Ceramics Today
Home | Articles | CT Update | Gallery | Contact | Search
Links A-Z

Design & Craft
A discussion paper by Kevin Murray

The following text was extracted from a larger paper dealing with specific Australian issues. As the relevance of the local content was seen as minimal to a wider international audience, many of these references have been removed. Those wanting to read the full text, may read the original.

Where personal knowledge still combines with practical intent, where the expression is as much functional economy as aesthetic stance, where the products are individual and idiomatic, where the medium is the basis for mastery: there we find craft.

Malcolm McCullough Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1996, p. 201

Design on the ground
The focus of this discussion paper is on the realization of good ideas in material form. To consider this seriously, we need to put aside some of the more fashionable associations with design.

This focus requires us to think beyond the superficial glamour of design. Sometimes, the success of design can be its own enemy. Design is often tied to fashion as a field of consumption with a rapid turnover of styles and innovation. As such, design is often prey to the kind of mystification necessary to grant fashionable items with appealing aura. The world of design contains an assortment of ‘gurus’, ‘superstars’ and ‘trend forecasters’.

The design aura is an obvious advantage to those wanting to give their products extra value and protect their intellectual capital. It is reasonable for designers to develop their ‘brand identity’ as much as their ‘product’. The strategy of a ‘design showcase’ is an established vehicle for developing reputation across the state.

But this aura relates to the external appeal of design. Inside the world of design there exists a much more practical business of material processes. The danger of looking only at the outside is that design is treated as an ‘elixir’ that magically confers status on its beholder. It is in this situation that those aspiring to design kudos may be vulnerable to superficial solutions.[1] A whole class of ‘designer professionals’ might emerge who swap tales about their successes in the glamorous centers. Such design would be cut off from the rest of society and provide an enclave for a fashionable elite, still beholden to overseas trends. The kind of design encouraged in this insular milieu consists of mercurial conceptual leaps and cool elegance.

‘Design’ has such wide distribution now that its status is in danger. To avoid design becoming a ‘cargo cult’, consideration needs to be given to design’s roots in the local skill base.

The relationship between craft and design
As many recognize, the terms ‘craft’ and ‘design’ rest on a continuum. For the purposes of this discussion, the continuum is understood as the degree of responsibility by the individual for the physical construction of a work. In the case of craft, it is assumed that an individual has made the work him- or herself, whether by hand or machine. An example is a potter throwing a vessel. In contrast, design is often executed by others. An example is an architect drawing plans for builders. The differences between craft and design are evident on a number of dimensions:

Skill versus creativity
Producing an object requires both skill and creativity. While encouraging creativity, craft tends to emphasize the skill of the practitioner. The field of craft contains a collective bank of skills accrued over millennia. In design, it is creativity which tends to be most valued. The history of design is partly told in the imaginative leaps made by individual designers.

What ‘craft’ and ‘design’ share in common is a little harder to define. Craft refers most readily to arts using a specific group of materials—clay, metals, wood, glass and fibre. The products are mostly objects of use, such as vessels, furniture and bodily adornment. Design includes a much broader range of arts, including architecture, industrial design, fashion, graphics, interiors and multimedia. In recent years, design has been grafted on to craft mainly through furniture. In furniture production, the physical capacities of makers are more likely to be limited, and labor more readily outsourced.

The differences between craft and design are largely complementary. Each supplements a lack in the other.

Organic versus synthetic
These days, design is often associated with synthetic materials, such as acrylics, which are more amenable to industrial processes like injection molding. By contrast, craft often privileges organic materials that require more skill in construction, such as wood turning or weaving. In these works, the skill of the maker is incorporated into the value of the object.

One-off versus multiple
Design tends to be associated with multiples. Apart from architecture, it is rare to find design associated with one-off works. There are certainly cases, however, when craft practitioners do make multiples, and engage assistance in their workshop to fulfil a production batch.

Expressive versus consumer
One critical difference between craft and design is the gallery context. Craft tends to be closer to the visual arts as an expressive medium, through which the maker attempts to make a personal statement. Design is more likely to be approached as a consumable item—something to be purchased rather than admired in its own right. In the case of personal gifts, the dimensions of expression and consumption overlap. Here, the care involved in handmade process adds symbolic value to the object, which ideally reflects the meaning of the relationship that the gift represents.

