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Art and Design Essay Sample: Craftsmanship in Contemporary

Is there any point to Craftsmanship in Contemporary Design?


Craftsmanship can be defined as the creation of a physical object by the application of skill and attention to detail. This is a somewhat dry and lifeless definition of an ancient trade which has served multiple uses in a variety of cultures over the course of history.

“Craft often gets described in negative comparison with art, craft being a bit like art but not so amazing.” (Mitchell, 2005)

And yet crafts possess an extraordinary diversity of uses. They can be a decorative piece for adorning the home, a link to understanding a specific culture, a pragmatic tool, a piece of jewellery, and many more purposes. For the Moro tribe of the Philippines, craftsmanship fulfils two important functions of creating tools with which to hunt and a means of renewing community bonds which help to quell conflict. The figurative lintels and elongated masks crafted by the Pende of Kwilu are used to honour dead ancestors and remember the lessons that were handed down to them. And for the Kenyah-Kayan, crafts serve to ward of malevolent spirits in the hope of ensuring the fertility and an abundant rice harvest.

In contemporary design, the role of craftsmanship is perhaps most prevalent in the creation of jewellery. This form of craftsmanship has also served many purposes such as to ward off evil, to symbolise a bond between two people, or as a signifier of power, status, or belonging to a particular group with particular beliefs. In the modern world, jewellery could be said to serve as an expression of one’s unique character, for to change your visual appearance is to alter the way in which you are perceived by others. Yet in recent years this essential function has been marred by the mechanical process of mass production.

This mass production has been fuelled by a demand for artworks with which people the world over use to adorn their homes and bodies. What is this need for bracelets, rugs, carvings, paper weights, wall hangings? The answer is that crafts, in their multitudinous shapes and styles, all share one common attribute: they are each an expression of individuality. It is this uniqueness which makes a craft meaningful and personal – something which has become increasingly lost in today’s world of consumerism and mass production.

This essay explores growing importance of individual craftsmanship over uniform mass production. It examines the role of craftsmanship in contemporary design, and illuminates the shifting context in which contemporary design takes place.

Uniqueness or Uniformity

“I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
(Blake, 1794)

William Blake’s acclaimed poem speaks of the threat which the industrial revolution posed: a uniformity devoid of uniqueness and originality. The modern world is, in many ways, far more uniform than it was in Blake’s time. The high streets of developed cities are awash with chain stores, each McDonald’s serving identical cheeseburgers in identical packaging; each Starbucks offering identical mugs. Children’s toys are produced en masse in factories, most of them in China. Clothes purchased from Primark, Topman, and Burton are worn in identical fashion by thousands around the UK.

Why is uniqueness important? Whilst we humans are irrevocably connected to the world around us, we are also each a unique being, formed by the culture of which we are a part, moulded by ever shifting environments and by those that inhabit them. We live in a world of perpetually shifting stimuli which we experience differently as our personalities change in relation to the rich and endlessly varied cosmos of textures and tastes, of sights and sounds and scents.

“The animate earth – this moody terrain that we experience differently in anger and in joy, in grief and in love… Our spontaneous experience of the world, charged with subjective, emotional, and intuitive content, remains the vital and dark ground of all our objectivity.” (Abram, 1996)

Each and every aspect of our world has its own uniqueness and it is our sensorial experience of this diversity which makes us human. Without variety, without diversity, we simply would not exist. This may sound like exaggeration until you imagine what you would be like had your entire experience of the world been limited to the confines of a square, grey room.

“At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvellously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.” (Nietzsche, 1878)

The same could not be said for a Barbie doll, nor the factories which produce them. A carved wooden statue of an Alaskan Grey Wolf, however, may share some of the imperfections and spiritual attributes of its Koyukon creator, thus existing as the only one of its kind. Unique crafts not only provide a link to specific cultures and ways of life, but they also provide a diversity of meaningful expressions, for when a person chooses to change their appearance, they are at once making an expression and shifting the way in which others will perceive them.

