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Thinking (about) Craft

Culture, Networks, Ethics

by Fabien Petiot and Chloé Braunstein-Kriegel


This essay has been published in:


Industriell Collection by Piet Hein Eek for IKEA (photo ©IKEA)

"CRAFT IS BACK!” Today we hear this everywhere. How can this phenomenon be understood? A heroic, even messianic motif can be detected in this story of rebirth: a once-venerated and then forgotten god, invoked now to cure contemporary ills. Dishevelled, dragged through the dirt, and badly treated by all who have appropriated it, craft no longer has much in common with that craftman’s workshop wherein skill was so fervently pursued, even if that folkloric image – Gepetto at his workbench – was never truly representative. Craft became a stereotype, not to say a myth: in other words – to use Roland Barthes’s analysis of this figure of speech – a deeply politicized object,[1] understood here in its broadest sense. De facto, we all project ourselves onto craft and build our own stories upon it, a fact that marketing companies have clearly grasped, judging from the storytelling with which they promote the myriad products now associated with the term. Most fundamentally, though, it is the object of craft which has moved. For us as the editors of this Crafts: Today's Anthology for Tomorrow's Crafts, a fair review of the new dynamics at work requires that we change the way we look at craft: we must put on new eyeglasses, not in order to re-read history or predict the future of the sector, but simply to stress the place of craft in our societies – which Enzo Mari and Andrea Branzi have already described as “diffuse,” and may now even be called “pervasive,” being present more than ever, and revealing itself at the intersection of every path, from creation to production, from the political to the cultural.


Our relationship to craft is always empathic. Onto it, we project positive values in which heritage, authenticity, quality, and excellence are blended all at once. Here the storytelling that accompanies the spring 2018 Industriell collection, created for Ikea in collaboration with the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, is a good example. Its slogan is “The perfect of the imperfect.” The designer states: “Handmade – mass-produced: in this concept, the prototypes are made by hand and are then used to create moulds that make it possible to produce large quantities of articles.” By diverting the concept of handmade and by openly assuming the artificiality of the manoeuvre, an unprecedented novelty is claimed for something which the industrial process has always done, and what is indeed rather common: the making by craftsmen of prototypes explicitly intended to be mass produced. Here we see more clearly than ever that the artisanal manner has become a new kind of style, with “the perfect of the imperfect” being attributed to craft – as the collection’s slogan recalls. These sometimes fanciful diversions and projections need to be deconstructed in order to draw clearer distinctions between the different scales of production, from the single piece to mass production, as well as in order to recognize the diversity of contexts, and the strongly collaborative dimension of the act of making.

The relationship between craft and industry, in the form of a network or an entity in which everything and everyone is in a relationship of complementarity, properly belongs to craft culture itself. Thus, Branzi* stresses the speed of production of small-scale or single pieces, which nevertheless have a quality close to a “high-tech experimental prototype.”[2] This clearly defines a field that has long served as an R&D sector for industry: designers had taken hold of this element of craft long before the emergence of the new generation of makers, with their emphasis on the processes of self-production. Consequently, in 1959 it was to the craftsmen of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, in Paris,[3]that the designers Antoine Philippon and Jacqueline Lecoq turned to make the prototype of their Meuble TV, tourne-disque et bar (TV, record player, and bar) unit. At the Salon des artistes décorateurs in the same year, an award was given for this first attempt to bend postformed Formica with a much tighter radius, research which had been undertaken outside of the usual industrial channel. The same is true for the work of the designer Marc Held in the workshop of a plasterer for his seat Culbuto (1967).

Marc Held working on the prototype of the chair Culbuto at Mr. Cuicci’s modelling workshop in Paris (1967) (photo ©Jacques Primois/Knoll International France)

The shift made by traditional manufactures to a model borrowed from industry, but now adapted to their specific requirements, turned design into an intermediary between art and engineering. And we might also mention marketing, visual merchandising, not forgetting the upstream material and tool suppliers – in other words, we end up surveying an entire chain, reminding us that the independence and solitude of the craftsman-creator, their wealth supposedly based solely on their trade,[4] is, here too, a myth to be deconstructed.

The manufactures as the first industrial model

The entrepreneurial nature of craft is based by definition on a reticular model marked by the constant integration of new skills into the firm, the complementarity of subcontractors, and intelligence in their networking. This flexibility is visible throughout many different economic contexts, from the medieval guilds and the small, often family units of craftsmen working at home (cottage industries) of the preindustrial era, to its contribution to the creation of the manufacturing and industrial system; and it expanded at the end of the nineteenth century into the luxury firms specialized in quality production. We might even consider that industry, which at this period had become the dominant model in production, in a certain manner invented craft as a determinate field. Henceforth, it was no longer possible to confuse it with the production system of earlier times.[5] Conversely, as Glenn Adamson demonstrates, it was craft which invented industry in the mid-eighteenth century through an evolution of professions marked by the division and specialization of labor, and well before the emergence of automation.[6] Thus, the availability in the 1850s of industrial-level production speed in the fields of glass, faience, and textiles marked a revolution for many traditional manufactures. The purchase by the silversmith Charles Christofle of the operating rights for France of the electrolysis process, patented by the Englishmen Henry and Richard Elkington in the early 1840s, enabled the company to trigger a virtuous dynamic of technical, aesthetic, and commercial innovations. A little earlier, in 1830, the Austro-German cabinetmaker Michael Thonet experimented with the possibilities of bending beech, perfecting this process using steam heating and so filing the patent for kit furniture in 1850. Made with cheap labor, easy to transport and store, and, for part of the production process, assembled by the consumer himself, Thonet combined a low price and an aesthetic modernity that prefigured the principles that would be adopted a century later by the Swedish Ikea company.

