Over the the last month or so, most of the posts here on the site have been about Danish craftsmanship … the Biennial exhibition of Danske Kunsthåndværke og Designere, the cabinetmakers exhibiting their furniture at Øregaard, the work of ceramicistscraft and design at Superobjekt gallery in Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen af 14 August at Paustian and, most recently, a review of the exhibition Mindcraft15 that has just opened at Designmuseum Danmark. 

Thinking about the works seen in these exhibitions, there seems to be some confusion about how we use the word craft - particularly in England but also in Scandinavia - or at least some ambiguity in the way we talk about and how we define craft and some uncertainty in the role we see for craftsmanship in modern design and manufacturing.

I wrote about the English use of the words design and manufacture back in March last year but how we use certain words came up again after going to the events organised by Danske Kunsthåndværke og Designere. K&D were established in 1976 and are the association of craftsmen in Denmark - kunsthåndværke being an ‘art hand worker’ so what the English would call a craftsman. 

Here immediately are several issues. For a start compound words are used regularly in Denmark although not quite as much as in Germany. Although, obviously, in England craftsman is itself a compound word - so not craft’s man or craft-man - but the English usually draw the line at linking together more than two words. I’m not sure the English could talk happily about arthandworkers. There is no problem with designere - designer - which is rapidly becoming a universal term.

The other point, of course, is that kunsthåndværke and designere in Danish have the benefit of not being gender specific. In England, designer and artist are fine but to say someone is a good craftsman or even that their work shows craftsmanship when they are a woman now sounds, quite rightly, awkward or at least jars but equally craftswoman is slightly loaded because generally it would have been used in the past for someone good at ‘home craft' so by implication dressmaking and knitting so seen by many as far too gender specific but to call someone a craftsperson in England would also sound very odd while craftspeople sounds strangely cute and archaic. 

When I went to one of the breakfasts that were organised as part of the Hjemlighed exhbition in Copenhagen it was a good opportunity to talk to designers and artists there. A German jeweller told me that, in Germany now, to describe someone as a ‘jewellery designer’ was taken generally to imply work that was not particularly special or it was even associated with cheaper work at craft fairs so she was very careful to describe herself as a jewellery artist so she thought kunsthåndværke was a good term.

 

For the breakfast, the textile designer Anne Fabricius Møller had set the large table with a plain linen tablecloth. Towards the end of breakfast she produced fabric dye in various colours and a set of stamps with all the letters that spell Hjemlighed. Everyone around the table was encouraged to produce patterns or trace around crockery to create a unique piece to celebrate the event.

 

Clearly the concepts of craft and design are closely linked. So although it might be possible to have design without craft, it would be difficult to imagine craft without at least a first stage of design … even throwing a pot on a wheel may appear to be spontaneous but should really start with an idea or plan for what is about to be produced. 

The word design was certainly in use in England by the late 16th century to mean “a plan or scheme conceived in the mind of something to be done” which sounds fine until you realise that it also carried with it connotations that the plan or scheme formed might be to the detriment of others … so being told that another man had designs upon your wife was not particularly good. As a slight aside, in the 17th century, as a separate profession of architect evolved, separate from the role of a master mason or master carpenter in supervising the construction of a building, then the common term for what was essentially the architects design or drawing was a plat or platt.

By the late 17th century the word design was certainly being used in the present sense of being a drawing for a work of architecture or decorative art and where there was a design then the concept of a designer soon followed although it was not until the 20th century that it became a career.

Craft, implying a skill or ability in planning or designing and then constructing something, appears to date from the 16th century although its use in the context of a trade guild as in a master craftsman may be older but even then the word craft had bad connotations in that it could imply cunning as in crafty and it was not good when it was linked to the occult as in witchcraft.

 

 

Carved panel in the Arbejdermuseet in Copenhagen showing craftsmen making wheels and barrels with some of their tools.

 

From the medieval period onwards craftsmen in many cities and large towns in Europe were organised into trade groups or guilds with separate organisations for each craft so a guild for goldsmiths and a guild for leatherworkers for instance. Larger trades could be divided between several guilds so there were usually separate guilds for carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers although they shared many of the same tools and techniques. 

If there were enough men in a city who were working in a specific trade they formed a guild so in London and elsewhere there were guilds for glove makers who were separate from leatherworkers and shoe makers. Bakers guilds were common and London had a joint guild for barbers and surgeons. The number of different guilds in a medieval and early modern city gives a fairly clear idea of the wealth and importance of the town and the diversity of the goods made there. 

