British Museum blog

Craft in the information age

With Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening on 6 October 2011, the Museum has been asking contributors from the craft world including the Crafts Council and The Craftivist Collective to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today. In this special blog post, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry gives us his opinion on craft in the digital age, one of the diverse themes he explores in his exhibition.

Tell us your views and debate with Grayson Perry live on Twitter at 13.00 BST on Friday 16 September 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

I often feel I am under pressure to somehow represent the craft ‘community’, to be the poster boy for the handmade. I am a great lover of craft skill but I am not going to fetishise technique over artistry. The difference between craft and art I define as craft being something that can be taught, and art coming much more from the inspired individual. Many artists are extremely poor craftsmen, many crafts people are rubbish artists. I see many beautifully made things that I find pig ugly. What I will stand up for is the relevance of craft in the information age. Some people think that craft is a nostalgic activity like knitting with grandma or throwing medieval peasant pottery, I say craft is necessary and thriving more than ever in the age of the internet, Photoshop and rapid prototyping. There are some great examples in the current show at the V&A, The Power of Making.

The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail) by Grayson Perry

One of my pleasures now I have had a bit of success and a bit more money is commissioning and working with great crafts men and women. I like nothing more than designing a dress, some shoes or a motorcycle and collaborating with highly skilled individuals or teams to bring my ideas to life. I employ crafts people to assist me in casting my sculptures, printing my etchings or digitising my tapestries. None of these individuals would I describe as nostalgic or an anachronism in the digital age. In fact every one of them uses to a greater or lesser degree the wonderful technology now so woven into our lives.

My shoemaker very much depends on her website as a shop window, her footwear is for a niche market and she needs to be found by her far-flung international clientele. A rock star in L.A. can order a pair of lace thigh boots with seven-inch heels and my shoemaker can make them in an inexpensive studio in north London. I can email drawings of a detail of my motorcycle design to a custom bike builder on the south coast where he can skillfully convert them into CAD/CAM programme and the parts get milled to a standard that would be hugely time consuming and expensive if not impossible if made by hand. A friend alters photographs in Photoshop for me to get turned into ceramic transfers that I will fire onto a vase. These will be printed on a specially built inkjet printer which uses ceramic enamels making it possible to make full colour transfers much cheaper than with the old litho or silk screen method.

A pair of Grayson Perry's shoes

Digital technology brings to the craftsman and artist a range of tools that offer creative opportunities that before were too expensive for an individual making one offs, or too time consuming or just plain impossible. This technology is coming down in price all the time it won’t be long before 3D printers are as common as kilns. I think that to become skilful with these newer technologies is to be just as much of a craftsman as with a traditional weaver or potter. To get great results the user has to be just as sympathetic to the material effects of a particular digital technique. Tests have to be done and responded to just the same as I do with glazes in the kiln. The results of digital production often have a lifeless feeling that is because the machine will do exactly what is asked of it and no more, there are few ‘gifts of the fire’ as in pottery. Crafts people will become better at predicting and nuancing their instructions to the machines and digital manufacturing machines will become more refined. I look forward to an amazing era of craft and art using computers in various ways and in combination with the old techniques we know and love.

Tell us your views and debate with Grayson Perry live on Twitter at 13.00 BST on Friday 16 September 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton. Book tickets now

Images © Grayson Perry

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. bluedeva says:

    I really believe that there is a resurgence in crafts and arts in all it’s forms.
    People are sick of buying into the mass generated clothing, home wares etc that you can buy in most shops and are now looking into one off pieces that makes them feel unique.
    People are getting back into this due to the recession by making their money go further by up-cycling or recycling or by generally making things themselves.
    A lot of people are moving away from working in a cubicle or being tied down to the 9-5 jobs either through choice or through lack of available jobs and this is bringing out the creative ways to bring in extra pennies.
    The UK used to be well known for it’s cloth, lace arts and manufacturing, now all we do in import! Gone are our cloth, lace and most manufacturing industries and we need them back in order to make jobs and give much need skills back to this country and i also feel that this needs to be brought back into schools. Not every child is an academic genius but give them a skill and you give them back there true worth. Arts and crafts can do that in all it’s guises.
    With the power of the internet these people now join forces to create new ways and ideas and put them into practice. Bringing the skills into digital forms. They help and encourage each other to try new ways, using technology to make it work, almost like your very own teacher showing how to make it possible.

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  2. Anny Malama says:

    I think it’s all about consuming. In this case, consuming art on a different level. And sharing identities as well as exploring the possibilities of modernizing a society by connecting it with its “tradition”. As I am currently working on the Panhellenic Exhibitions of Popular Arts and Crafts (late 1920s to early 1950s) in Greece, I can’t help but notice that all the well known artists and architects of the period get involved and function as the mediums of connecting the “origins” with the modernist trends and movements in the country’s artistic production.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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