We can also list many ephemeral inventions in the area of craft and manufacturing that is concerned with the reproduction of objects and works of art, such as the anaglyptograph, designed in 1836 by John Bate in England, which prefigured the invention of photography,[7] but which produced objects in relief (bas-reliefs, medallions). As for the photosculpture technique, it skipped a step. Invented in 1859–1860 by the French painter, photographer, and sculptor François Willème (1830–1905), it anticipated the 3D scanner and 3D printing by reproducing a sculpture based on the totality of its profiles simultaneously photographed from many angles, before entrusting its reproduction to manufactures.[8] This type of process took on capitala very high-performance dimension around 1860 in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where the improbable term “authentic copy” was coined, the result of techniques that reproduced items identically, even down to the qualities of the wood of the antique furniture in fashion at the time.[9] The copy industry was born. The catalogues of period furniture mentioned earlier accompanied this phenomenon. There were those who were even pleased by the way these new inventions rendered qualified craftsman useless, at least in the traditional execution of their skill, which had up until then been dominant in the industrial domain. Henceforth, Faubourg manufacturers like Monbro or Maison Krieger would invite customers to visit their workshops, turning them into genuine showrooms, that is to say places of both production and sales. The machines themselves became the attraction, underpinning an advertising campaign based on the idea of “mechanical authenticity.” People came not to see the craftsman’s work, but to admire the function of these extraordinary matrixes reproducing the past,[10] prefiguring the fascination later aroused by automation, and today by the 3D printer. As surprising as it might seem, the highest technology was employed for the creation of period furniture, in workshops that were guarantors of the classic carpentry and cabinetmaking traditions.

The complementarity between craftsmen and designers permitted the preservation of craft skills, as in Sweden where the Svenska Slöjdforeningen (Swedish Craft and Design Society) was founded in 1845, at the moment of the abolition of the old guild system, to preserve the quality of local craft. Renamed Svenkst Form in the 1970s, this foundation is emblematic of an incentive policy favoring the encounter (here ahead of its time) between the two practices. The inclusion of designers in the art direction of manufactures consequently helped forge the identity of Swedish design. It is also in this state of mind that the HI-Gruppen collective was created in 1957, remaining active until 1972, bringing together interior architects, furniture designers, and craftsmen around the idea of putting skills back into the design creation process.[11] Strategies of industrial craft We owe the preservation of exceptional craft and craftspeople to the field of luxury goods. Placed at the heart of the economic and production model of manufactures since their creation – which for most of them was the nineteenth century – the specialized craftspeople returned to front stage in the late 1970s. The same is true for the sectors restructured by specialization, and for the apprenticeships that were redynamized by the considerable investments made by the luxury firms, in fact to ensure the sustainability not only of crafts, but also of their source of supply in the form of skills. After the creations of the major decorators and ensembliers, and the apogee of the last ocean liners, like Normandie, at the dawn of the Second World War, many public and private acts contributed to preventing high-quality craft from disappearing. Here we may mention French firms such as Hermès, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton, which were among the brands that, from the 1990s, moved towards a so-called “masstige” strategy, combining mass production and prestige to capture a broader public. Twenty years earlier, the question of the economic survival of exceptional craft loomed large when, at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, the “industrial craft” principle was developed by certain major brands, notably those who initially were specialized in leather goods.[12] The expression “industrial craft,” seemingly an insurmountable contradiction, and particularly for family- owned brands such as these, nonetheless makes it possible to describe the combination of craft skills and industrial processes. The object of this highly strategic alliance was a rise in the range of quality, an increase in production, and a reduction in costs. On the one hand, craftspeople participated in each phase of the prototyping, manufacturing, and verifying of products, in this way bringing their expertise and rigor as far as the finishing details. On the other hand, the mechanization of part of the production stages and the setting up of quality standards and controls that stemmed from them, made possible savings in material (and therefore in costs), an optimization of production cadences, and a stable quality. We can observe a similar logic and economic strategy in sectors far from those of leather goods, for example wine production.

De facto, this new strategy is an extension of the nineteenth-century manufactures or brands that we mentioned earlier. The Paris cabinetmakers Jacob Frères, for example, scions of a dynasty active from Louis XVI to Napoléon Bonaparte, employed over 300 workers, notably through many State commissions. There were also a large number of workers (nearly a hundred employees and as many subcontractors) in the Froment-Meurice gold and silversmith firm, active from 1794 to 1907, or the Maison Barbedienne, specialized in art bronze, founded in 1839.

We might quickly compare the technological and organizational shift from traditional craft to the industrial model, to the different stages of capitala ism identified by Karl Marx:[13] the craft stage was succeeded by that of manufacturing capitalism, i.e., the concentration of craft production under the control of a single entity and the systematic extension of the division of labor; this phase was replaced by modern industry, with the arrival of machine tools and the factory as the production site. However, the “industrial craft” phenomenon partially contradicts this mechanism, if only for reasons of brand identity. Although there is a world of difference between the designations “made in” and “designed in,” the former is essential and unavoidable in terms of the image of luxury firms. We can hardly imagine them basing their public communications on an image of standardization rooted in a totally delocalized process of mass production; yet this does not prevent them using subcontractors in countries known for their skill, since they do not damage the image of the firms that turn to them. But how much longer will this golden rule of luxury survive, faced with other more important criteria for the future or emerging consumers within this market? The close of the 1970s thus marks the beginning of a renewed interest in craft, long considered the home of every type of conservatism. Until this point, and for that very reason, designers trained to work with industry and to fulfill a modernist ideal had been unaware of or even hostile to the idea of a luxury whose production method was based on the deployment of traditional skills for wealthy clients.[14] But being pragmatic, as well as eager to extend their potential field of activity, they finally drew closer to these brands, which, in the 1970s, had placed at their helm managers who were aware of their brand’s heritage (such as Henry Racamier for Louis Vuitton, Jean-Louis Dumas for Hermès, Albert Bouilhet for Christofle, the Wertheimer family for Chanel, and Alain-Dominique Perrin for Cartier) and of the need to change with the times. From the development of small accessories to the refurbishing of shops, this new strategy implied opening up to design and calling on craft trades exterior to the firms (carpenters, lacquerers, gilders, shopfitters, etc.) to accompany the brands’ identity of excellence. And the workshops themselves also started to reorganize, with the opening, for example, of prototyping workshops in which craftspeople and designers worked together.

