The Best of Both Worlds: International Collaborations in Craft & Design

Readers (and writers) of Journal of Modern Craft in Delhi are welcome to attend this public forum.

The Best of Both Worlds: International Collaborations in Craft & Design
Saturday 22 October 2011 5-7pm
National Institute of Fashion Technology amphitheatre Green Park, New Delhi, India (see map)

Trent Jansen 'Sign stool' from reused road signs (limited edition)‘The Best of Both Worlds’ considers the increasing number of transnational partnerships being forged between craft and design. How can we combine the free-wheeling possibilities of modern capitalist world with the grounded meaning of cultural traditions?

Typically, a designer from a wealthy Western country seeks to produce something handmade using skills of a traditional artisan. While this does seem to reinforce global inequalities, it is often the best alternative for those seeking to sustain their craft. So how can designers and artisans work together in product development as a fair partnership? How can designers work with artisans in a way that respects their unique contribution? What is the role for Indian designers in these new transnational supply chains?

This forum is part of Sangam: The Australia India Design Platform, which is a three year program of events designed to promote creative design partnerships between Australia and India. It includes roundtables, forums and workshops in Melbourne and Delhi, Sydney and Ahmedabad, and Brisbane and Bangalore. To support partnerships, a code of practice for creative collaborations is being developed.

Come join in a public forum to consider the opportunities for craft and design through international partnerships. Hear from leading innovative designers and craftspersons in Australia and India, including Trent Jansen, Ishan Khosla, Matthew Butler and Sandra Bowkett. Consider the role of ethical consumerism in generating opportunities in craft, fashion, design and social justice.

Sangam (‘confluence’) is a strategic initiative of the Visual Arts Board (Australia Council) and supported by the Australia India Institute. It is located in the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of RMIT Centre for Design. Visit www.sangamproject.net for more information and register for updates.

Lacquer’s latency by Matthew Larking

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

Kenji Toki (b.1969) took his Master of Arts in the lacquer section of Kyoto University of Arts in 1996 though he has been exhibiting in dozens of group and solo exhibitions since 1992 and international shows since 1995. His work is a hybrid of craft and design that also engages fine art, photography and architectural installation. While he uses software applications and rapid prototyping to arrive at finished works, he considers this less a break with long held craft traditions than a fusion of lacquer with technology. He positions himself as the present manifestation of the spirit of progressive kogei he discerns in Japanese lacquer since the 7th century. Indeed, he considers his computer a ‘craft tool.’

In pursuing a concept of progressive tradition, Toki overturns long held ideas about lacquer. It is conventionally used to coat the kind of tableware objects kept and used indoors. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) wrote of lacquer in his eccentric aesthetic treatise, ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (1993), that darkness was indispensable to its beauty. Toki, however, for the Kyoto Art Festival (1998), created curved lacquer sheets called ‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ that were elevated above the ground and arranged along a bridge that spanned a pond. The purpose of such a setting was to bring the craft out of the shadows so that lacquer’s brilliant color could be appreciated. It was also a mild riposte to objections about keeping lacquer out of direct sunlight due to the damage it causes the surface, dulling its sheen. Toki’s work, too, chimed suggestively with his inspiration, form and material. The lacquer sheets were inspired by the surface of water and their evident droplet shapes further conspired. Lacquer too is a liquid material that hardens by chemical reaction with moisture. It was perhaps fortuitous that the exhibition coincided with Japan’s rainy season.

 ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

Kenji Toki ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

While previous work was intimate, works like ‘Form for Wish’ (1999) in the collection of Ayabe City, Kyoto Prefecture, assumed a monumental scale. Once again Toki coated the abstract work with his trademark red lacquer, but used carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) to create the form. Such fiber is more often used for applications in the aerospace and automotive industries. It helps  Toki achieve a thinner, stronger and lighter construction. ‘Form for Wish’ is approximately six meters high, a centimeter thick, but weighs merely seven kilograms. The uptake of the material seems like a shift away from tradition, but Toki notes that practically any surface can be covered in lacquer, and part of his attraction to the space-age material is that there are no preconceptions of how the material may be put to use. The form further reengages traditional lacquer craft ideas through an attention to the molding of the surface.

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Latency Concept

Latency Concept

Kenji Toki Latency Concept

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Since 2002 Toki has conducted his artistic research in computer assisted design (CAD) and rapid prototyping to search out the implications of new technology for craft in his hybrid digital/hand practice. Toki extracted curves based upon the natural forms of leaves and entered these into computer software where he created a seamless surface between the lines. He then used the automatic construction process of rapid prototyping which converts a design into a solid object through the build up of layers. These layers are sliced in the CAD model and that data directs a laser on to the surface of a tank of photosensitive resin. Where the laser strikes, the resin solidifies. The layers accrete into a final form which is then coated in lacquer by Toki. The point of these experiments, which Toki calls ‘Latency,’ was to arrive at forms mechanically created though finished by hand. These were based on nature, though not found in it. The result was something that also retained connection to traditional lacquer ideas of flowing curvature, lightness, organicity and a certain cleanliness.

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Kenji Toki ‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Further reference to mechanical construction arrived in a series of individually produced and hand finished copies exhibited at Kyoto’s Gallery Gallery in 2009. These works took their formal cue from the mass produced polystyrene trays found in supermarkets for food packaging and display. Toki’s trays are again homage to mechanical reproduction and traditional craft. He uses his computer to generate an object as a body for lacquer and he uses his superlative lacquer coating skills to create objects which are almost perceptually indistinguishable from the visual and formal characteristics they ape. Indeed, Toki compares his lacquer application to both the skill of the painter, and his minute and precise hand movements to the precision of digital measures.