The craft and design partnership
As a result of these differences, it is feasible for individual practitioners to move between craft and design: craft provides opportunities for individual expression while design offers economies of scale. There is a natural partnership between the two fields.

Unfortunately, craft is often perceived as having a lower status than design. This is partly because of its association with recreational pursuits and weekend markets. But the ground of this low status is largely outmoded. The very imperfections that gave the handmade lower status are now signs of distinction. Most weekend markets now contain little craft, as its recreational pursuit is declining with the growth of home entertainment. As craft becomes less common its value rises, particularly among the exclusive end of the market.

There is in our culture a stream of thought that underestimates the importance of craft in creativity. It is important to identify this line of thinking in order not to be beholden to it.

The Platonic legacy
One of the main dichotomies of Western civilization divides the world of action from that of contemplation. Since the time of Plato, it has been nobler to think than to do. The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that the ‘primacy of contemplation over activity’ was based on the Aristotelian foundation of the Christian church, which saw truth as achieved ‘in the complete human stillness’.[2] Opposed to this is the figure of homo faber, the maker of things:

…writing something down, painting an image, modeling a figure, or composing a melody is of course related to the thought which preceded it, but what actually makes the thought a reality and fabricates things of thought is the same workmanship which, through the primordial instrument of human hands, builds the other durable things of human artifice.[3]

Over the course of Western history, the argument between thought and action has taken some dramatic turns. The Reformation opposed the idleness of the priestly classes to the honest labor of the common people. This ideology was echoed in the Arts & Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century, which provided the philosophical basis for craft in the English-speaking world. But these movements are often counterpoints to the forces of abstraction in modernity that distance us from the physical world.

Other cultures often see it differently. In Asian societies, such as Japan, masters of their craft are often revered as national treasures.

In contemporary Australia (and the West; ed. note), a status hierarchy persists that places those who work at desks above those who work at a bench. The great exception to this is sport, where the physical energy and skill of individuals is lauded above their cleverness.

In the future, it is likely that our historical prejudice against the active life will be tempered by the rarity of manual labor As automated processes replace a great proportion of physical work, operating with our hands becomes a rare and highly prized capacity. Today with software packages like PhotoShop, there is relatively minimal technical skill needed to design something impressive. When such resources become common, we renew our appreciation of an individual’s drawing skills.

When questioning the contemporary relevance of craft, it is important to understand our historical prejudice against the active life. This prejudice can blinker our vision as to the continuing and growing relevance of hand skills in the construction of our material world.

While the prejudice against craft might occur in segments of the population, is appears to be reversed in the design world itself.

Craft adds value to design
An alternative way of understanding the role of craft in design is to look at the language used to describe its activity. In this instance craft is regularly referenced as a value that adds quality to design.

A recent interview with eminent design retailer, R. G. Madden, highlights the critical role of craft. In discussing the weakness of the design culture of the USA, he notes the lack of relationship between mass production and craft process: ‘They still haven’t got that nexus between the two whereas the factories in Italy have come from a craft base of over a hundred years ago and now work with mass production—but still have a lot of style about them.’[4]

A recent article[5] by design retailer Ross Longmuir (Planet Furniture) argues that designs are very easily imitated, reducing the value of the product with economies of scale. By contrast, the skill and understanding of materials possessed by those involving in making the product cannot be easily copies. This is particularly the case in the use of local materials such as indigenous timbers. He writes: ‘It is in the interests of the mainstream to support craft practice as a resource that they regularly draw from and I think that this should be the angle that is pushed for crafts-people to be involved in a design led re-energising of the whole sector.’

The follow are some examples of how design is promoted on the basis of its craft value:

· ‘Craftsman designed, craftsman built interiors. The interiors of Dock 5 will be warm and inviting.’[6]

· ‘Architectural vision and craftsmen’s skills share the stage in this prize winning residence.’[7]

· Advertisement for Lindemans: ‘My passion is to make great wines. My craft is to make them consistently.'’

· The 2002 3rd Annual Information Architecture Summit: “Refining Our Craft”. “Refining our Craft” is the third in the ASIS&T-sponsored series of conferences that are the largest dedicated meeting places for information architecture professionals.

