncovering hidden stories of craft hitherto obscured by an interwar rhetoric of progressive technology.

And there are plenty of other possibilities for further research. These might include the investigation of workshop practice and engagement with materials—themes intrinsic to the Arts and Crafts movement’s pedagogy, both informal and formal, and transmitted through permissible tools, and the study of historic and vernacular material. This could tie in with an investigation of time consumption and normative work practices during the high period of the Arts and Crafts movement. John Roberts’s Marxist-infected art historical study, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, suggests the potential for using a labor theory of culture as a model to investigate Arts and Crafts values. Equally, a history of colonial art education would show Arts and Crafts values being deployed and depleted in strategies of underdevelopment.

The research articles included in this issue suggest the rich possibilities afforded by some of these approaches. Each essay presents craft reform as inextricably bound to modern innovations, whether those occur in the registers of mass production, urban reinvention, or spiritual experimentation. Freyja Hartzell offers a sharply observed account of the stonewares produced in the Westerwald of Germany at the turn of the century. She shows how designers such as Richard Riemerschmid appropriated the völkisch emblems of vernacular ceramic production in the service of a modern German material culture. Jordi Falgàs tracks the transmission of these German ideas to the town of Girona in Spain, where the progressive architect Rafael Masó tried to put similar principles into practice. If Riemerschmid and his colleagues enjoyed success in reframing craft within an ideologically driven reform movement, Masó’s story is fascinating partly because of his failures. In the politically fractured context of Catalonia, artisanal architecture was impossible not because it was mute, but because it spoke all too clearly. Our third article brings us forward in time to the seam between the Arts and Crafts era and the emergence of an individualist studio craft movement. Art historian Roberta Meyer and master woodworker Mark Sifrri place the iconic figure of Wharton Esherick— often described as the first American studio furniture maker—into the surprising context of 1920s international anthroposophy. Meyer and Sfirri show that the motifs and intent of Esherick’s furniture conform closely to the teachings of this modernist spiritualist movement, pioneered by the Austro- Hungarian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

All three articles attest to the importance of in-depth primary research in the effort to come to grips with the historical craft movement. In this spirit, we offer a Primary Text that takes us further forward in time to the postwar period, but not necessarily away from turn-of-the-century preoccupations. Paul Caffrey introduces us to a fascinating document of 1960s design reform, the so-called “Scandinavian Report,” in which a team of visiting designers frankly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of Irish craft and industrial production. It is fascinating to observe some of the same issues that were at issue in Germany and Spain, c.1900—such as the proper deployment of folk motifs and the ideal organization of workshops—still at issue in this very different chronological and geographical situation. Finally, we have a Statement of Practice by the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company, who are based in South Africa but have taken London by storm recently in the theatrical production War Horse. They argue that the contemporary puppet is a unique form of craft because its “ur-narrative” is a functional commitment to “seeming to be alive.” There are many subtle ways in which this absorbing account of puppet design connects with Arts and Crafts studies—by allying craftedness with radical modernity, through its global references and inspirations, through puppetry’s implicit commentary on individual agency and, not least, in a shared ambition to create a constructed object with a narrative, animate purpose.