Traditional lacquer production fell into decline in 19th and 20th centuries as it could not compete with the mechanical production methods that turned out copious quantities of inexpensive products for a receptive and burgeoning consumer class. Toki, however, inverses that trend, utilizing technology to produce individual mechanically produced works which straddle a virtual-handcraft divide. Such an inversion allows Toki to individualize the reproducible.

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

All images courtesy of Kenji Toki http://www.kenjitoki.com/

Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

Down a small in lane and up a mud track in deepest Herefordshire, a white canvas structure emerges from Clissett Wood: an unplugged greenwood furniture ‘bodging’ workshop that hosted ten prominent designers during the wet week of March 30th – April 5th 2010. The designers had cut themselves off from the infrastructure of their respective studios, with straight edges, electrical power and machinery swapped for hand-made tools, local wood and fingerless gloves, in imitation the of bodging techniques of countryside carpenters.

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

‘Bodging Milano’ resulted from a collaboration between artist and designer Chirs Eckersley; Rory Dodd of Designersblock, a London-based organisation that provides a platform for the exhibition of contemporary design through international design shows and festivals; and Gudrun Leitz, founder and chief instructor of a week-long greenwood chairmaking course in Clissett Wood. This connection was established in July 2009 when Chris Eckersley spent a week making a hand-made chair in Leitz’s outdoor workshop, an interest prompted by his experience designing the Arden range of contemporary greenwood Windsor chairs for the bespoke furniture company, Sitting Firm, whose manager David Green was also with the designers for the week.

This year Eckersley returned to Clissett Wood with nine designer friends, and, with the exhibition platform of the Spazio Revel in Milan secured by Dodd at Designersblock, engaged in a week of making greenwood chairs using traditional techniques under Leitz’s instruction. Her methods echo the processes adopted by Philip Clissett, the nineteenth century Hereford greenwood furniture maker who inspired figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Ernest Gimson. The same attraction that led Arts and Crafts figures to Clissett led to the fruition of this project: to get away from the machines and tools that define modern production and become familiar with the manually powered pole lathe (constructed from pieces of wood from the forest itself), shave-horse and an array of hand tools.

The influence of William Morris’s elevation of good workmanship was evident. Leitz straightforwardly admitted that the course was run according to a specific philosophy that stresses sustainability, quality craftsmanship from local raw materials, manual skill, and the retrospective reconstruction of folk traditions.

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

So how did the metropolitan designers mix with the bodging techniques? I arrived one day before the deadline to finish, and the workshop was a hive of activity, with the practitioners pushing tired limbs in an attempt to finish on time. All the processes – including cleaving, lathing, steaming, shaping, sawing and assembly – were powered by hand, a physical exertion that was taking its toll. The tools demanded a great deal from the human body. The pole lathe, which the designers learnt how to use on the first day, not only required repeated pedalling but also the need to cup the wood in the lathe with your hand to offer it up to the blade of the chisel. This offered greater manual control over the turning process and an intimate relationship between the body and the machine, but more muscles were involved in the making procedure than might be expected in a conventional machine powered workshop. This cohered with Leitz’s philosophy of making the body a craft machine, rid of all the technicalities the mind mulls over. But the consequences included aches and pains, too.

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Designers were not only encouraged to be closer to the tools, but also to the material, selecting a piece of locally grown ash, cleaving it, and then shaping it into the integral elements of the chair. The Windsor chair is defined by the fact that legs and backrest are fixed into the seat. With greenwood this is done through mortise and tenon joints which, after being joined together, are dried. The mortise contracts around the tenon, locking it firmly in place. Steaming is done onsite too, with a kiln and steaming jig used to keep the bent wood in shape. Smoothing with sandpaper is forbidden because it obscures the grain.

Designers responded positively to the new experiences of using manually-driven machines and hand tools, and to the close connection between labour and the material. However, the lack of a straight edge in the haphazard workshop meant geometrical designs were hard to achieve, and uneven chairs resulted. For practitioners used to the accuracy of computer machinery this caused particular problems, relating to Pye’s hypothesis on the workmanship of risk: with hand tools there is greater likelihood of a misplaced intervention, which could ruin the desired outcome.

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

When asked how the designers were different from the normal clientele of furniture maker enthusiasts, Leitz replied that they approached the course with ‘an image in mind’. For her this made the week more demanding, as the participants, with specific knowledge of furniture making, wanted to achieve a particular result. This was obvious to me while I was there: I only managed to grab a few sentences from her during a rushed tea-break before she had to go back and consult the makers.

The products that resulted from the week’s endurance were whisked away to Milan a week after. Like Clissett’s handmade chairs that made it to Heal’s in London in the early twentieth century, the chairs of these designers may well ignite a romanticism attached to local production and craftsmanship amongst a metropolitan crowd. In addition to this direct output, the bodging course provides a lesson in the value of craftsmanship without power machinery. But however pleasurable, interesting or eye opening this experience in the woods may be, it does not constitute a viable modern day production strategy. As David Green from Sitting Firm mentioned, his £8,000 machine can cut the same seat bottom in 30 seconds as it takes his hands to make in a day. These realities of production seem to limit’s the experiment’s scope. But using a different set of tools, materials and skills does have the potential to renew or reinvigorate furniture practice.

Stephen Knott is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, writing on the theory and practice of amateur craft.

More images can be found here.