The craft guilds emphasised the relevance of skill and practical knowledge; set standards; provided protection for members against foreign labour and even, in the best guilds, provided support for widows and families. Many endowed schools. They were also criticised because they could restrict trade, stop imports and resist technological innovation.

 

 

The door to the Builders' or Masons' Guild in Sankt Annæ Plads in Copenhagen with the figure of a stone mason in the fan light and his tools in the round window in the middle of the door.

 

Trade and craft guilds survive and can promote the work of their members in significant ways … the Guild of Cabinetmaker’s in Copenhagen started an important annual exhibition to showcase their skills in 1927 and these continued until 1967. The current exhibition by cabinetmakers at Øregaard continues that tradition by showing the very best work by furniture makers and designers working together.

Some traditional craft skills that survive can be seen demonstrated at open air museums in Scandinavia so, for instance, blacksmiths making nails by hand or making door latches like the ones you would find in an 18th-century cottage. These may appear to be a different form of craftsmanship - fixed more clearly in our historic past - but the survival of these traditional craft skills are important outside a museum context if the skills can be applied to new forms or new ideas, making those craft skills relevant and taking them forward by giving them a new impetus and a new life. Other craft skills like leather tanning seem to have been lost.

To throw in yet another word or definition - Form Design Center in Malmö has small exhibitions under the title Månadens Formgivare or, literally, this month's form giver which is interesting because it certainly emphasises that this is the person who gives form to a design instead, presumably, of selling on the design for someone else to make. 

Would this suggest that one good definition for a craftsman is someone who designs and then makes what they design? Not necessarily so.

In some crafts, particularly for works in silver and gold and work for the finest furniture, there will almost-certainly be a large workshop or atelier and the designs would be produced by the master and, generally, the works were and still are actually produced by assistants who would probably have little or no say in the design. Having said that, it is clear that the furniture designer Hans Wegner worked very closely with the craftsmen in the workshops as he refined his designs before they went into production. There is a story of him going to a workshop to show a craftsmen how it was possible to carve a particularly complex pattern he wanted on one piece by taking the gouge and carving the design himself.

Maybe to refine the definition of the word craft it should indicate both a high level of skill and extensive training.

Heidi Zilmer, the wallpaper designer, is interesting because she is perhaps the ultimate kunsthåndværker … for some projects she actually paints by hand every small detail of a complex design on every wall of a large room … but she sees her design work as very important alongside her skills in restoring or replacing a historic wallpaper scheme. Yet her business card does not in fact, use the word designer at all but lists at the top Malermester and then Faglærer, Kunstfotograf, Dekorationsmaler, Diplommaler med udmærkelse … so master painter and then teacher, art photographer, decoration painter and diploma painter with honours. She is, quite rightly, very proud of the fact that she was trained by doing a full painter’s apprenticeship rather than going through an art school education. 

 
 

Heidi Zilmer and an assistant working on the restoration of wall paintings at Moltkes Palæ in Copenhagen in August 2015 and in the same month a display of her wallpaper at the Northmodern design fair at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.

 

Heidi Zilmer, in particular, highlights one important value of craftsmanship in the design process: a craftsman, producing one-off single high-quality pieces, can exploit rapidly changing technologies, on their own terms, and the best craftsmen take traditional craft skills and make them absolutely and completely relevant to current and forward-looking design.

This compliments the work of the industrial or product designer working on factory-scale manufacture who should take forward from the crafts appropriate craft skills and the quality controls of the very best craftsmen. Rud Rasmussen, the cabinet makers with workshops still in Copenhagen, were recently taken over by Carl Hansen but the new parent company sees clearly the commercial value of the craft tradition and in August opened a display space in Bredgade where they have recreated the work bench where the famous Faaborg Chair is still made. Similarly, Gubi, with their turned lampshades in metal, emphasise the importance of the precise craftsmanship of the work.

 
 

Rud Rasmussen - the Faaborg Chair in the showroom in Bredgade and the reconstruction of the cabinetmaker's work bench.

 

Sometimes the use of specific terms can be a problem or, rather, can be perceived to be a problem. Until relatively recently Designmuseum Danmark was called Kunstindustrie Museet. Many dislike the change of name but several people have told me that visitor numbers have gone up since the change. It would be interesting to find out if it is an increase in the number of foreign visitors who might have been put off by a misunderstanding of that phrase Kunstindustrie, assuming it to have more to do with industry than with art.

