A great divide has always stood between craft and technology. A misconception that technology will kill off the traditional production methods that are the hallmarks of precision, quality, and attention to detail.
But is there any reason why Britain’s rich history of quality artisans cannot co-exist alongside the latest technological advancements, or more than this, work together to create a better designed, more sustainable, and speedier manufacturing process?
We’re already seeing the influence of 3D printing, where historically, technology has continually influenced manufacturing. In the 1980s we saw the overnight revolution of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) on engineering, but now there are designers making strides to cross the divide and use the latest tech to usher in a new age of digital craftsmen.
Lab Craft is an exhibition currently touring the country funded by the Crafts Council, showcasing a collective of designers who have used the latest innovations to create a number of different every day products, from chairs, tables, and cups to jewellery.
But just because these designers are using modern technology, it does not mean the pivotal input of human touch and creativity is made redundant. Far from it in fact: a new extension to what a craftsmen can achieve has been born, from three dimensionally printed objects and material cut by computer controlled lasers and milling machines, to sound waves turned into physical objects using sensors and scanners.
“For some, the words ‘digital’ and ‘craft’ don’t marry naturally in the same sentence,” Max Fraser, Lab Craft curator says regarding the exhibition. “Digital processes are often assumed to be too linear, rigid and mathematical to fit the more human-centred definition of craft – where time, patience, evidence of hand skill, rarity, chance, snap decisions and risk of failure are all contributing factors to an object’s charm and value.”
“Contemporary craft need not be defined by genre: it can include a wide range of media, but whatever the medium, craft practice is at the core of the making process. It is a combination of hand, mind and eye – the technical mastery of tools, materials, aesthetic sensibility and design skills.”
The possibility of making errors adds to the authenticity of a handmade product for some: a slight smudge on a hand painted tie, or the natural charm of a rough edge on a hand built table. This is something that some think would be lost, but the pure essence of the human input is still central to the design process even using technology.
“In the 21st century, technology has significantly infiltrated our lives. The word ‘digital’ is used and understood extensively. Across its various guises, people commonly associate the word with computers, gadgets and sophisticated technologies,” Fraser explained.
“Since the advent of computers in the 20th century, the term ‘digital’ has been applied in numerous ways; it began in the hands of the privileged few and, like most innovations, evolved exponentially to become commonplace. Nowadays, it is rare to encounter someone who doesn’t own a mobile phone. Indeed, most homes have at least one computer and a broadband connection.”
But the question remains. “How can craft practitioners manipulate technology to create a unique visual language?” Fraser asks. “How can one shape the technology to the user, rather than being constricted by established data algorithms? Or should practitioners be investing in understanding and developing their own code? Does the software’s standardised toolset risk eroding the autonomy of the individual? And if so, can the software and hardware somehow be unraveled, or even hacked? This exhibition aims to answer some of those questions, and many of the works reveal that exploitation of the flaws in the digital technologies is very much part of the maker’s journey.”
What can be forgotten is how the two opposing schools of design actually overlap, with the handmade touch a very important element behind software, hardware and digital product development.
“Indeed, digital and handmade elements often coexist and overlap,” Fraser says. “Sometimes on practical grounds whereby one process is simply more suitable than the other, or as a way of adding aesthetic and textural complexity to soften a digital aesthetic which is sometimes deemed too ‘perfect’. As some of the works suggest, hand intervention is very much celebrated within the digital context.”
The exhibition includes 26 designers from around the world who have incorporated a variety of technologies to assist in the creation of an array of products – all the designers are pushing the boundaries to merge design and innovation.
Zachary Eastwood-Bloom has created “Information Ate My Table” a table with a chunk missing from it, but made using rapid prototyping, an additive form of manufacturing similar to 3D printing, and CNC milling, a milling machine digitally automated via computer numerical control. The finished product showcases that human input is behind every element of the design process, embodied by a large pre-meditated imperfection in the design.
Former studio potter Michael Eden meanwhile has used digital tools to create “The Babel Vessel #1” with Eden able to expand his design practice into glass and furniture by merging his 20-year-old pottering craft with digital techniques – in this case 3D printing. Scottish artist, designer and lecturer Geoffrey Mann has a fascination with transporting the ephemeral nature of time and motion, creating a studio that challenges the existing divides in design and craft. One of the products, “Shine” is a victorian candelabra, created using a 3D scanner. Upon scanning the metallic object, the laser beam is unable to distinguish between the surface and the reflection; creating an off-shoot of spikes that can only be created by merging technology and design.
Fraser is of the belief that craftsmen can embrace new innovations, but he does admit that for some it’s still a taboo subject.
“During my research amongst the digital community it was a sensitive issue as to whether or not objects derived from digital processes warrant being labelled as ‘craft’,” Fraser admitted.”
“Within a historical context, computerisation is certainly a recent development. To emerging generations, however, life without such technologies is unimaginable. Indeed, whether we like it or not, the presence of digital technologies is totally ingrained in our daily lives today,” Fraser says.
“To a younger generation, the terms ‘analogue’ and ‘mechanical’ are redundant as they fully embrace the ‘digital age’ and the seemingly endless opportunities it offers. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that our material world is being shaped by the advent of revolutionary digital tools and production capabilities.It is my hope that Lab Craft, through the complexity and diversity of its exhibits, will widen the debate and ultimately cement digital practice within the very fabric of 21st century craft.”
Old-school craft and modern technology may still sound like an odd couple, but exhibitions like Lab Craft are achieving a gradual shift in perception. Designers now look on in wonder at what one can achieve using 3D printing and other additive techniques. Rather than grip tightly to a nostalgic age of workshops, where painstaking chiseling, and sweat of your brow were the key ingredients to a handmade table, digital tools have moved the goalposts, and rather then creating an ‘us and them’ hysteria – together a groundbreaking era in product design and manufacturing is on the horizon.
As Fraser puts it, has there ever been a more innovative period in design? “This is an exciting extension to the maker’s toolbox showcasing a variety of items that utilise digital technologies, wholly or in part, in the pursuit of pioneering new outcomes.”