Photo: Stine Bidstrup. Biennalen for Kunsthåndværk & Design 2021. Photography by Dorte Krogh.
The digital community
Denmark has become digitized faster and most pervasively than most other countries in the world. We have seen and benefited from this during the Covid19 pandemic. Working from home, online learning, test appointments, Covid passes and many other functions have only been possible because we were already familiar with using countless digital systems in our interactions with each other, our workplace and the public sector. It is amazing how much has actually been possible in our social and cultural life.
On the other hand, lockdowns and transitioning to digital platforms have also heightened our awareness of the role face-to-face encounters, physical experiences and tactile qualities play in our life. Although streaming, social media and web shopping have kept us well entertained, most of us have missed physical interactions, and many have sought out more tactile pursuits. Many have taken up handicrafts and DIY projects, and we can only hope that this development leads to a more lasting interest in design, craftsmanship and material qualities.
Craft makers and designers as ‘superusers’
However, it takes considerable resources in terms of time, money and cultural capital to navigate back and forth between the screens and the immersion in tactile experiences that fosters experiences and capacities for appreciating material qualities. We need craft makers and designers to act as ‘superusers’ of craft and technology in combination.
I actually do not know if ‘superusers’ are still assigned when new IT systems are being rolled out, but the term refers to users who receive extra training in the workings of the system, so they can assist their co-workers when they get started and encounter problems.
Makers and designers can act as superusers who help the rest of us animate the interaction between physical projects and digital platforms. Craft and design can demonstrate and communicate meaningful combinations of material experiments and digital tools, sense of form and online media. Often, even the practitioners who interact with materials in their most tactile quality have found new audiences and new inspiration through social media and the internet. That was also refleted in the theme of the exhibition Ceramic Momentum at CLAY Museum of Ceramic Art Denmark in 2019, which examined how ceramic art engages with digital phenomena and how the presentation and communication of ceramic art on digital platforms has exploded.
Educating the consumers
It is crucial for society that makers and designers share their experiences and studies as important contributions to culture, education and the social debate. Varying government administrations have devoted considerable resources to, often failed, attempts at elevating the social status of practical occupations and seek to improve general skills through Crafts and Design courses in municipal primary and lower secondary school.
At the same time, consumers are experiencing diminishing opportunity and ability to assess product quality when they shop online and only have access to product pictures and random reviews. How can they take more responsibility for their consumption and use the stuff they buy for longer when it is getting increasingly impossible to assess user-friendliness, fit, material quality and durability? Consumers simply do not see the physical and social consequences, environmental impact and waste of manufacturing and thus lose the ability to choose the highest quality and most necessary products.
Significance of experience with practical skills
How can we all take more responsibility for the state of the planet and its resources when production and its conditions have become far removed from our lifeworld? In his 2013 book Making, the English anthropologist Tim Ingold considers the fundamental significance of experience with practical skills:
“Once, to have said that an article is ‘made by hand’ would have been a statement of the obvious. How else would you have made it? By foot? In today’s world, however, ‘handmade’ is a mark of distinction. It connotes a kind of authenticity and devotion that people, increasingly cast as passive consumers rather than active citizens, feel is otherwise missing from their lives. With citizenship comes moral responsibility, yet how can we be responsible for a world that comes to us ready-made? At the very same moment when the whole world is at our fingertips, it also seems completely out of our hands.”
– Tim Ingold, Making, 2013, p. 122
Craft in a digital age
Tim Ingold is the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by the Danish Arts Foundation on 20 January at the University of Southern Denmark in Kolding with online streaming access for anyone who is interested. The conference aims to shed light on and spark debate about social values in crafts and design. This issue of Formkraft.dk aligns with the theme of the conference, Craft in a digital age, following up through interviews with some of the debate participants. Additional essays add new perspectives: Anne Louise Bang looks into how design schools incorporate digital technology coupled with material studies. Helle Graabæk reflects on the competences that are developed through crafts.
It is an old idea, not least in the Danish design tradition, that crafts can both complement and support other knowledge forms and skills. As early as the late 19th century, the Industrial Art Movement developed schools where crafts and material experiments were intended to train people for industry, an endeavour that was continued by Bauhaus. Craft has repeatedly been assigned the role of intermediator for industry and educator to consumers if we look at the Danish debate. Not least in the debate about major reforms of crafts and design education programmes around 1972 and 1985–90. Esbjørn Hiort, director of Den Permanente did not bewail industrialization but called for a counterbalance, a material culture, which is still needed today:
“Lest we completely lose contact with objects – and thus the pleasure they offer – we must therefore take an interest in them. We need to know something about them. We need to be able to assess quality when we see it, and we need to be able to reject the inferior and the fake. We need to be able to appreciate quality objects. That is the condition for a material culture.
-Esbjørn Hiort, Dansk Brugskunst, (Danish Applied Art), 1960
Anders V. Munch
Anders V. Munch, dr.phil., ph.d., cand.mag. in history of ideas and art history
Anders V. Munch is professor in Design History at the Department of Design and Communication, SDU Kolding. He is a representative in the Nordic Forum for Design History, which brings together researchers from all the Nordic countries’ design and art industry museums. He is currently working on a project on the transformations of the Nordic design cultures from 1960 – 1980. Anders V. Munch is part of the editorial board at Formkraft.
Esbjørn Hiort, Dansk Brugskunst (Danish Applied Art), 1960
Tim Ingold, Making, 2013