Plain Weavers. Fotograf Maja Karen. Officinet 2024
Plain Weavers. Officinet 2024. Photo Maja Karen.
Theme article

Reinventing craft

Looking back over the past 50–60 years, the Danish terms kunsthåndværk (covering studio craft, decorative art and arts & crafts – literally: ‘art craft’) and design appear to have changed and ultimately switched places. After 1967, Denmark had two schools of kunsthåndværk and the term ‘design’ was rarely used in more official contexts. When the field was assigned a separate committee under the Danish Arts Foundation, in 1969, it was labelled ‘Kunsthåndværk og Kunstnerisk Formgivning (literally: Art Craft and Artistic Form-Giving).

In 1990 and 1998, respectively, the schools in Copenhagen and Kolding were both renamed ‘design schools’, and ever since, the term ‘design’ has expanded and come to dominate the public debate. In today’s design education programmes, it almost seems difficult to see a place for kunsthåndværk, since the versatile designer is in so much higher demand, and because it is costly to run a studio dedicated to perfecting a single area, such as ceramic, glass or jewellery.

In practice, however, the concepts overlap and should not necessarily be seen as opposites. Historically, other terms have also been in play, suggesting and enabling other developments and discussions. Terminology has always been used to shape professional self-concepts and promote public recognition of this constantly varying field. Formkraft has described how the names of earlier journals reflected developments and disputes, not least during the most tumultuous period, the 1970s; see ‘A sustainable name?’. The present essay deals exclusively with Danish terminology, since a host of new challenges arise if we try to compare with German, French and English terms.

Even with today’s challenges, probably no one in Denmark wants to see separate schools of design and kunsthåndværk.

Danish design

In comparison to other countries, it is striking how late the word ‘design’ became widely accepted and went into common usage in Denmark. Internationally, ‘Danish Design’ and ‘Scandinavian Design’ were highly successful labels during the 1950s, while professionals in Denmark continued to oppose the term. Hans-Christian Jensen, associate professor of Design Studies, University of Southern Denmark, traced the long development from the earliest use of the word in post-war fashion commercials and changes in the professional and lay meanings of ‘design’ in his  2005 dissertation From Welfare to Design Culture.

Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthåndværk (official English name: Danish Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design) and other organizations were happy to use the term ‘design’ in English-language publications but preferred kunsthåndværk, møbelkunst (literally: ‘furniture art’) and brugskunst (literally: ‘utilitarian art’) in Danish. In 1951, Gunnar Biilmann Petersen became the first professor of industrikunst (literally: ‘industrial art’) at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture. In 1955, Erik Herløw became professor of industriel design (industrial design), while Biilmann remained professor of industriel grafik (industrial graphic art/design). Herløw promoted the term ‘design’ in Tidsskrift for Industri(Journal of Industry), while Selskabet for Industriel Formgivning (Society of Industrial Form-Giving), which he founded, maintained the more neutral term.

Dansk Kunsthåndværk
Dansk Kunsthåndværk 1955.

When Sigvard Bernadotte and Acton Bjørn founded the first design agency in Scandinavia, in 1950, (Bernadotte & Bjørn Industridesign A/S), both American and British industrial design was becoming increasingly specialized, with kunsthåndværk branching off as artistic, independent Studio Craft. Don Wallance’s 1956 study Design & Craftsmanship in Today’s Products, commissioned by the Walker Art Institute and the American Craftsmen’s Council and published as Shaping America’s Products, aimed to document the role of craftsmanship in the development of industrial design, but generally, the trend in the United States and elsewhere was to teach industrial design and studio crafts in separate programmes.

Even with today’s challenges, probably no one in Denmark wants to see separate schools of design and kunsthåndværk. Here, the two are considered intertwined aspects of the design tradition, with craftsmanship and art as part of the make-up of Danish design, especially in education. Even though industrial design was in fact established as an independent subject, separate from crafts, the School of Architecture also had a furniture department and viewed itself as offering a holistic programme spanning from typeface design to city planning – with craftsmanship as a key element.

During the 1880s, the phenomenon of kunsthåndværk begins to take shape, as artists take on various crafts and work with craftspeople in their workshops.


Practitioners of kunsthåndværk rightfully trace their trades back to prehistoric practices and ancient potters and weavers, but ‘art’ was not added to ‘craft’ to make the term kunsthåndværk until the late 19th century. Shortly after 1900, four organizations were founded in the field, their names referring to three different terms[1] – rather confusing and a reflection of the many terms and interests in play. As early as 1907, the artist-founded Selskabet for Dekorativ Kunst (Society of Decorative Art) merged with Dansk Kunsthaandværk, which represented craftspeople/artisans as well as manufacturers of kunstindustri (literally: art industry). Their collaboration began with the joint Udstilling af Skønvirke (Exhibition of Skønvirke) at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art (now Designmuseum Danmark). The museum’s chairman, Caspar Leuning-Borch, teacher in kunstindustri at the Det Tekniske Selskabs Skole (the Technical Society’s School), introduced the term ‘skønvirke’ (literally ‘beautiful work’) as the unifying term and a clear indication of the goal.