Networking and new mappings

The entrepreneurial model based on the complementarity of skills led to a new mapping of talents. This has made it possible, for example, for Hermès and Repetto to spot potential labor areas linked to small leather goods and shoes in France’s industrially stricken zones,[15] where they located former workers who were in a position to meet a growing demand. Or for Chanel, under the entity Paraffection*, to support a group of craft firms, enabling them to continue their own activities while also working for the group as a whole. On an entirely different scale, the case of Produzione Privata*, founded in 1990 in Italy by Michele De Lucchi, is typical of this networking of specialized craftspeople, where the network responds to his own experiments and to those of the creators he invites in. This cluster or networking model comprising a broader variety of skills is found in many other parts of the world, as in Thailand with the OTOP programme (One Tambon One Product / One village, one product)*, the Asian Lacquer Craft Exchange Project network*, and on a lesser scale The House of Denim in Amsterdam. Finding strength in togetherness, these firms again help to refute the myth of the solitary craftsperson. The networking principle also echoes that of the makers, historically turned towards sharing on the international scale through an open source. The example of Opendesk, which defines itself as a “global platform for a local production,” is representative of an alternative to the classic production and distribution models: chosen online, furniture produced by means of CAD (computer-aided design) in networked carpentry workshops brings craftspeople and users closer together. Here, a form of activism accompanies this positioning that aims, among others, at the reduction of transport costs and the associated environmental footprint. It is through this type of production that the Unto This Last workshop in East London (whose name proclaims its filiation with Ruskin),[16] offers craft from “the corner of the street,” representing a new face at the heart of the city, and a workshop and form of production that is open to everyone.

Lamp « Bonne nuit » by Michele De Lucchi (Produzione Privata)

Softpower as the ultimate stage of reticularity

Networking, or reticularity, also extends to the actors who are not this time at the heart of the production system itself, but carry it onto the field of soft power which operates at the scale of entire nations. This soft power offers craft a showcase and a means of promotion, even of exports, that can have a positive effect on a country’s economy. Thus does every country put forward its national skills on the occasion of events and exhibitions. But the reverse side of this coin is that it contributes to locking craft and its practitioners into the image of a guardian of a form of national identity, forcing them to assume values – such as authenticity – that can act as a brake on development, and especially on the adaption to contemporary issues. In the past, craft has even been used as an instrument by nationalist and totalitarian regimes – the terrain of craft is a uniter of values par excellence, and can hence be easily appropriated by anyone.

Exhibition catalog of « Italy at Work. Her Renaissance in Design Today » (1950) – cover designed by Corrado Cagli

In the case of China, soft power goes as far as reflecting the rewriting of its own history, as Chunmei Li analyzes* in a text devoted to the revival of a ceramics manufacture that was banished during the Cultural Revolution, before being once again hoisted to the rank of showcase for the regime.[17] Italy, meanwhile, has written a particular history of its own craft, forced in the immediate post-war period to rely on a micro-economic model that had been amply supported before the war by the fascist state, and by the Marshall Plan after 1945, and which has contributed to a dolce vita image represented by the phrase “made in Italy”*. In Japan, the National Living Treasures program* and the promotion of craft traditions, provided for by law, allowed the country to display an image in the immediate post-war period that was, if not peaceful, then at least pacified, but also to remain active on the terrain of the economy (where it remained bellicose). One can also mention the global cultural promotion represented through policies like “Cool Britannia” in the late 1990s after the Labour Party came to power in England, which brought British creativity onto the international stage, or the “Dutch Wave,” inaugurated by governmental action and the Fonds BKVB[18] in 1988, which enabled the emergence of Droog Design and the Design Academy of Eindhoven.

We may thus come to realize to what extent tradition is indeed an invention, yet not so much in terms of skills as in its capacity to convey a discourse such as national coherence around a heritage which is presented as eternal. Craft plays its part in the phenomenon of nation branding, which was useful first to tourism before entering the spheres of a more global soft power, and is now inseparable from diplomacy.[19] Although this form of national promotion gained its modern cast only in the early 1990s, it must be located firmly in the line of the Universal Expositions, starting with that of 1851 at Crystal Palace (Great Britain). Although William Morris, a rebellious adolescent, scorned the event and refused to visit it, it was in fact invested in large part by productions of craft origin. This type of event, which has latterly become indispensable, often combines craft and design, and is directed foremost at opinion leaders, business milieus, sectorial experts, and journalists, as well as the general public which, directly or through these aforementioned “agents,” is brought into contact with a form of craft invested unavoidably with national fantasies.


The notion of a divorce between thinking and the hand is one of the most tenacious ideas that is generally held. The famous “Architekten, Bildhauer, Maler, wir alle müssen zum Handwerk zurück!” (Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!) declaimed in the Bauhaus manifesto by Walter Gropius in 1919, is well ahead of the “heroic” history of design and continues to agitate minds and to be reflected in our practices. The determination to reconcile craft and other creation fields propresupposes that there was an earlier separation. De facto, however, this identification of an idea of skill to which the designer, engineer, and fashion designer are all to be associated, is not entirely selfevident, as we are going to see.

