What is Craft, Anyway?

The activity of making furniture or other useful objects of wood on a small scale, like other activities usually thought of as craft, has a strong feeling of tradition associated with it. Ever since John Ruskin, such activities have basked in an aura of pre-capitalist excellence, functioning as a kind of resistance to an alienated and alienating world, and that aura extends to design and construction methods that are thought of as traditional.

That aura has nothing to do with creativity, however. I am reminded of a man I met at a gallery event last year, who was initially curious about my work but, as it turned out, mostly wanted to hear things he expected to hear, things that bore out his idea of traditional craft. He didn’t want to hear about anything actually new. Not that skill at the craft of woodworking isn’t important. You just have to distinguish between craft as mastery of the material and craft as a source of aesthetic standards, which is another matter entirely.

I don’t know what makes something beautiful, but I do know that a big part of the appeal of woodworking for me lies in the tremendous visual variety of the material. A piece of wood is an object with a history, which includes the history of the tree it came from, and I engage that history when I make something of it. Sometimes it’s almost like making art from found objects. Irregularities that do not enhance the wood as a building material may enhance it other ways, by making you look at the wood differently. These discoveries are what I associate with the narrative twists and turns in Virginia Woolf, the subject of my last post. I also think that they are what woodcraft is or ought to be about.

The other day I went to the hardwood lumber dealer in search of a few cherry boards for a pair of nightstands I’m making. I was hoping for interesting knots and gnarly edges, but the boards I looked at were remarkably free of either. They were quite uniform in color and figure, too, suggesting that the trees had been raised expressly to provide a uniform product to the manufacturer. Where are the knots, bird pecks and bits of included decay that were so plentiful thirty years ago? In those days I didn’t want them, and now that I do I can’t find them.

2 Responses to “What is Craft, Anyway?”

  1. pete says:

    Well I think of art (craft) in terms of music, and a lot applies, although the fundamental materials are ethereal, that is they are in the mind, much like writing. So there are these ideas floating in the mind: motifs, harmonies, orchestrations, and in the composers mind they come together. Improvisational (composer & player) players transform these ideas into music spontaneously. The result can be a well crafted work of art. You mention skill. The musical ideas only turn into a well crafted work with a sufficient skill set (Q: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall” A: “Practice”). Similar to dealing with wood with no distinguishing pattern, a very “skilled” musician can make pretty sounds which have little emotional appeal.

    On to a different but related point. So composers, architects, and so forth, may have wonderful ideas, but a composer typically cannot play all the instruments, and an architect typically cannot build a structure. So too a furniture designer could find some great unusual wood, design a piece to build using the natural imperfections in the wood, draw it up, and give it to a fine craftsman to do the necessary construction. Can craftsmanship be a mutual endeavor?

  2. Robert Zlomke says:

    I’m a firm believer in collaboration. There’s no reason why one person can’t design a piece of furniture and someone else execute that design, just as you could compose a piece of music for someone else to perform. The collaboration can be complicated, of course, with advantages & disadvantages resulting from the split roles.

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