“Design” is the new catch phrase among customers, retail storeowners, importers and now even artisans. The market for innovative design was once cornered by high-end retail boutiques in major metropolises but has now expanded to touch consumers both young and old. High school students now know the names of the latest handbag designers and beg their parents for originals that can cost hundreds of dollars. Even large department stores, once relegated to a status more shrouded by the concept of convenience than fashion, are focused on bringing affordable design to the masses. Some of these stores are even delving into issues of fair trade and handmade items, using good design to sell higher priced products.
In the world of craft, high design, handmade products have been the recent push among craft innovators the world round. Designers that show in some of the most well known, and most expensive, shops in Paris, London and New York are looking to artisans for production, and even inspiration. Fashion magazines, high-end mail order catalogs and even TV advertisements have begun highlighting or featuring high design craft. Handmade products have turned from tourist trinkets to tailor made fashion.
However, the emphasis on cutting edge design and innovation has taken some of the emphasis off of the traditional aspects of craft. Craft supporters have been drawn to handmade products over the years for many reasons. Artisans are often the bearers of culture who pass traditions, both visual and otherwise, down from one generation to the next. These culturally specific traditions are embedded in the motifs, colors and patterns of their embroidery, ceramics or weaves.
Artisans have also played other traditional roles in their local communities relating to both agriculture and religion. An artisan’s skills in blacksmithing, for example, would be used to mend plows as well as create craft. In many cultures artisans also play a role in local religions by creating special images, icons and statues that are used for holidays or everyday worship.
So, does sleek modern design and merchandised US retail stores take away some of the cultural significance of craft? Should craft advocators focus on bringing handmade products into the main stream market through design or through awareness? These are the questions that I’ve begun to ask in a pursuit of using craft both as a mean of economic development as well as a bridge to cross-cultural understanding.
As a way to poverty alleviation, market driven craft, with a base in targeted design, is undoubtedly the necessity for success. High design has brought artisans from poverty to market players and has sometimes brought craft from the edge of extension to the spotlight of the runway. However, what we as craft advocators need to be weary of is the loss of cultural value in handmade goods that can come from homogenized marketplaces in the globalized world. The concept of high design craft needs to be coupled with public awareness and education about the cultural significance that craft can carry. Without this awareness craft can be relegated into the world of one-way globalization, where consumer products lack meaningful cultural weight as they cross borders and market boundaries.