Original post : 9 Nov 2012

Artist or craftsperson?

Are you a designer, a craft professional, an artist or something else?

In her book out this week, Material World: The modern craft bible, Perri Lewis asks the “great craft question”: “What makes some craft art and other craft, well craft?”

The question sums up some of the issues everyone in the designer maker/craft professional community struggles with regularly. That sentence shows the struggle in itself. How do you describe yourself? Is craft a dirty word? Is “artist” too pompous?

Perri talks to a number of people to try to answer the question and while I’m not sure they answer the question they do provide some interesting food for thought.

There is a definite view that craft means low value and art high value – and it’s not clear where handmade fits on that spectrum. Artist Tracey Emin epitomises this, as she says in Material World:

“I have never faced opposition for using traditional handicrafts. Somehow it’s been amazingly easy. But I do know that, traditionally, textiles aren’t as valued and are considered to be craft and this reflects itself in the marketplace.”

“Artist” Rob Ryan creates his work using paper cut techniques. He has a very clear definition of craft: “For me, craft is based on instruction. It’s like painting by numbers”. He goes on to say: “Craft stops being craft when people design it for themselves. Once people have an idea and put it into practice and they make it, then I don’t think it can be considered craft anymore.”

But if asked would he automatically say that a wrought iron candlestick, a hand-dyed skein of yarn, or patchwork toy is art.

Knitwear designer Kate Jenkins designs for her own label and exhibits knitted artworks in galleries. She says she never set out to be an “artist” but that all her knitwear is art whether worn of behind glass in a gallery.

The range of views in Material World underline the problem many designer makers and skilled craft professionals have. “Craft” as a term has been devalued. Ryan’s comment about following instructions is a case in point. It disregards years of experience building up skills and understanding of your materials and the notion that you can use such skills to create something individual but also desirable and in many cases practical.

And more fundamentally it has an impact on what you can charge – art is expensive, craft is under-priced.

As we build up to the launch of the full Planet Handmade we’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we describe handmade businesses, designer makers, etc. So we’d like to hear from you about what you call yourselves and describe what you do. We’d appreciate it if you could take 30 seconds to answer a quick question about this here.

And please leave your comments about how you might go about reclaiming the word “craft”.


Having given this a little more thought, I wonder whether it is appropriate to say that art is a medium by which the maker wants to or by default, provokes thoughts about the piece, oneself, the wider world and how the three might interact. Whereas a crafted piece has been created by the maker for aesthetic and functional purposes but not necessarily to invoke philosophical examination.

The question of skill and quality can be applied to either and if common sense prevails, is unquestionable. One can argue about the aesthetics of a piece based on personal preference but one cannot argue with quality for quality can speak for itself.
Comment by Gillian Montegrande - 12 Nov 2012 14:52
Controversial as it may be considered by some, for me there are no such people as artists or craftsmen, there are only makers. All that is made, without exception, has been conceived, designed and fashioned from the maker's, chosen material to serve an aesthetic and functional use, whether that be spiritual or practical, whether if feeds the mind, the soul or indeed the stomach!

When making, a process is gone-through, which uses pretty much all of the maker's faculties:
Desire and/or need; concept; design; sourcing of materials; establishing the strengths and weaknesses of both material and maker and then through trial, error and ingenuity working with or around those attributes and limitations, to finally be confronted with something that is real, knowing that so much of oneself has gone into the very fibre of the work.

If craft is such a devalued occupation then what on earth is the V&A up to?!
Comment by Gillian Montegrande - 10 Nov 2012 17:46
I have never really considered myself to be an artist even though a lot of my items are self designed and not made using crafts that you can learn from a book or online and yet if I was describing someone else doing the same, I would call them an artist. I definitely agree that craft has been devalued by an "everyone does it" approach when really I wouldn't deem a lot of crafters to be skilled. You only have to look on Ebay to see the tat some people try to sell for a premium because it's handmade and because buyers are disappointed with their purchase they won't buy handmade again. This ruins those people who are good crafters and who take pride in their work, and make sure an item is perfect before it goes on sale. Crafters don't have a great name these days and I don't think it is anything to do with art, it's the bad ones bringing the rest of us down.
Comment by Kirsty Devine - 10 Nov 2012 08:43
In days gone by, a craftsman or woman would have been highly regarded for their skills.
A crafts person created both useful and decorative items, shaping, cutting, moulding, as required.
Nowadays, their is a wealth of prepared kits (embroidering by numbers, to misquote your article) and
Instruction, from knitting patterns to books on every craft subject.
This has become very necessary today, as a generation or two have slowly lost the opportunity to learn the basic skills at home, which were handed down. There are still families around who have maintained the old traditions and thank goodness for it.

From here on, people seem to fall into two skill sets. Those who can skilfully interpret instruction, sometimes to the letter or with small variations. I know many crafters for whom design is not an option, but their work is so beautifully executed and perfect. This is craft. Most definitely a skill and exploited by the fashion designers of the world in the last century.

Then there are those who realise that they can take those same skills and go off in their own direction. This group has the eye. Looking at a piece of fabric, a ball of yarn , a selection of beads, a blue sky full of fluffy white clouds, a selection of vegetables or a beautiful garden flower and are inspired instantly into creating - a work of art, you might say.
With or without training, this group become designer makers, textile artists ( I am not including painting in this group,deliberately, but they do share the same inspirations), craft journalists, fashionistas and fashion designers.

To complete the circle, once the second group reach the next level, they could never achieve success without the first group. Adversely, with freely available instruction from the second group, the first group may never acquire the craft skills to produce there exquisite work.

Therefore, in my opinion, this cleverly locks together 'art' and 'craft' .

Comment by minnie - 10 Nov 2012 08:16
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