About NEW CRAFTS.
From Photoshop to 3D design and from apps to the metaverse: the speed at which these terms have become mainstream illustrates the swift pace of technological development. The question arises how this will affect contemporary crafts, and vice versa. At first glance, the two disciplines seem to be polar opposites: physical versus virtual, manual versus automatic. At the same time, passionate makers are active in both domains, dedicated to the creation of aesthetic, functional and challenging products – whether intended for the physical world or the universe within the edges of a computer screen.
Within this project, craftspeople and digital makers were brought together last year with the aim to stimulate knowledge exchange, experimentation and research.
It is not yet commonplace for these makers to meet, even if the cross-fertilisation between physical and digital technologies offers numerous opportunities for artistic, technical and social innovation. This perspective was the starting point for the incentive programme New Crafts of Crafts Council Nederland. Within this project, craftspeople and digital makers were brought together last year with the aim to stimulate knowledge exchange, experimentation and research.
Through an open call, eight teams of two to three people were formed, each consisting of at least one craftsperson and one digital maker. Over the past months, they worked on their own projects at the intersection of crafts and digital techniques, either remotely or at a location of their own choice. In order to highlight a wide range of working methods, each team involved a different craft: weaving, goldsmithing, saddle-making, paper-making, embroidery, ceramics, basket weaving or knitting. Each craft engaged with digital techniques differently, and with diverse results. Those results – whether products, prototypes, or processes – will be on show during Dutch Design Week from 22 to 29 October 2022.
During the project, some participants were driven by pure curiosity; others searched specifically for alternative working methods, a concrete solution to a design problem or new ways of communicating and knowledge transfer. Their research questions were always the starting point for a valuable exchange that offered a fresh take on existing crafts and brought new forms of craft into being.
The value of digital technology for crafts
Digital technology can be of great value to craft makers, not in the least on a practical level. Many makers initially take up digital technologies because they help them produce faster, more efficiently or on a larger scale. For example, this is the case for Martine van ’t Hul, who for years embroidered only by hand but nowadays also uses a computerised embroidery machine, as it allows her to carry out larger and otherwise commercially unviable commissions.
Digital techniques can also save artisans work. For instance, 3D design software enables digital visualisations that can replace the creation of physical models. Whenever physical models are still required, digital techniques can help with their design and production: instead of executing the models manually, they can be digitally generated and 3D printed. The same is possible for moulds, for example, to shape ceramics or paper. After extensive experimentation with digital design and manufacturing techniques, designer Nina van Bart, product designer and ceramist Marieke van Heesbeen and 3D designer Roel Deden found that these methods can help makers save time and materials.
Speed, efficiency, and scale are values not usually associated with crafts, but rather with industrial production. However, even if a step towards digital technology can feel like a step away from crafts, it sometimes actually brings crafts closer. Digital production can provide the financial leeway some makers need to continue practising their craft, against the background of rising labour costs and lowering product prices.
Speed, efficiency, and scale are values not usually associated with crafts, but rather with industrial production.
In addition, the help of digital techniques can make the craft process more fun and interesting, as elements of the process that may feel laborious or obligatory for some makers – such as making moulds – are removed. This leaves more hours for the creative thought process, feedback, and reflection. In short, integrating digital techniques can pay off not just economically, but also artistically.
Moreover, digital techniques can further challenge the maker’s creativity. Digital modelling can release their imagination from the demands of the physical world, such as thinking about material costs or gravity. This is even more true for designers who create both in and for the virtual world, such as Flavia Bon and Anita Michaluszko, who, among other things, develop clothes and textiles for games and the metaverse. Leaving the practicalities and limits of material production out of the equation unlocks endless creative possibilities.
Digital technology, in short, opens many doors. However, computers and computer-controlled machines come with their limitations. Embroidery machines cannot just stitch any motif quickly and flawlessly – they have their own logic and programming. Computers can glitch or crash when they are overcharged with tasks. In this sense, machines are far from passive instruments that simply do what one tells them to do. It is up to creators to be inventive and manoeuvre around these obstacles, or instead engage with them and be surprised or inspired.
The value of craft for digital technology
At the same time, craft makers are very important for the functioning and development of digital technology. Time and again, craft proves to be the basis for virtual renderings of the physical world. For example, an understanding of tailoring techniques is essential to construct and animate a virtual garment, and to ensure that the material does not look flat, but moves and shines as it would outside in the streets.
This grounding in reality is not only a technical necessity, but also important to avoid the alienation of digital technology and its products. Even if virtual fashion has no physical limits, it is a certain dose of realism that keeps these garments believable and palpable. An embroidery machine perhaps gains even more value when it not only delivers perfect, pre-programmed products, but also makes ‘human’ mistakes, resulting in embroidery with a handcrafted feel.
The knowledge and experience of artisans are equally vital for testing the feasibility of digital designs. They know the forces and interests at play in practice and can assess, sometimes even before a design is implemented, what it adds and still lacks. Is this innovative saddle suitable for both horses and riders? How will this 3D-designed tool work on metal, and what might its applications be?
Craft knowledge and experience are also much needed for the execution of products itself. Some techniques, such as braiding, turning or knotting, are not manageable by machines and may never be in the future. In addition, objects made of natural materials like leather, clay or plant fibres require handling by someone who knows the materials inside out. Unlike the behaviour of plastics, for example, the reactions of natural materials are difficult to predict. Makers must consider specific stresses and breaking points or the material’s response to heat, cold, moisture or dryness. In addition, such an understanding of natural materials is gaining further relevance in the context of sustainability and the circular transition.
With that understanding, craft makers can also challenge machines. This is done mainly by constantly posing new challenges to machines based on experiences from daily practice. For instance, craft makers can stimulate the development of new software that can predict or simulate the functioning of natural materials, or make suggestions for translating craft techniques into digital technology, resulting in new processes or functions. In this way, craft makers push digital technology forward into the future through age-old technology.
Crafts propel digital technology forward by continuously challenging it, demonstrating the actuality and urgency of craft itself.
Considering this, the title New Crafts can be interpreted in several ways. On the one hand, new forms of craft emerge in the convergence of craft and digital technology, at the level of design, production and execution. At the same time, crafts propel digital technology forward by continuously challenging it, demonstrating the actuality and urgency of craft itself. In these processes, craft and digital technology sometimes become so intertwined that the distinction is no longer clear.
Perhaps that distinction was never that sharp. Even before New Crafts, many craft makers worked with digital technology, such as computers and smartphones, to facilitate parts of their process, like drawing designs or exchanging files. For their part, digital designers sometimes pick up a pen and paper to draw or edit their 3D-printed objects by hand. In addition, digital making processes also appear to have craft characteristics: there may not be weaving or sculpting, but there is careful clicking and dragging with a cursor. In short, New Crafts also takes a fresh look at existing crafts and questions their boundaries.
Collaboration is crucial here, as it makes visible where makers find common ground and where there is room to learn new things learn from each other. Besides insights, collaborations can yield original creations. Sometimes only two or three people are needed to develop substantial innovations in terms of processes or products, such as a way to model paper in 3D or a prototype for a smart saddle. With each result, new questions emerge. Boldly, artisan and digital makers pave their way across a largely unexplored terrain, constantly advancing – as does their horizon.
Team Crafts Council Nederland:
Willemien Ippel and
Studio Jeroen van Veluw
van Leeuwen & van Leeuwen
NEW CRAFTS is financially made possible by the Creative Industries Fund NL and The Creative Europe Program of the European Union.