The background to this is important. Kunstindustrie Museet was founded in the late 19th century and from the start it was seen to have an important role in education. It was originally on the corner of the Tivoli site, next to what is now the confederation of Danish Industry but from 1872 was the site of the Association of Industrial Enterprises in Copenhagen or Industriforeningen I København. Both were there to showcase the very best of industrial design although the museum also built up a collection of foreign decorative arts, again as teaching tools or as exemplars.

When the museum moved to it’s current buildings in the 1920s an important function of the collection was still as a teaching resource for the training of architects and furniture designers. Kaare Klint had his drawing office in the building as he supervised the restoration and work of adaption for the new museum and from there taught architecture and design students from the Royal Academy. He also designed beautiful cabinets to house collections of objects to be used for teaching.

In a similar way, the work of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, particularly buildings and furniture by William Morris, and the establishment of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, with its collection of decorative arts that tried to show visitors the very best in design and craftsmanship, were a direct reaction to what was seen to be the very poor quality of design and production from the new factories of the industrial revolution. Factories that were producing cheap ceramics, glass ware, cutlery and furniture. In a curious way the artists of the movement kidnapped crafts and craftsmanship and established a conflict between hand-made and factory made and between what they saw as good design for the middle classes and poor design for the mass of people without addressing the issue of cost. It is curious because they advocated a return to what they saw as the values of the medieval craft guilds even though much of the craft works produced through to the 19th century in villages and rural settlements … so good vernacular furniture, baskets, locally woven textiles, treen and so on … were made locally and often made well because ordinary people could not afford to travel to larger settlements to buy more sophisticated and much more expensive items from the craftsmen of the guilds.

Ironically, some mass-produced items were poorly designed because they tried to imitate hand-crafted designs and the history of design through the 20th century could be seen primarily as the emergence of forms and styles that specifically came from industrial techniques and would be difficult to produce consistently in large numbers by hand. But is it possible that the balance has swung too far and industrial products are seen as better simply because they are consistent and egalitarian while craftsman-made works are seen instinctively, but perhaps unfairly, as expensive and elitist?

Recently, I saw an advertisement from a London company offering “industrialised craftsmanship” so presumably here the word craftsmanship is used to imply care and quality in something that is essentially machine made.

Perhaps the initial reaction is to see that as a misuse of the concept of craftsmanship - or at the very least stretching the meaning - but, on further reflection, that might be unfair because many furniture makers, of course for very obvious practical reasons, use lathes, sanding machines and electric saws so although they see themselves as cabinet makers, many of the procedures are industrial in all but scale of production. Similarly, ceramicists, using slip pouring to produce a series of very similar if not identical pieces in a mould, are simply not producing the quantity of each piece to consider themselves to be working on an ‘industrial’ scale. This is one issue that the ceramicists setting up Den Danske Keramikfabrik will have to consider. The founding group all see themselves, quite rightly, to be kunsthåndværkere … but does the description of a piece being by a craftsman and being hand made come down simply to numbers? So a unique piece of ceramics from a studio potter is art while 20 or 30 bowls produced in the workshop kiln are craftsman-made works and 10,000 plates made for IKEA are mass-produced tableware. 

Clearly this thing about names and job descriptions being slightly vague or slightly flexible is not a problem for the craftsmen and designers themselves - they know exactly where their work fits on the spectrum from being an artists through to being a freelance designer with ideas to sell for others to make or anything in between. For the consumer it is not as easy if they do not have enough experience or enough information to judge a piece in terms of quality, techniques or methods of production or even style. For instance how many could tell the difference between a well-finished hand-blown wine glass and a good moulded wine glass? Is it a problem if they can't distinguish the difference or even don't actually care? Inevitably, people resort to judging the work from the price tag. Not the best way of deciding on what is best. 

There is support for craftsmen and for craft skills in Denmark. The Danish Crafts Collection was founded in 1999 and until 2013 was organised by Danish Crafts but is now under the Danish Arts Foundation and the Danish Agency for Culture. They showcase the work of a small number of designers and craftsmen. The Biennale of Craft and Design started in 1994 - on the initiative of Kunsthåndværke og Designere - the association of Danish Crafts & Designers - and the association itself dates back to 1976. They have an extensive index of kunsthåndværkere - craftsmen - on their site with a number of images and contact details.

Is any of this really relevant to design and production in the 21st century?