Industrialisation and Mass Production

A unique, handmade willow bracelet may be worn as a symbol of friendship between two people, or an expression of one’s affinity for the natural world, or any number of meaningful reasons. Conversely, identical, mass produced gold earrings worn by thousands around the country are lacking in the same kind of depth and unique personal expression. What, then, is the point of wearing mass-produced jewellery?

There is a clear disparity between consumers’ desire for meaningful pieces of art or crafts which express uniqueness, and legions of identical products lining the shelves of supermarkets. Unique crafts, by their nature, cannot currently compete on a commercial level with their mass produced counter parts, yet it is only through sheer force of numbers that uniform products dominate the market. These products lack the emotional qualities imbued in pieces crafted by skilled individuals, largely due to the mechanical process of mass production. For example, the shape, colour, texture, and materials of a mass produced Pokemon toy are defined largely by both the technical restrictions of the factory process and the financial incentive of cutting costs, which is much more prevalent in big business than in the trade of an individual craftsman. Clearly there is a need to involve the more creatively inspired individuals in the process.

“If your let designers dominate the engineers you end up having a very emotional car… If you let the engineers dominate then you are going to have very boring cars.” (Ghosn, 2009)

For a car company to be successful, it must produce vehicles which are at once technically efficient and emotionally evocative. Many crafts, however, do not require technical efficiency. The craft of jewellery making is a good example of a craft which relies almost entirely on its designer to imbue an emotional attraction in order for it to be a commercially successful product. Yet there is a danger in the segregation of design and implementation (that is, the process of physically manifesting the design). For arts and crafts to have an emotional pull, a great deal of skill, finesse, and attention to detail is required to bring out the subtleties of the design. The industrial revolution entrenched a separation between design and production, where machines became increasingly relied upon to carry out the job of the designer. The revolutionary craftsman, William Morris, was acutely aware of this flaw.

“It was Morris’s contention that labour undertaken with joy and a sense of meaning would yield a superior product. Mechanical, repetitive, and isolated labour, therefore, was much to blame for the bland, spiritless perfection of mass-produced art.” (Burdick, 1997)

Morris made a bold attempt to reconcile unique craftsmanship with the financial realities of running a business in competition with mass production. Although not entirely successful in his ambitious goals, Morris stands out as a luminary of craftsmanship in the industrial revolution: a time when mass production was gathering unstoppable momentum. Today, the vast majority of products are mass-produced, yet the cost of sacrificing quality can be monumental, as it was to Gerald Rant, who said during a speech at the Institute of Directors:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’, I say, ‘because it’s total crap.’” (Ratner, 1991)

The speech cost Ratner’s company around £500 million. In times of economic recession, rising crime rates, and escalating productions costs, the demand for expensive, mass produced jewellery made from rare materials is declining. This is further compounded when many of the raw materials used in jewellery production are rising.

“The price of gold has reached yet another all-time high, hitting $914 an ounce.” (BBC News, 2008)

However, perhaps the most critical threat facing mass production are the combined effects of peak oil and climate change, and it is only in the context of these twin forces can the role of craftsmanship in contemporary design be understood.

Contemporary Design in a Changing World

As we have seen, industrialisation and the mass production it breeds had a significant impact on the creation of unique crafts and jewellery. However, this mass production has only been made possible by an abundance of highly concentrated, cheap energy in coal, natural gas, and most importantly crude oil.

To gain a better understanding of how reliant the mass production of the crafts industry is upon oil, it is useful to break down the process by which it is created and distributed. Consider, for examples, the raw materials with which jewellery is most often made; gold, silver, and diamonds. These must each be mined, usually from deep within the ground, the majority of which is acquired using petroleum fuelled extraction machines. The top gold producing country is South Africa, the top silver producing country is Peru, and biggest producer of diamonds is Russia, however, the biggest manufactures of jewellery are China and India. The precious materials used in jewellery production are transported by cargo carrying planes and ships, both of which require oil to function. The factories which mass produce the jewellery are also oil-reliant, as are the transportation mechanisms used to distribute the products to shops all over the world.