Divorce between practices? A French history, but not exclusively so

To name is to classify, and the artist/craftsman/ designer distinction does not escape that rule. In the West, this ideographic framework grew out of the gradually emerging recognition of the artist,[20] starting in the Middle Ages. Prior to any imputation of status, the “artist” was just a simple craftsman, connected to a guild of “imagers, painters, and image engravers.” The arrival of the artist proper would occur by means of the emancipation of craft on the one hand, and its annexing to the liberal arts on the other. In this, the creation of the Italian (1562) and the French (1648) academies played a decisive role, notably in teaching.[21] Pondering, in the light of this long genealogy, the appellation “métier d’art” which appeared in the 1990s, Christine Colin recalls the paradoxes contained in that very terminology: “While masking this separation, the upholders of the ‘métiers d’art’ – for those in any case who are not concerned by the conservation of skills and aspire to the status of creator – lay claim, in the same manner as the modern artist, to a freedom (and solitude) foreign to the tradition of the crafts.” This status-oriented, corporatist separation between artist, craftsperson, and designer, an extension of the medieval distinction between the liberal and mechanical arts, has something artificial about it: “This determination to place design and production in the same individual, most often isolated, moreover, refers […] to a golden age that seems very difficult to date.”[22] Today, in wanting once again to grant craft its dignity, and in stressing the link between the gesture and the mind, alongside the personal development that this supposes, certain written works flatter the crafts more than they shed light on a history that has long depended on collaborations. This is what was called, until the mid-twentieth century, “decorative arts,” and despite all its efforts to distinguish itself from them, design has not been able to forget its common past.[23] From the idea to marketing by way of production by several hands, from the draftsman to the marchandmercier – today the gallery owner and editor – by way of the cabinetmaker, the bronze caster, or the engraver: all of them already served the same culture of the project that would later be called “design.” In reality it is the celebration of individual creation that has most worked to effect the separation between thinking and making – something that is in fact quite difficult to maintain.

The whole architecture of the crafts is based, in essence, on the market economy, which has always imposed either a divorce of practices or their union. When the first public exhibition of products of French industry was organized – in Paris, 1798, in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre palace – there was a desire to distinguish on the one hand luxury pro ducts considered as works of art, and on the other hand objects of ordinary manufacture. In other words, two forms of production in applied arts were differentiated: craft art that would be associated with the decorative arts, and industrial arts that in France would be called “industrial aesthetics” after 1945, and then “design” from the late 1950s. The complex administrative grouping of disparate professions (from plumber to fine jeweller) under the term “craft” in the 1920s,[24] and the creation by the Ministry of Culture in 1994 of the title “maître d’art,” helped further accentuate this distinction. At the same time, the training of engineers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century made the idea of the artist-engineer gradually shift toward that of the engineer-designer. It was only from the generation of Jean Prouvé (son of Victor Prouvé, an eminent member of the Art Nouveau movement in Nancy), born in 1901, a craftsman-metal worker and then an industrial designer in the decisive context of post-war reconstruction, that architects and engineers reappropriated the aesthetic and domestic fields.

The furniture crisis in France in the nineteenth century is particularly representative of this distancing of the craft professions. Theodore Zeldin recalled the disparity between the exceptional quality of eighteenth-century furniture, kept in museums, and the mediocrity of the ceremonial furniture of this same period, which is widespread but absent from collections. Notably with reference to the contemporary book about this production published by the cabinetmaker André Jacob Roubo,[25] Zeldin stressed the growing specializations within craft that already in the eighteenth century had contributed to the devaluation of skills: “Their skill consisted only in a more or less successful routine,”[26] Roubo wrote, with pieces commissioned by a clientele which lacked taste or knowledge, but had plenty of money which above all it was eager to show off. But the sustained demand for furniture was struck hard by the emigration of many French craftspeople during the Revolution of 1848,[27] and of German workers working in the furniture industry during the 1870 war and the aftermath of the Paris Commune.[28] “The surviving artisans,” Zeldin wrote, “sought refuge not in innovation, but in reducing costs, by dispensing with the services of designers. Duchesne’s collection of some 12,000 models of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries made it unnecessary for manufacturers to find new ones for almost half a century.”[29] This omnipresence of period furniture demonstrated excellence at the same time as it ossified the whole market. This lack of for- mal innovation may be added to the effacement of the maker (or the workshop), who agreed to an anonymity imposed by the merchants, as well as the division of labor into specialized workshops, and, in the case of the production for the great department stores, the imposition of their brand names.[30]

We will see that this division of labor also resonates in the present times, now going well beyond the question of mechanization, and extending as far as the organization of an entire economy. Consequently, the craftsman/artist/designer separation, and the constant search for legitimacy on the part of all of them, was progressively undertaken – and this is obvious in the second half of the twentieth century – at the cost of a common production. In the vast field of design, France would favor the industrial object, prompting the applied arts to withdraw into craft art. A paradoxical equation was raised in which the decorative object, in France at least, was separated from the notion of design, a field that however also stemmed from the decorative arts. Right after 1945, the break-up can be seen as complete: on the one hand, an international ethics of the function strengthened by economic necessities and the post-war reconstruction efforts; on the other, a conservative and nostalgic France that laid claim to the heritage of the “beautiful object.” But once again, let us not forget the close relationship between these attitudes and the market economy. In fact, the question was how to adapt to the upheaval caused by mass production, which was nurturing an ever-growing consumption. Other models existed elsewhere, at the same time or later, that promise to shed light on the current situation: we will return to this later.