Our later use of ‘skønvirke’ as a stylistic term for Danish design during this era is clearly a misconception of the original intention. This is clear from Leuning-Borch’s comment that, ‘Until a few decades ago, European skønvirke had descended into complete chaos.’[2] Thus, he did not view it as a term specific to Denmark or the period but as a term that described artistic design in general and which was in need of clarification.

During the 1880s, the phenomenon of kunsthåndværk begins to take shape, as artists take on various crafts and work with craftspeople in their workshops. This may be seen as a response to kunstindustri, where the artist is subordinate to a larger system of management and production. In Denmark, however, there is less of a contrast between kunstindustri and kunsthåndværk, as illustrated by the fact that the manufacturers also joined the above-mentioned organizations. As underscored by the Danish design historian Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen, this was all part of the kunstindustri movement, which founded a school, a journal and a museum, while craft was part of the food chain in education as well as in artistic experiments, which were sometimes taken up in larger-scale manufacturing.[3]

Naturally, industry was seen as a threat if it merely copied artists – or if it came in from abroad and took over part of the Danish market. However, either case pointed to the benefits of close collaboration and helped lay the foundation of the organization of Danish design culture that shaped the field throughout the 20th century. Notably, women also found improved opportunities for education and work through the School of Drawing for Women, The Women’s Exhibition from the Past and Present and Dansk Kunstflidsforening.

The growing dominance of the term kunsthåndværk during the years leading up to the First World War is underscored by the book Haandværkskunst og Kunsthaandværk (literally: Craft Art and Art Craft) from 1914 by industrial historian Camillus Nyrop, who had been the editor of Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri (Journal of Kunstindustri) from 1885 to 1899. In the book, he seeks to trace a clear line from the artisans who during the decades around 1800 received training in the ornamentation schools of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to the enthusiasm for kunsthåndværk.[4] The book is well aligned with the later emphasis on craftsmanship as the core of the Danish design tradition. However, Nyrop was also very active in the kunstindustri movement that continued and developed this tradition as part of a transition to industrial manufacturing. Thus, the elegant wordplay of the titled appears to have seduced even the author himself. Perhaps, though, it was also a countermove to the marginalization of kunstindustri in Industriforeningen (Association of Industry)

Kunstflid, industry and craft

To understand the status of crafts, we need to go back to 1771, when the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was charged with teaching drawing to apprentice craftsmen in order to improve their sense of form, enable them to work from patterns and enhance their aesthetic taste. At the directive of the royal advisor and de facto regent Johann Friedrich Struensee, the director of the academy, Johannes Wiedewelt, established an ornamentation school, which also served as a prep school for the art schools. Thus, talented students were able to switch from crafts to art.

The academy was also charged with evaluating the masterpieces journeymen had to produce in order to advance to master craftsmen. Just as the academy was tasked with training artists in Denmark to eliminate the need to bring in artists from abroad, drawing courses were similarly intended to ensure superior Danish products, shape aesthetic tastes and prevent the import of expensive or low-quality foreign products. This remained the case until 1850, when Det Tekniske Selskabs Skoler (the Technical Society’s Schools) took over the training of apprentices, albeit along with the private institutions that had also been providing this education since 1800.

In the various accounts of the academy’s history that have been published in connection with anniversaries over the years, art historians vary in their comments on the hordes of young craftsmen who poured into the academy at Charlottenborg. During these decades, the students in the ornamentation school made up the vast majority of the academy’s student body, and even though most of their courses were held on evenings or Sundays, their presence did absorb funds and facilities. However, Wiedewelt and his later successor G. Fr. Hetsch were also focused on what this exchange with the wider society and the middle class could bring to the academy. And when the arrangement ended, it was against the objections of the professors of art and architecture. In the meantime, however, Hetsch had been involved in establishing Det Tekniske Selskab and the arrangement with their schools of kunsthåndværk that replaced it. He had established close collaborations with the Royal Danish Porcelain Manufactory and many other workshops and companies.

