If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Crafts & Industrial Design

For most people art is like air. It's all around you, you breathe it, you need it to live, but you don't see it. It's invisible. You don't think about it. This is how most people feel about crafts - everyday ordinary objects. When you buy one, you might pick the one you think looks nicest, but it's not what you think about when you say to yourself, "I need to go to the store and get a new bowl." You know you're going to buy one no matter how they look because you need one. And you really don't care which extension cord or lawn mower looks the prettiest.

So it's easy to forget that all the things we buy and use are actually designed by artists (Some might argue over the differences between "artists" and designers. In this lesson I'm using the words synonymously for people involved in creative tasks).

In the past it was different. Instead of factories, there were local workshops that produced a variety of crafts. You could meet the craftsmen, who were often your friends and neighbours, and make special orders. These craftsmen made a reputation for themselves with high quality products and beautiful designs. Today their works are highly prized by collectors. Names like Tiffany glass, Chippendale furniture, and Wedgwood pottery can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Portland Vase by Josiah Wedgwood, 1790, England,
Victoria & Albert Museum

Our relationship with everyday objects and tools changed with the industrial revolution. Now we don't think of them as crafts, but as designs. The difference between a craftsman and a designer is a craftsman sits down and makes his or her ideas, but a designer just plans them on paper, or in a computer program. Then a factory mass produces them, and they go to shops all over the world. Mass production makes things very cheap, so people all over the world can enjoy a level of wealth that was unimaginable in previous centuries. Not everyone in the past could afford such luxuries as a Wedgwood vase. Many people made their own crafts which, while often plain and crude, are also prized today as folk art.

Designers often have different concerns than craftsmen, because they work for large companies. Little differences in a design that lower the cost might not matter to a craftsman, but are extremely important to a modern industrial designer. When you're making over a million copies of a product, a one-cent savings here or there can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and with big business, profit is everything. That's why modern designers consider the best way to stack and pack their designs into boxes for shipping. That's why advertisers often use white backgrounds in posters:

(they're saving money on ink).

There are still many great artists/designers in our world who make beautiful products, often at low prices, and some are also collectible (beauty will always be prized). But I'm not sure if people value everyday objects the way we did in the past, especially when many things we use today are designed to be thrown away - paper cups, plastic forks, cardboard boxes, and candy wrappers. I imagine towns used to look much nicer when there were no cheap products to litter streets with - like potato chip bags, soda bottles, popsicle sticks, etc. Even when people used "folk art" crafts that they made themselves, there must have been a greater appreciation and love for these things - the joy of doing it right, of making something special for your family and friends. Sometimes I wonder, when machines eventually do everything for us, what will humanity turn into?

Here are some more famous craftsmen you might be interested in:

black figure amphora with Achilles and Ajax playing a game by Exekias, 530 BC

silver pocket watch by Edward East, English, 1645

candlesticks by George Michael Moser, English, 1740
from the Victoria & Albert Museum

side table by Thomas Chippendale, 1778,

quilt by Elizabeth Roberts, Philadelphia, PA, 1840

quilt by the Hargest family, Baltimore MD, 1845

glass paperweight by the Compagnie de St Louis, 1845-55
from the Corning Glass Museum

gilt silver plate by Pugin, John Hardman & Co., English, 1847
from the Victoria & Albert Museum

gold necklace with ceramic medallions by Wedgwood & Sons, 1870, England, from the Victoria & Albert Museum

Birth of Venus vase by Hodget, Richardson & Son, English, 1877
from the Corning Glass Museum

cup & saucer by R.L. Cellier, French, 1878
Victoria & Albert Museum
Persian Vase by Georg Rehlander, Austrian, 1878
from the Corning Glass Museum
armchair by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1884-86
from the Victoria & Albert Museum
favrile glass vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany, American, 1900-1903
from the Corning Glass Museum
Gui vase by Rene Lalique, 1920
from the Corning Glass Museum
Salmonidés bottle by Rene Lalique, 1928
from the Corning Glass Museum
makeup desk & chair by Paul McCobb, 1937
Harmonious Opportunities bench by Wendell Castle, 1992

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