The magnetism of art, and the tectonics of crafts

Let us dwell on the artistic nature of craft. Influenced by votive sculpture, as well as by his encounter with Japanese stoneware at the 1878 Universal Exhibition, painter Paul Gauguin and sculptor Jean-Joseph Carriès shifted the field of ceramics from utilitarian pottery to art.[31] The textures of the clay which was modelled or turned on the lathe, the nuances and accidents of enamel, and the monumentalism of these small pieces encouraged a new and contemplative look at the field of ceramics as a means of expression. Without knowing it, these two artists from the end of the nineteenth century inaugurated a vast movement that was expressed notably by the introduction of craft into museums and art galleries. Henceforth, it would escape the pure function traditionally attributed to it. This seems to have created a new field of possibilities by opening the sector of craft to new actors such as artists, gallery owners, and museum and exhibition curators. We have now left behind the strictly French case that, without necessarily being exemplary, nonetheless remains symptomatic of a prevalence granted to the craftsperson- creator, a status undoubtedly more easily identifiable and more captivating than that of the manufacture’s craftspeople-workers.

Today, this particularly photogenic portrait of a craft that is now artistic, brings with it a new hierarchy within the craft field itself. In fact, the distinction between those who create and those who produce – from the artist who uses a skill, to the craftsperson who executes – is now made from the economic, social, and cultural point of view and according to their respective training. But this model is not as hegemonic as it appears; for instance, in North America since the 2000s we may observe a return to the workshop and to the manufacture. Moreover, the entirely postmodern way in which artists and makers have taken hold of craft reshuffles the cards. Artists ignore the question of skill[32] by bringing up the gesture and the material, even going as far as cultivating an intentionally slovenly aesthetic, as is the case with the phenomenon of sloppy craft*. As for the makers – who bring together profiles as different as designer, artist, craftsman, engineer, geek, and amateur – they have rekindled the pleasure of doing things themselves, together and for everyone, without the criterion of excellence acting either as spur or as brake. These two examples in no way undermine earlier models, notably linked to the recognition and preservation of traditional skills, but from our point of view they are part of the necessary reoxygenation of craft.

Laurent Craste, Style colonial (2012)

The diagnosis by Garth Clark* might seem cruel, in that he describes this shift of craft towards art as a form of jealousy by the former for the status of the latter. The converse phenomenon is found in the field of design, where the hierarchy between art and craft is shaped by a desire for emancipation regarding its past models. Yet what Clark writes seems to us to be salutary from every point of view. In fact, running after the fine arts model, as much in terms of aesthetics as in terms of institutional and commercial recognition, reappropriating the stylistic codes of modernism without engaging with its issues, and laying claim to a systematic (even nostalgic) anchoring in tradition, seems to have led certain forms of craft into an impasse out of which it is difficult for them to exit. The current period is characterized in effect by the injunction to be creative in every aspect of life. In this same movement, we see craft favoring the artistic gesture, encouraged in this by an education system that thrusts the culture of the project, and therefore the collaboration between disciplines, into the background.

Craft at the center of a transversal education

But let us leave craft to resolve its contradictions and to assume its identity in each of the disciplines and cultural contexts that it occupies. Because a much more ambitious and nevertheless indispensable task awaits producers and consumers alike: namely, promoting an accessible material culture that includes the user. How are things made? Quality, origin, traceability, cost, impact on the economy and the natural milieus: the work involved in designing and developing a product, but also the knowledge of the materials used, keeps most of us out of the game.

On a more symbolic level, in his text “The New Handicraft”* Andrea Branzi stresses the complexity of the “cultural models” of craft. He refers to the sedimentation of traditions that are technical and aesthetic as well as domestic and everyday, in a local as well as a global context. Take, for instance, a chair – one of the major archetypes of daily life. The Indonesian liana, indispensible to caning the German Thonet bentwood seats, represents a voyage in itself: the extremely light weight Supperleggera (1957) by Gio Ponti (produced by Cassina) with its gleaming straw seat bottom rooted in rural Italian skills, or the renewal of traditional Landes region (France) chair-making by the manufacturer Alki, combining local materials in a company based on a cooperative model – all of these examples are just as surprising as each other. The “overflow” of merchandise can easily be proclaimed in a society of consumption. But how can the sorting be done without a hard-hearted look at the world of objects that surrounds us? The pedagogical model of the sloyd*, inspired among others by the Finn Uno Cygnaeus at the end of the nineteenth century, and then developed in Sweden by Otto Salomon and today internationally active, is an educational approach that provides an enthusiastic answer by connecting classic apprenticeship to production in a workshop, and in restoring meaning to the making, to the collective, and to the object, being geared not towards the training of future craftspeople, but to young people who are already consumers. In the United Kingdom, the Crafts Council was able in 2014 to launch the manifesto Our Future Is in the Making, another way of envisaging a renewal of the teaching of craft techniques, always under threat, by recalling the contribution of creators to economic sectors as diverse as engineering, medicine, technologies, architecture, fashion, and design. This manifesto emphasizes the commitment of those who learn, as well as cognitive development through the creation and inventiveness of an intelligence that has become collective. The “Manufacto”[33] experiment, supported by the Hermès Foundation, follows the same approach. And to help ensure the cohesion of the social fabric, it is time to generalize these principles and by this means solve the deficit in apprenticeship education in France, as well as the abstruseness of the disciplines taught. This situation is partially due to a social determinism that maintains a pyramidal view of professions and types of learning. The educational transdisciplinarity linked to craft has also forged the curatorial projects policy of several institutions, as is shown by the different exhibitions in the Rotterdam Museum (Netherlands) on the principle of the “borderless museum”*, and those of the former Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland (Oregon, United States)* focused on the collective memory and the interaction of the exhibition’s visitors.

Manufacto program by the Hermès Foundation (photo ©Benoît Teillet)

So far, we have primarily brought up the education of the public and the consumer. Let us now focus on that of the craftspeople themselves. Today, medical research is based on a methodology that brings together scientific researchers and professionals who are not in the medical milieu*. This practice has, very naturally, come to include craft among its tools. The capacity of craft to respond and adapt to this experimental framework plays a key role: this is born out by the evolution of the fab labs model and their encounters with schoolchildren, as well as in university centers and companies. Fab labs and makerspaces (digital fabrication workshops) are gradually taking over, with the help of book digitizing, from the less frequented libraries, such as the Lafayette Public Library (United States) for example. In the training of architects, it is the principle of “design/build” or “experiential learning”* that makes it possible, in the progression from the idea to its execution, to be confronted with the material, its use, and the craft and industrial skills of construction (see the texts by Caroline Maniaque*, and Patrick Bouchain*). In France, the training of the Compagnons du Devoir, with its pedagogical programme “Challenge Innovating Together”*, is also focused on technical know-how and a new sociability implemented through the acquisition of a trade.