At a fundamental level, traditional craft skills do have direct relevance for design and for industrial production. Understanding core craft techniques should be a major part of the training for designers. Perhaps a fashion designer or a star architect could design an own-name-brand range of ceramics for instance but I’m not sure how they they could be produced without the input of someone who understood completely the technical side of production and that would almost certainly come from an understanding of the craft tradition and context. My point really is that craft skills should not be relegated to a back-room role but should be strongly promoted.

Even at a school level, teaching about crafts and about appreciating design and materials is important. I have said elsewhere that although I went to a grammar school - so a school focused on academic work - I had to do woodwork, metal work and technical drawing - so I was taught to cut dovetail joints, beat out a copper bowl and taught to weld and from the age of 12 could understand a technical drawing. And I had to do art - no option to drop the subject even if you claimed you wanted to be a scientist - so I learnt how to screen print a textile, made slab pots and used a potters wheel. That level of teaching does not mean that I could work professionally as a craftsman but it does mean that I was exposed to ideas and techniques that might have been options for a career and certainly all that makes me a more critical and more astute buyer of furniture and household design. In Denmark, school buildings have a high level of good design and playgrounds, school equipment and children's toys are superb but that teaches design by immersion - not by hands-on practice - and several people here have said that even in Denmark teaching art, crafts and design is now less of a priority in the school system.

With food in Copenhagen there has been a huge interest in artisan production, with a conscious move to take the best from the past and, with a clear interest in local production, to give food a sense of context and a sense of place. Maybe this really is the time to broaden that to furniture, general design and architecture. That is not to advocate isolation for design or trade protection for manufacturers but simply to suggest that a bland international style determined by international companies for economy of scale - and with it a focus primarily on profit - may not be the only or even the best way forward.

When I began this blog site I visited Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen in a single grand tour to look at as many design museums and design shops as possible to fix in my mind the current state of design in each country. I expected Denmark to have a strong ongoing design industry and it has. I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, at the strength and confidence of the design quarter in Helsinki. The design museum and the Museum of Finland's Architecture in Helsinki seem to be strong and very active. Sweden has a dynamic and fashion-conscious furniture industry and from recent exhibitions at Form, the design museum in Malmö, there is an increasingly lively debate about the role of traditional crafts and local industrial production for household design. In Oslo, in three of the major furniture stores, I asked about Norwegian design they stocked, and for furniture it was depressingly little - in one large furniture store just one chair was Norwegian. I was told that most young people in Oslo and even older couples retiring to the new apartments around the harbour were buying German and Italian furniture. There are amazing exhibitions at DogA, the National Museum of Architecture is excellent and young Norwegian architects seem to be pushing forward hard but furniture design seems to be lagging, certainly at a commercial level. Having said that, it is ironic that what I think is the best magazine on Scandinavian design is Nytt Rom, and that is Norwegian.

Even in Copenhagen the design market could be broader. Ask anyone about Danish design and they think immediately about furniture which is recognised as up there with the best in the world if not as the best. Danish lighting design is renowned. Tableware good but not broadly world beating and textiles, both woven and printed are nowhere near as strong as they were. 

Here, in Copenhagen visitors are clearly impressed by the scale and extent of new developments with thousands of new apartments being constructed. Curiously, few people seem to see this expansion in a broader historic context. If you had arrived in Copenhagen in 1880 or 1890 the expansion of the city then was actually much more extensive and much more impressive than the current works. The city defences were removed in the 1870s and between then and 1910 a phenomenal number of apartment buildings were constructed in a great swathe around the west side of the city from Tivoli round to the Kastellet and around squares and along avenues running out to the lakes and then well beyond. What is probably more important is that almost-certainly all those new apartments were furnished with chairs and tables and fitted out with curtains and tableware that would have been made by craftsmen working in workshops in the city.

As Copenhagen grew, there were growing numbers of a wealthy professional class and increasingly a growing skilled or professional working class who all wanted and could afford better furniture and household goods. That is what drove the design industry in Denmark and carried it through the 20th century.

And at the same time there were technical and manufacturing developments that at first helped to fulfil the demand then rapidly dominated the supply and began to drive demand ... that dreaded concept of aspiration driven by advertising. For much of the second half of the 20th century craftsmen have been marginalised. Or at least they have moved from being the primary suppliers of essential furniture and household goods of the very highest quality to artists making works that appear as much in museums as in homes. 

I would be curious to find out how many of the new apartments being constructed in Copenhagen - over a century after the apartments of Israels Plads and Stockholmsgade or the apartments of Østerbro and Nørrebro - are being furnished with goods designed and made in Denmark by craftsmen.

 

5th October 2015