Zara Arshad

Writer; Editor / China / Design China

Zara Arshad’s Notable Books of 2013

1 book
Glenn Adamson

Craft is often lamented in the modern world, perceived to be “under constant assault…[by] more powerful and efficient forms of production that we call ‘industry.’” The almost-romanticized notion is that “We must try to turn the clock back, to revive craft’s organic role in society, or at least slow the pace of its vanishing.” Newly appointed Director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and present Head of Research at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum Glenn Adamson, however, contests this position in his latest and most fascinating book, The Invention of Craft, which presents craft as a modern invention. Set over four chapters—Manipulation, Mystery, Mechanical, and Memory—and concentrating on case studies set in either Europe or America, Adamson presents craft as a powerful and progressive force that was born out of the Industrial Revolution: “Craft was not a static backdrop against which industry emerged like a figure from the ground. Rather, the two were created alongside one another, each defined against the other through constant juxtaposition.”

In the opening chapter, for instance, Adamson argues that labor management contributed to the sidelining of craft in the 18th and 19th centuries more so than mechanization. Indeed, “in Europe in 1850 there were undoubtedly more skilled artisans, plying a far greater range of trades, than there had been in 1750.” However, the division of labor into specialized and more efficient, easier-to-manage tasks “led to the erosion of the artisan’s autonomy and economic advantage, without necessarily involving a reduction in skill”. This process, of course, remains integral to our increasingly outsourced and globalized economy of today.

Another intriguing premise brought forth in the same chapter is visual representation, like drawing, as a key mechanism of design control. The introduction of industry pattern books, for example, presented considerable difficulties to their users who were expected to understand and translate elaborate drawings and printed images into tangible objects. Furthermore, “writers who instructed craftspeople in draftsmanship warned them not to attain to the ‘cerebral or conceptual’ sort of drawing a fine artist might practice, but rather the more mechanical skill of direct copying.” This method of practice “enabled greater control over the social and material world through enhanced clarity, transparency, and visual certainty at a distance.” In other words, techniques of visual representation placed tight constraints on the free practice of skill, which was necessary for the development of distributed agency.

Although an overall challenging read, Adamson presents an array of contextual arguments grounded in rigorous research, which allow the reader to draw their own comparisons as one delves further into the book. In chapter three, for instance, the author touches upon Victorian attitudes toward non-Western makers, while in the closing chapter, unusual parallels are made between a quilt created by anonymous prisoners at HMP Wandsworth in 2010 and the Duchess of Cambridge’s royal wedding bridal gown (designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen in 2011). Feminist methodology also comes to the fore in the closing passage, as a wide range of women’s crafts are examined across a spectrum—from disempowerment to radicalism—where craft emerges as “a complex and contradictory form of self-reliance.” By shifting between different centuries and fast-tracking to the present day, Adamson carefully illustrates how craft is not only rooted in modernity but also how it has constantly manipulated itself to remain relevant to contemporary technology.

Finally, if craft is dependent on skillful hands, those hands manipulating the material become part of the meaning of the work, Adamson argues. “In reality, craft remains one of the most effective means of materializing belief, of transforming the world around us, and less positively, of controlling the lives of others. Without understanding the way it operates…we are liable to simply fall under its spell.”

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