The arrival of a material culture needs to find models other than that of the mere demonstration of excellence, often through spectacular stagings. The engagement of craft in society, as well as the real comprehension of the world of objects, requires a necessary overhaul of our educational models. Today, whereas the culture of design is gaining ground, and, although more rarely, transrooted versal and multi-technical teaching based on the encounter of competencies is also emerging, it still remains to develop in craft education a culture that is, this time, properly entrepreneurial.


Without neglecting the contributions of the Arts & Crafts production itself, the political commitment of William Morris on the basis of craft seems paradoxically to have led to his being erected as a guardian figure of modern design. In his writings, aesthetics, production, and societal model are indistinctly contained within the notion of “making.” Morris did not content himself with advocating the simplicity of materials and the truth of their usage: he formulated a critique, scathing in his day, of the worker’s alienation through the division of labor, the accumulation of goods, as well as the disappearance of the countryside and the destruction of the landscape.

The activist dimension of craft that Morris expressed in the nineteenth century still persists today in what is called through the neologism “craftivism”*, incorporated into the spirit of North American craft in which the communitarianism of the English Arts & Crafts movement,[34] the activism in favor of the emancipation of women and minorities, and the development of departments dedicated to craft in universities and art schools, are all intermingled. We must not forget either the essential contribution in the United States of European creators who were refugees from 1933, as well as the influence of Zen philosophy and the hippie movement! The richness of this affiliation often takes us back to politics (and even to spirituality), whereas this field has almost completely disappeared from the landscape of design today, as if it had nothing further to say (or think), save in the area of theoretical, experimental design – a zone, of course, that remains relatively confidential.[35]

Activism, or how to speak out through craft

In the same way as literature and art, craft is now one of the indispensible tools of activism as practised in North America*. The capacity of communities (LGBTI, Afro-Americans, feminists) to speak out, which has become audible and even respected, while still remaining necessary to defend and to claim, explains to a large extent the obviousness of an engaged positioning on the part of craft actors, at the same time as it reveals the stigmata of painful oppressions which at best are only slowly healing.

1.920 pannels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (October 11, 1987)

In a pluralistic society concerned with egalitarianism, activism by a minority frequently encounters problems in positioning itself between a recognition of its own cultural identity (traditions, practices, intellectual, aesthetic history, etc.) and a form of being among themselves, even a communitarian confinement.[36] In the diversion, subversion, and diversity of craft practices, craftivism has undoubtedly found a way of avoiding these pitfalls. However, there is no need to make craft the antidote to the ills of contemporary society, as Morris did, or to take on a vehement activist ideology to demonstrate an ethical positioning in this sphere.

De facto, other forms of activism through craft exist. Let us mention the production of furniture in a Berlin cabinetmaking workshop by the Cucula association*, created in 2013 by the ethnologist Inès Mesmar, which helps refugees. Elsewhere, there are participatory worksites that contribute to self-building and rehabilitation principles with individuals, modifying the usual organization of work with professionals by opening new markets and communication tools to them, without however being volunteer work. More generally, time saved thanks to digital technology in companies can help develop innovation not only on the technical and commercial levels, for example, but also in the social sphere.[37]

Workshop of Cucula association in Berlin. Photo ©Verena-Bruening

While this multiplicity of political commitments expressed through crafts does convey a form of spontaneity, amplified over the last few years by social networks, we must also commend another phenomenon, this time properly unprecedented. The makers will not content themselves with playing the troublemakers in the well-organized landscape of design, craft, and IT engineering. They have backed up their creative approach with a number of readings (drawn from authors such as Jacques Ellul or Jeremy Rifkin) in the domain of environment, consumption, and degrowth; notably, these express rather precise formulations of the desire for societal and political reform, whereas the traditional practice of craft tended to make such appeals in the absence of any theorization.

Innovation and sustainability as levers

The ideas of empowerment of communities, collective intelligence, the circular economy, and societal and environmental impact now seem incorporated into the DNA of many companies and associations, which are increasingly aware of their social responsibility. In the fourth part of this anthology these ideas are illustrated through experiences linked to sustainable luxury, the updating of traditions in danger, the use of new materials, and upcycling. The pragmatism of the actors working in these areas has nothing to do with any form of humanitarianism. It is a question in each case of putting social businesses into practice, in other words a sort of social entrepreneurship. The purpose of this type of structure, which appeared in the 1990s under the impetus of the Bangladeshi economist and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, is the improvement in living conditions of a community on the financial, social, educational, and environmental levels, through micro-financed entities. But economic viability, here, is dependent on the expected progress. The gradual generalization of this entrepreneurial positioning cannot however be viable without the creation of incentivizing or even restrictive legislation,[38] and of a particularly dense network of contacts, linking communities to distributors by way of upcycling networks that are still in their infancy.

The particular features of craft, linked to its scale, its local siting, its skills, its new equipment, and its aura among consumers, enable it to be a fullfledged actor within this ongoing revision of the production and consumer model. And here, too, a diversity of stances is possible. We need only mention Petit h, which recycles the elegant offcuts of the Hermès workshops; Artecnia, which favors local craft notably based on the transformation of glass bottles; or the twelve carpets of the “Re Rag Rug” project (2013) carried out in India by the two Swedish textile designers of Studio Brieditis & Evans. This last example, which looks like a manifesto, encourages reuse based on surpluses of the textile industry – which is among the foremost of the entities responsible for global pollution – and the establishment of an alternative economy, cottage industries being a source of essential additional income for female workers in factories. And lastly let us cite the eco-responsible textile cooperative Samatoa, founded in Cambodia in 2003, whose lotus-fiber-based production has played a crucial role in the emancipation of an entire community through women’s work*.


