Today in the South our calendars tell us that this is the beginning of spring. But as trees come into blossom here, the leaves will begin to wither and die in the North.
In his novel Rasselas, Samuel Johnson attempted to discover the secret of happiness. After many adventures, he concluded that any happiness is always accompanied by a loss, ‘That nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left’. You can choose to have either worldly fame or a bountiful garden. It seems that full happiness can only be experienced collectively.
Two hands is a symbol of a world made from the separation of two halves – North and South, thinking and doing.
Aristotle saw the world as made by two kinds of persons: the user who determines the form and the producer who realises it. In much of everyday life, these two sides work together: we want a cup of tea and we find the materials and equipment to make one. As human society evolves, these two sides are drawn apart. In the West, there is a hierarchy that places the thinker above the doer, the architect above the builder. Globalisation has put increasing distance between the consuming ‘first world’ and the producing ‘third world’.
It seems this arrangement is reaching its limits. Environmentally and financially, the world is out of kilter. In the West there are movements such as the Slow Movement and DIY that seek to re-incorporate making into daily life. And in the emerging economies, there is a call for increasing consumption and agency. The Kyoto Protocol has set up a framework where the future of the planet depends on a consensus between these two worlds.
On the ground, there is increasing activity in a kind of product development that involves designers working with artisans. For artisans, this collaboration offers the opportunity to find new markets that can replace the local sales lost through cheap imports. For designers, there is the potential to add an ethical value to their products. In a small but tangible way, craft-design collaborations provide models of north-south partnerships.
Such collaborations face challenges. Some in the crafts believe it is essential to maintain a link with tradition – craft is a way of keeping our authentic cultural identity. They think design ties craft to a short-term fashion cycle, as the whims of a distant market dictate what an artisan can do. And some in design world see the making as unimportant: as long as it is good quality and cheap, designs can be produced by anyone anywhere. Good design transcends its materials.
Of course, collaboration is not for everyone. There are circumstances were ancient crafts need to be preserved for the sake of our cultural diversity. And others where design operates at a purely speculative level in order to forge new ideas.
But in our world today, it is essential that we construct a bridge to encourage traffic between the two. The water below is turbulent. A legacy of colonialism, dictatorships and exploitation make it difficult to bridge the two worlds. Dialogue does not imply the denial of difference. But a common interest in the success of a product can help develop trust. What’s needed is a leap of faith.
Craft Unbound is a place for reviewing attempts to bridge these worlds. One bridging project is the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations. It begins by gathering information from both sides – a frank and open review of the experiences of designers, artisans, community leaders, activists, historians, anthropologists, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Having surveyed the different perspectives, we can then bring together relevant organisations to construct a set of guidelines that best aligns the different interests.
To begin, we need to acknowledge that there a two sides to this story – the craft skills developed over millennia and the design concepts that give these skills a meaningful role to play.
Good craft is well-designed and good design is well-crafted.
1 September 2009