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 Journal of Modern Craft