We have by now described a landscape in which the reader will have recognized the manufacturing system and the link between craft and industry, grasped the political nature of craft, understood the challenges of the traditional craft trades in the current context, and understood the place that excellence and innovation holds in it. However, the subject still seems to have been only lightly touched upon. Craft crosses the roads of so many fields and societal issues that we cannot consider it as an end in itself or as a perfectly circumscribed field, but more like a “workroom of potential stories” – or like Oulipo,[39] which strictly rules out any notion of exhaustiveness. Enzo Mari, in recalling “where the Artisan is” (1981)*, overturned established certainties and demonstrated the wide scope of craft applications: in industrial prototyping work, in the audio-visual sector, in events management, in customization, services, or traditional manufacturing.[40]

Henceforth, craft was no longer faced with questions of “trades,” but rather of a sensibility expressed on several levels. On the one hand, on the highly strategic terrain of artificial intelligence, recent research indicates that many craft skills could not, in the future, be replaced by technology, as they are based ineludibly on the human factor. In fact, the sensorial experience determines the level of (perceived or real) quality and remains irreplaceable. This type of aptitude is therefore highly in demand, and future training programmes will certainly bank on the complementarities between man and technology.[41]

On another level, for the artist-craftsperson, maker, designer, or worker, regardless of who does what or whether the person is inserted in a discipline or in a post-disciplinary approach, what is important lies in the relevance of the response brought by craft to the challenges of the society that carries it (working conditions, environmental impact, commitment, education), rather than falling into the trap of excellence as an end in itself or debates on cultural identity.[42] As we have seen, and as a number of texts in our anthology illustrate, a generalized “craftization” of our societies is underway, for better or worse, but always manifest through the pervasiveness of craft.

In our opinion, answers are not to be sought in a fantasy past or in a rapidly outdating future, but lie clearly in the premises underpinning a distinctive form of craft thinking and a strategic craft that is already at work in many areas. An example? “Bakary is a refugee cabinetmaker,”[43] announced a campaign poster for La Fabrique Nomade, an association for the employment of migrant craftsmen, adding: “Let us change the way we look at them, let us value their skills.” The Berlin project Cucula* responds to this feeling of self-effacement: after the deep trauma of being uprooted and the horrors often attendant on their journey, those who are called “migrants” sometimes have their skills denied because of the difficulties they experience inserting themselves into the world of work, or by the simple need to take any job in order to survive. This graduate of the Fine Arts School of Khartoum (Sudan) is once again working as potter – his profession for twenty-five years – through the organization of children’s workshops within the framework of a makerspace. A thousand leagues away from craft? It is just the opposite: right at the heart of the storms which now rock our societies, the plural identity of craft not only has something to say, but demands to be heard.

* see the text republished in this anthology


[1] Notably in Mythologies, originally published in 1957, translated from the French by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993).

[2] See p. 46.

[3] Since the 12th century, the “Faubourg Saint-Antoine,” located in the east of Paris, has been a district dedicated to the woodworking professions. Today, “Le Faubourg” is a zone where skilled craftsmen such as cabinetmakers remain active, with workshops and stores still located across the area. In recent years, important organizations dedicated to craftsmanship have been established in this district, symbolizing the influence of an entire neighborhood traditionally tuned towards artisanal production (Institut national des métiers d’art, Viaduc des Arts, Passage du Chantier, Cour de l’Industrie, etc.).

[4] Françoise Piolet, ed., “Introduction,” in La Révolution des métiers (Paris: PUF, 2002), 1–23; Mireille Dadoy, “Le retour au métier,” Revue française des affaires sociales, no. 4 (October–December 1989): 69–102.

[5] Glenn Adamson, The Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), XVI.

[6] Adamson, Invention, xix. The importance of the division of labor rather than mechanization, and its impact on craft, are the object of Maxine Berg’s The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[7] See Gabriel Thomas, “Art, Accuracy and the Anaglyptograph: A Debate about the Mechanical Translation of Sculptures,” in Kate Nichols, Rebecca Wade, and Gabriel Williams, eds., Art versus Industry: New Perspectives on Visual and Industrial Cultures in Nineteenth- Century Britain(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 39–60.

[8] See Robert A. Sobieszek, “Sculpture as the Sum of its Profiles: François Willème and Photosculpture in France, 1859–1868,” Art Bulletin 62, no. 4 (December 1980): 617–30.

[9] See Manuel Charpy, “Le Théâtre des objets: Espaces privés, culture matérielle et identité bourgeoise; Paris, 1830–1914” (Ph.D. diss., Université François-Rabelais de Tours, 2010), 772.

[10] Charpy, “Le Théâtre des objets,” 775.

[11] Johan Örn, ed., HI-gruppen och hantverkets återkomst. Svenska möbler och inredningar 1960–1966 [The HI-group and the return to craft: Swedish furniture and interiors 1960– 1966], exhibition catalogue, ArkDes, Stockholm, 13 September– 19 November 2017 (Stockholm: Carolsson Bokförlag, 2017).

[12] Interview by Fabien Petiot with Françoise Jollant Kneebone (February 2011).

[13] Capital: Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (1867), chs. 13–14.

[14] Françoise Jollant Kneebone, “Luxe, design et symbolique,” in Design. Carrefour des arts, ed. Raymond Guidot (Paris: Flammarion, 2003), 201.

[15] Center of excellence in Aquitaine for leather and luxury trades in Thiviers (Périgord).