Many famous designers attribute their success to craft training.

British designer Alexander McQueen puts on such spectacular shows that they achieve the level of performance art. The youngest of six children of an East End cabbie, McQueen wanted to be a fashion designer from age three and describes himself as ‘the pink sheep’ of the family. He may be a fanciful designer, but he is also a superb technician, attributing his success to the craft skills he acquired as an apprentice on Savile Row. [8]

The success of design is attributed most often to a craft base.

The case of Marc Newson
Marc Newson is Australia’s most celebrated designer. An interview in Monument magazine highlights the priority the Newson gives to craft as the basis for successful design. Newson describes himself as ‘craft—100 percent’. While he is often given the ‘style over substance’ tag…

On the contrary, of far greater significance to Newson is his training as a jeweler and he cites this direct craft-based experience of materials as the defining feature of all his work. “I was always interested in process and materials. I’m not really that interested in the process of creation so much as the process of learning about how things work and function.”[9]

In a recent article about Australian design in Japan, Newson commented: ‘Japan is the ultimate place for a designer to hone their craft because the Japanese culture is just so predisposed to detail’[10]

The case of Milan
The current design initiative in Victoria is modeled on the strength of design culture in Milan.

What needs to be understood is that this success is based on the existence of many smaller craft-based workshops that provide the skill and experience necessary for innovation. Alessi is a key example of how a sustainable design enterprise is based on a deep history of artisanal skill.

The case of Tokyo
The talents of individuals such as top fashion designer Issey Miyake are grounded on knowledge of materials accumulated over centuries. As he writes of Japanese design:

The roots of Japanese contemporary design lie in the craft movement before the war. After the war, rapid economic development allowed local design to flourish, and directly impact on people's lives.[11]

The case of Prague
In the new Czech Republic, new designs have been successful produced in collaboration with established crafts. For instance, Nimeiek and Fronik have incorporated the famous ‘tavernice’ technique of Czech glass into a distinct line of furniture.

Where craft does not meet design
It must be conceded that there are aspects of craft that are largely irrelevant to design. In some areas, craft remains a humanistic art form that privileges the maker’s mark. Handmade ceramic vessels or gold rings have an enduring quality that is linked to the manual skills of the craft practitioner. These items will remain of value as expressive goods. The presence of a brand or fashionable designer label can detract from this personal meaning. When objects are required for the exchange of symbolic value, such as wedding gift or award trophy, the evidence of the hand is an index of the care and value that is attached to the relationship it represents.

In the gallery, this form of expression is given more individual scope in the production of non-utilitarian objects made purely for the pleasure of the beholder. These are often end up in collections by those connoisseurs of a particular medium or in institutional collections representing the best of an age. Craft naturally lends itself to themed exhibitions much better than design, which is usually displayed in a showcase format.

The priority given to design represents an exciting vision for the future. To give this future full expression, it is critical that craft play an active role.

Kevin Murray
Director, Craft Victoria
20 March 2003

Kevin Murray is director of Craft Victoria, a local Australian state craft institution.


  1. The Melbourne Museum promotion for their ‘designed to inspire’ program featured an advertisement (The Age 5 April 2003) with an image of the British Dyson vacuum cleaner and the line ‘Sucker for design?’ This seems a perfect illustration of the danger that a design push might encourage exotic consumerism rather than local production.
  2. Hannah Arendt The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 15
  3. Hannah Arendt The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 169
  4. Rita Dimasi 'Rg Madden And 15 Years Of Design' Dramatic Online http://www.dramaticonline.com/do3/news/news.asp?Id=26205 (8/11/2002)
  5. ‘Manufacturing craft in Victoria’ http://www.craftculture.org/archive/longmuir1.htm
  6. Dock 5 Promotion (30/10/2002)
  7. (Reference to architect Ivan Rijavec, but on attribution of 'astounding carpentry skills'). The Age Domain (05/10/2002)
  8. The Age Green Guide 2/1/03
  9. http://www.designzine.com/2000_07_01/html/articles/articleMonumentFrame.html
  10. Weekend Australian
  11. 29th Edition of Japanese Art Scene Monitor February 2003

More Articles

© Ceramics Today