Around 1800, the term kunstflid (literally: ‘art craft’) was used to highlight the field’s aesthetic and professional aspects in contrast to husflid (literally: ‘home craft’). The earliest exhibitions were labelled kunstflid exhibitions, but later, the term industrial exhibitions was adopted, following the French example. In any case, they included all types of production, and the term industri applied to any form of craft or enterprise with no distinction in terms of technology or scale. The main issue behind the founding of Haandværkerforeningen i Kjøbenhavn (the Association of Craftsmen in Copenhagen) in 1840 in response to the founding of Industriforeningen in 1838 was freedom of trade. The guilds had the power to approve or deny the establishment of any new business within their fields and also controlled the approval of new master craftsmen in cooperation with the academy. Industry was based, to a high extent, on crafts but its development remained hampered until the guilds lost their privileges in 1857. At this time Det Tekniske Selskab also took over the apprentices’ drawing courses from the academy, to the benefit of both industry and crafts. Both industry and crafts introduced steam power and machinery where it was possible and desirable, so the main difference lay in the level of professional training.

It is only when change appears to be looming that we begin to identify what we think should be preserved.

The Invention of Craft

The relationship between industry and crafts in Denmark was characterized by natural tension but no clear distinction. The kunstindustri movement was a driving force for crafts and for artists, who contributed through education and experiments. Perhaps the contrast was more perceptual. It is only when change appears to be looming that we begin to identify what we think should be preserved.

In The Invention of Craft from 2013, Glenn Adamson argues that it was not until the industrial revolution that anyone gave any thought to what characterized crafts and manual production, for better or worse.[5] The craft professions all had longstanding traditions, but this was the first time people were forced to consider their overall role. In a sense, craft had to be reinvented as a separate field at a time when art, too, was set apart and defined as an independent field.

Adamson compares this early phase, as crafts take on their modern meaning, with several later phases when kunsthåndværk reinvented itself in response to new conditions in manufacturing, technology and society: Arts & Crafts around 1900 and Studio Crafts around 1950, both of which related to art, while kunsthåndværk with a message of cultural critique was introduced around 1970, and conceptual kunsthåndværk around 2000. He was a cofounder of the journal Modern Craft, which has served as a platform for rethinking the role and significance of contemporary kunsthåndværk, not least in relation to digitization and media, which changed consumers’ relationship with materiality and production.

Crafts are being rethought and reinvented on contemporary terms, and the big question is what aspects of tradition and history are being carried forward into the future.

The ongoing debate in professional and public media leaves no doubt that craftsmanship and hand-crafting methods are generating growing interest and heightened respect because society needs skilled practical competencies, also in order to undertake the green transition. Crafts are being rethought and reinvented on contemporary terms, and the big question is what aspects of tradition and history are being carried forward into the future.

Young design students have great respect for the craft teachers’ deep practical knowledge and would love to have more time for experimenting with materials, in part with an eye to sustainable design. However, they do not necessarily relate to the kunsthåndværk tradition because the art aspect has moved into the background in courses on form.

Students from the Schools of Visual Arts at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts work with textile and ceramics and are heirs to part of this tradition. The focus on designer-makers may have represented a reinterpretation but has only a tenuous connection to craftsmanship and production experience. The green transition of manufacturing calls for innovation, in-depth knowledge of materials, production and maintenance and the ability to include and communicate to the general public, which establishes new exchanges between art, crafts and design.


Adamson, Glenn, (2013). The Invention of Craft, London: Bloomsbury

Gelfer-Jørgensen, Mirjam, (2020). The Joining of the Arts: Danish Art and Design 1880-1910. Strandberg.

Jensen, Hans-Christian, (Juli 2005). Fra Velfærd til designkultur, afhandling, Syddansk Universitet.

Leuning-Borch, Caspar, (1908, January). Om Skønvirke [On Skønvirke] (special issue of Architekten).

Munch V, Anders,(2021) A Sustainable name?, Formkraft.

Nyrup, Camillus, Haandværkskunst og Kunsthaandværk [The Art of Craft and the Craft of Art]. Foreningen til Hovedstadens Forskønnelse.

Salicath, Bent, Revision af loven om Statens Kunstfond, Formkraft Arkiv, Dansk Brugskunst vol 3, 1969

Land og Folk, studenteroprør, 1069
Land og Folk, student rebellion, 1069

More knowledge

Certain events, to a greater extent than others, contribute to an understanding of the dynamics, issues and possibilities that help shape the history of craft and design. In Formkraft’s archive, you can search for relevant keywords in articles from 1948-present. Here are a number of suggestions for reading with a historical perspective:

Historical look at the student rebellion and the design schools by Anders V Munch, design professor

40 years at Frue Plads Market by Charlotte Jul, writer and curator

Textiles are making ANOTHER comeback by Pernille Anker Kristensen, journalist

Tønder doors: woodwork, tradition and turism by Kirsten Marie Raahauge, professor

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