Towards Craft Futures

Over the past few years I have been working on research into craft economies as part of my PhD at Queensland University of Technology, School of Design. As the formal process is drawing closer to the end, I am finding that I have only scratched the surface of a very important topic of craft practice's role in sustainable futures.

I have been surrounded by craft practices my whole life, and being a descendant of tailors and furniture makers, I feel so deeply integrated into a craft-oriented world that I have, for a long time, taken it for granted. I had not fully recognised the potential of craft practice as a vehicle for sustainable futures or a focus of further study, until around 2008 when I was studying the Master of Design Futures at Queensland College of Art with Dr Tony Fry. His critique of contemporary design as a servant to corporate capitalism, and its complicity in our unsustainable ways of living, resonated with me at a time when I was just about to throw in the towel with the whole business of the design industry.

Working in a small furniture design and manufacturing company, I had always had an uncomfortable relationship with the marketing and designing side of furniture making. Australian furniture manufacturing had been in a slow but steady decline for a number of years, and it was becoming more and more difficult for local, small manufacturers to compete with bigger market forces driving imports. And it wasn't just the cheap, low quality imports that proved damaging, but those masses of (mostly over-priced, low quality) European brands brought in by businessmen more interested in the commodity characteristics to care about the effects on a weary local manufacturing sector. Some of these importers have since changed their tune to include local brands, seeing a marketing opportunity in the resurgence of a grass-roots furniture design / manufacturing industry - in its authenticity and all. Sure, there may be money to be made on the back of a few emerging designers able to tap into an alternate world view of eco-consumption, but I see this just part of the latest design trend.

As Susan Luckman1 proposes we are living through the third wave of interest in craft, following the first of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the second of the hippy counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. During this most recent wave we have seen a rise in DIY, craft breweries, restoration and mending, maker labs, recycled pallet furniture, and a plethora of hipster paraphernalia - all in line with living authentically against a hostile culture of mass-production. I agree with Luckman's concern that like all fashion "craft's moment in the sun will fade" and fear that it may be so that when all of this gets tiring, when fledgling businesses lose their customer's interest, and suppliers become too unreliable, that we will lose all that making potential.

Any craft-based manufacturing is difficult regardless of the scale. It requires persistence, the commitment of a lifetime developing knowledge and skills, a reliable labour force, and a lot of support from associated businesses and suppliers. Returns are not instant and making the economic equation work long term is full of compromises.

The furniture manufacturing industry has lost local suppliers that are integral to bringing us sustainable materials, and we no longer make our own supplies here: textiles, plywood, tools, components are mostly imported. One of the most important sustainable resources available to manufacturing is local timber, and instead of ensuring sustainable management of our forests (yes, it is possible), our politicised forestry industry is yet to figure out how to grow and harvest trees in a sustainable manner.

But the most crucial aspect of craft-making that is nearly lost, most certainly endangered, is the people with the craft skills. There has been a multi-pronged offensive against craft skills from technology and off-shoring, and being witness to this unfolding has been excruciating. We are ramping up the rhetoric about the inevitable automation of jobs, which is frustrating. What we are talking about - the replacing of human skills and of human agency with machines in the interests of large corporations - is deeply offensive to me and I cannot understand why it doesn't seem to offend others. Maybe we think that our technological progress so far has been beneficial to humanity so what ever these technologists have in store for us must be good, or that the tide is so strong and cannot be fought. Whatever it may be, I am nonetheless angry that we are willing to capitulate and give up our own individual power so easily.

I have wondered what would have happened if 20 years ago all of that money invested in mining and importing was instead used to create a sustainable manufacturing industry. Certainly for furniture manufacturing, we would not have permanently lost tens of thousands of jobs, and we wouldn't have imported furniture brands outnumbering local brands by about 100:1. Perhaps the Australian consumer would have come to respect local design and manufacturing, perhaps the local design students would have small manufacturers to visit as they dream of local design jobs, and perhaps the people with the skills could have passed them onto the next generation.

Back in 2008, at the beginning of the great non-recession (because it never formally happened in Australia, except to all those small businesses) I had become quite disillusioned with the whole industry and was fed up with the struggles. But I wasn't looking for a way out of making, I was looking for a way out of the toxic competition, the green-washing claims of sustainability and the lack of integrity in an industry where designers pander to tiresome trend-following clients.

At this crucial time, I began the masters program, and through it I found a small group of people with similar misgivings about their design professions, and ever the optimist, I became very excited about our commonalities and the potential to make a difference. That there was interest in what I had been arguing for in practice, made me realise that this thing about craft was bigger and more significant than I had imagined. I started to see connections between craft as a life-affirming, sustainable practice and its critical role providing pathways to sustainable futures. In acknowledging that the relationship between the hand and the mind is the most fundamental of our being human, I had come to notice that craft practice is related to everything - manufacturing, art, fixing, gardening, music, cooking, dressmaking, surgery, building - and therefore too valuable to lose to technology and off-shoring.

As I'm taking my interest in craft practice further through the PhD study and other work, I can see the objectives of my continued craft project grow and develop. It is no longer just about furniture making, although this is still my reference point, it is now about the very future of human skills.

1. Luckman, S. (2015). Craft and the creative economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.