With oil prices continuing a steady ascent, jewellery producers are forced to raise the price of their products or suffer a loss. This, however, is minute disturbance compared to the effects of large scale oil depletion, and whilst there is still debate as to the specific point in time at which large scale oil scarcity will occur, the majority of analysts predict global oil production will fall significantly in the next three decades.

“By 2035 oil production will likely be 75 percent down on the coming peak, and gas production about 60 percent down… US domestic oil and gas production will be practically non-existent… The maximum rate of oil production, even in today’s larger producer countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, will have declined significantly.” (Heinberg 2004)

As oil usage continues to outweigh production, prices will inevitably increase to the point where oil is worth more than the profit gained from the jewellery production it fuels. Rising oil prices and a need to dramatically shrink carbon emissions in response to global heating are already having an impact on the design and manufacture of contemporary crafts and jewellery, but these effects pale in comparison to the more fundamental changes set to be occurring over the next few decades.

Indeed, the societies of the developed world so heavily reliant on oil that when the global demand for oil exceeds the supply, the context in which design and craftsmanship exist will also go through radical change. To properly understand this context, it is essential to consider the effects of oil depletion in relation to climate change and population growth.

As of December 20th, 2009, The United States Census Bureau estimated the current world population to be at 6.79 billion people. In 1800, the world’s population was estimated to be less than 1 billion. This exponential increase over the last two hundred years has been made possible, in large part, to the mechanisation of agriculture. Oil powered machines and oil based fertilisers have allowed us to produce the enormous amount of food required to support a huge population. As oil becomes increasingly scarce, so will food. During a speech this year at the UK’s Sustainable Development conference, John Beddington (the UK’s chief science advisor) outlined the some of the most critical challenges facing us in the coming decades.

“By 2030, the demand for food is going to be increased by about 50%… One in three people are already facing water shortages and the total world demand for water is predicted to increase by 30% by 2030.” (Beddington, 2009)

It is clear that the combined problems of population and oil depletion are changing what we consider contemporary design to be, but to understand the role of craftsmanship in this context, the issues of food, water, and energy scarcity cannot be considered in isolation from the effects of global climate change.

“All the modelling we do shows that the climate is poised on the jump up to a new hot state. It is accelerating so fast that you could say that we are already in it.” (Lovelock, 2008)

In a global hot state, the challenges of food and water scarcity are further enhanced, for example, in many countries it will be too hot to grow enough food to support the population. Furthermore, as the earth temperature increases, sea levels rise, increasing the number and ferocity of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes. This means it is probable that there will be an influx of climate refugees into countries whose conditions are not so severely affected.

In an optimistic scenario we will find solutions to food, water, and energy crisis in the context of severe climate disruption, but even if we succeed in minimising the damage, it is extremely unlikely that we will have the resources to continue the mass production of crafts and jewellery. It is, however, very probable that we will see a shift to locally focused systems of food production, energy generation, and general way of life. Even if we can avoid mass power-cuts, our consumption will have to drop, and there will likely be a partial shift from urbanisation to re-ruralisation. A resurgence in local craftsmanship will almost certainly evolve from this return to local culture, and craftsmanship will be much more valuable skill than it is in today’s oil powered, globalised world.


In today’s world of consumerism, mass-production, and escalating resource crisis, craftsmanship plays a vital role in contemporary design. Without craftsmen of some form, we lose the uniqueness and diversity which enrich our creative expression and individuality, and enrich our sensorial experience of the world with a phantasmagoria of shapes, colours, textures, and meaning. Thus, without craftsmanship, not only is the quality of art is diminished, but the quality life also.

Without the abundance of excess fuel to power the vehicles and factories necessary for mass production, the role of design and production will, in many cases, be once again taken up by individual craftsmen. These skilled artisans will create many of the tools with which we will need in everyday lives; from growing food, to building shelter, and weather the combined effects of climate catastrophe and energy crisis. Craftsman will not only be increasingly relied upon to aid these pragmatic necessities, but also to fulfil the role of creating unique pieces of art and jewellery, and such cases we will be privileged to a much richer diversity of personal expression and creativity.

“Not on one strand are all life’s jewels strung.”
(Morris, 1880)

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