I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 3, What is this craft business, anyway?
Last time I set you the homework of thinking about your favourite crafted object. I asked you to do this, because that object will have elements of design as well as elements of craft about it. Let’s consider both.
Design is the practical response or answer to an articulated problem, or design brief. If I asked you to design a chair, before you could even begin, you would have to ask me a series of very specific questions. What is the primary roll of this chair? It is for a dining table, or to be used at a computer, or will it be ceremonial in nature? What material do you want used? A steel chair will have a very different set of design parameters to a wooden chair. Then you might ask me about where and who will use the chair. A steel chair designed to be used at a busy hip restaurant will require different qualities to a wooden chair intended for a retired couple.
The design process is sifting through these competing requirements and arriving at a workable solution. How the chair actually looks will be heavily influenced by the design solutions (form follows function) but the final chair will have a layer of styling added.
Anything that does not directly affect the performance of the chair can be considered styling. Colour, decorative elements and surface treatments are largely a matter of style, not design. This distinction admittedly becomes blurred when the design brief calls for a particular aesthetic consideration. For example, if the design brief is for a ceremonial chair, the look of the chair will be paramount as the chair is for the benefit of the audience, not the person seated.
Now, what does any of this have to do with craft? A craftsperson has a direct relationship with a particular material or materials that is integral to what they do. The whole point of a craftsperson’s work is to bring voice to that particular material. The craft process is a way of making, just as robotic manufacture could be said to be a way of making. Craft makers always design within the nature of their material and their personal skills.
Arguably, quality craftsmanship in many cases falls within the sphere of styling rather than design. This statement will outrage a few craftsmen but hear me out. There is a point at which, from a technical perspective, the craftsmanship of a joint, let’s say a dovetail, is no longer relevant. If the joint is well enough executed, then it has structural integrity. A workman can make it strong enough but it takes a craftsman to make it beautiful.
Let’s say a door is hung on knife hinges, but the gap around the door is uneven. The door still works and the design specifications for a knife hinge has been met, but the craftsmanship has let the piece down. This is an aesthetic failure, but not a design failure, nor even a practical failure- the door still works. The reality is, the casual observer may not even pick up the defect, in the same what that a casual drinker might not detect the subtleties of a single malt Scotch. What might appear as a perfectly well hung door to the average Joe will be a screaming error to the craftsman or connoisseur.
Industrial designers work within the limitations of material and process, but in a very different way to craft designers. An industrial designer designs a product with the express intent that every item will be identical. The designer is not looking for the manufacturer to bring any interpretation to the piece. The manufacturer is either within the specifications (in which case the product is correct) or outside the specifications, (in which case the product is incorrect).
A craft designer designs a piece with the express intent that the piece will be unique. There is the expectation that the craftsman will bring a certain level of interpretation or expression to the piece.
Now, craftsmanship is often confused with accuracy. Machines are accurate, humans are responsive. A craftsman responds to the material while being guided by the design. Craftsmanship includes accuracy, but you can still make a piece of furniture accurately that fails the test of craftsmanship.
Next time I want to talk to you more specifically about the nature of craftsmanship. For now, let me leave you with the thoughts that design doesn’t necessarily require craftsmanship, craftsmanship doesn’t just mean well made, and craft furniture isn’t always good, but it can be sublime.
You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.