[16] Unto this Last is an essay published by John Ruskin in December 1860, decrying an economic and societal model based solely on the quest for material enrichment: John Ruskin, Unto this Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (London: Pallas Athene, 2010).

[17] See Lucas Delattre, “Paradoxes et limites du soft power chinois,” Mode de recherche, no. 19 (January 2013): 21–26.

[18] Fonds BKVB (The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture) is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, but has nevertheless kept full autonomy.

[19] See Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichissement : Une critique de la marchandise (Paris: Gallimard, 2017), 37.

[20] See Nathalie Heinich, Du peintre à l’artiste, artisans et académiciens à l’âge classique (Paris: Minuit, 1993).

[21] Christine Colin, ed., “Terminologie et pataquès,” Arts décoratifs, arts appliqués, métiers d’art, design: Terminologie et pataquès, Industries françaises de l’ameublement, “Les Villages” collection (Paris: Hazan, 1998), 13. Also see Stéphane Laurent, Les Arts appliqués en France: Genèse d’un enseignement (Paris: Éditions du CTHS, 1999).

[22] Colin, “Terminologie et pataquès,” 13.

[23] “Craft was already design. An anonymous design, in which perfection was obtained through experience and time, but in which usage commanded. Industry was a shock: suddenly, many objects had to be instantaneously produced, as opposed to slow small-scale production. But, in the beginning, industry simply appropriated the craft objects, which it contented itself with roughly reproducing, following their general lines” (Roger Tallon, “Roger Tallon, pionnier du design,” Le Monde, 11 August 1980).

[24] See Bernard Zarca, L’Artisanat français: du métier traditionnel au groupe social (Paris: Économica, 1986); Anne Jourdain, Du coeur à l’ouvrage : Les artisans d’art en France (Paris: Belin, 2014).

[25] André Jacob Roubo, L’Art du menuisier (Paris: Saillant et Nyon, 1761–1772).

[26] Roubo, L’Art du menuisier, vol. 2, p. 366, quoted by Theodore Zeldin, A History of French Passions 1848–1945, vol. II, “Intellect, Taste and Anxiety” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 421.

[27] Also known as the February Revolution (Révolution de Février), the French Revolution of 1848 was one of a wave of revolutions that same year in Europe. In France the revolutionary events ended the Orléans monarchy and led to the creation of the French Second Republic.

[28] Bloodily repressed, the Commune de Paris was a French revolutionary government mainly composed of workers and craftsmen, which lasted about two months (March 18 to May 28, 1871). Beginning as a rebellion against the government which had presided over defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the capitulation of Paris, the Commune established something close to self-government in the capital. Since then, the Commune has represented an essential historic reference point for parties on the left in France.

[29] Theodore Zeldin, A History of French Passions, 425. In reality it concerns Jean Duchesne (1779–1855), called Duchesne aîné, whose collections are brought up in the report by the comte Léon de Laborde, Exposition universelle de 1851. Travaux de la commission française, vol. 8 (Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1856), 207. See also Marius Vachon, La Crise industrielle et artistique en France et en Europe (Paris: Librairie illustrée, 1886).

[30] Zeldin, A History of French Passions, 427.

[31] See notably Amélie Simier, ed., Jean Carriès: la matière de l’étrange, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, 11 October 2007–27 January 2008 (Paris: Nicolas Chaudun et Paris Musées, 2007); Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane, eds., Ceramix: art and ceramics – From Rodin to Schütte, exhibition catalogue, Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 16 October 2015–31 January 2016; La Maison rouge and the Cité de la céramique, Paris and Sèvres, 9 March–12 June 2016 (Ghent: Snoeck, 2015).

[32] The Belgian artist Johan Creten, known for his sculptures in enamelled clay, states: “I […] loathe ceramics. […] You are too often asked: ‘At what temperature do you fire?’ or ‘What do you use as enamels?’ and that, for me, becomes too much of a cooking story.” See Clémentine Mercier and Jérémy Piette, “Johan Creten: ‘Je revendique la beauté comme lubrifiant’,” Libération, 4 February 2018.

[33] “Manufacto – La fabrique des savoir-faire” (Manufacto – the making of skills) is a program created in 2016 intended to raise awareness in young people of every social horizon of the different manual professions. It was designed by the Hermès corporate foundation in partnership with the Compagnons du Devoir, the École Camondo, and the French ministry of National Education. See the website of the Hermès foundation, /manufacto.

[34] See Eileen Boris, Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris and the Craftsman Ideal in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

[35] See Jehanne Dautrey and Emanuele Quinz, eds., Strange Design: Du design des objets au design des comportements (Villeurbanne: It Editions, 2014).

[36] See Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and “the Politics of Recognition” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

[37] We will mention the actions of the people’s movement Mutirão in Brazil since the 1980s, the RE_PAD association for the preservation of architectural heritage in Romania, and the Compagnons bâtisseurs or the PADES (Self-production and social development program).

[38] Created in 2012, the Ministry of the Social Economy and Solidarity in France institutionally recognizes and makes concrete this idea of empowerment within a more global economy.

[39] L’Ouvroir de littérature pote

ntielle (or Oulipo) is an association founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, bringing together writers, poets, and mathematicians driven by a playful approach to the notion of constraint, considered as a trigger for literary creations.

[40] Enzo Mari, Dov’è l’artigiano/ Where the Artisan is, exhibition catalogue, Fortezza da Basso, Florence, 23 April–3 May 1981 (Milan: Electa, 1981).

[41] See Salima Benhamou and Lionel Janin, eds., “Intelligence artificielle et travail,” report to the French Minister of Labour and the Secretary of State to the French Prime Minister, in charge of digital (March 2018).

[42] See François Jullien, Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle (Paris: L’Herne, 2016).

[43] Word crossed out on the poster.


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