IMITATING CRAFT

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Since my visit to Top Drawer, where I saw how artisanal goods are so on trend that manufacturers of consumer products are striving to make their things look hand-made, I’ve been on the lookout for other ceramic tableware like that and I went straight to Denby, who have been aware of the craft niche since the 1960s. Denby “Halo” (above) uses a complex streaked glaze similar to that used by studio potters.

The idea of making things that look like craft products raises the question, “What does a craft product look like?” I keep going back to David Pye, who is one of the few people to talk sense about making, and who said, “Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship) He didn’t think the term “craft” was particularly useful and preferred to distinguish between two kinds of workmanship, the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. The use of machinery helped to produce the regular, finished and repeatable products of the latter kind, but he further questioned the distinction between hand work and machine work, since – as everyone has known for a long time – a machine is a tool driven by some motive force, and the difference between hand power, water, steam or electricity is not important. He concluded that it was impossible to tell by looking at something whether it is the work of a “craftsman” or not.

Since it is difficult to tell from an object’s appearance whether it was made by a “craftsman” or was “manufactured”, the craftsman look can be easily produced under factory conditions.  In case there’s any doubt, the mugs below, by potter Chris Keenan, are handmade and look similar to the pottery made in Denby’s factory.

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2 thoughts on “IMITATING CRAFT

  1. As a photographer specialising in photographing craft process I cannot entirely agree that it is difficult to distinguish between commercially made objects with a craft aesthetic and objects made by craftspeople. To say that Chris Keenan’s work is similar to Denbeigh ‘Halo’ shows a failure to appreciate the subtleties of Chris’s work, sure both ar dark brown, but one is chunky and utterly dull while the other is elegant, refined and beautiful.

    There are examples of craftsmanship where the visual distinction between commercial and hand-made is harder to see, for instance in jewellery and silverware in which fields the makers are trained to remove from their work the evidence of the process that they used. However, even here the design of a piece of handmade silver is probably all you would need to see to be reasonably sure that you were looking at the hand work of a craftsman.

    For me the pleasure in hand made objects is to be able to mentally unpick them, to be able to see from the marks, the colours and the shapes how the object might have been made. While that can also be done with an object made mechanically there is little emotion in the process and the marks left by the process are often there for practical, manufacturing reasons rather than because they are intrinsically beautiful or interesting.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with good design manufactured by machines in an industrial process, but you would be hard put to find much to appreciate in the back story of these things compared to the work of potters, woodworkers, silversmiths or any other artisan making things with their hands because they love to.

    Ben

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    1. Thanks for your interesting and informed comment, Ben.

      In most cases the difference is obvious, but in others less so, and the problem for makers who achieve regularity and a high degree of finish in their work (i.e. those who are good at their job) is that to the customer the most obvious difference is price.

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