The Art of Craft

with

LOUISA HUNT

From weaving to woodworking, everyone’s talking about craft. Oh, you’re not? Don’t worry, you will be soon. In this column, I want to share with you my obsession for design and craft throughout art history up to present day. Think the Arts and Crafts movement combined with contemporary Japanese ceramics and throw a little bit of interior design in there for good measure. The Art of Craft not only celebrates makers and objects, but also hopes to reframe the definition of ‘craft’ as it gains more and more interest in today’s society. I hope The Art of Craft can act as a vessel to explore lesser-known and more diverse stories in our culture and question our desire to make and collect craft. Mostly, I want to celebrate the beauty and use of craft while I not-so-secretly plan my dream wooden home filled to the brim with pots and tapestries and woven baskets. 

Victorian Angels: Women of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Wednesday, November 17th
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May Morris in the tapestry room at Kelmscott Manor by Mary Annie Sloane (Image: William Morris Gallery)

“I have a guest, who is painting just now, my colleague on the Women’s Guild of Arts. She is doing me a picture … of this room with me half in the picture, at work – her idea,” said May Morris of Mary Annie Sloane’s painting of the Tapestry Room at Kelmscott Manor in a letter to John Quinn in 1912.

 

May Morris was the daughter of William Morris, the British designer and revolutionary, famed for his role in the Arts and Crafts movement. The Arts and Crafts movement was one of the most prominent craft movements in art history. Founded in response to the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, the movement aimed to create a new approach in applied arts and design against the mechanising and mass-manufacturing of objects. Yet, however much the movement was socially and artistically radical, it also reflected the dominant patriarchal ideologies of Victorian Britain.

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Left: May Morris, (Image: William Morris Society)
Right: May Morris, Honeysuckle wallpaper, (Image: FT, William Morris Gallery)

May Morris was a textile and wallpaper designer. She trained in South Kensington, at the National Art Training School. At the age of 23 in 1885, May took charge of the Morris embroidery firm. Women were indeed a large part of this movement but very few women gained the same recognition or influence as May Morris. She said herself, in a letter to the playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1936: “I’m a remarkable woman, always was, although none of you seemed to think so”.

 

This again tells us the patriarchal ideals that shaped the Arts and Crafts movement. So, how were women woven into the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1870s to the 1930s?

 

In the Mary Annie Sloane painting, May is depicted working on textile designed in the tapestry room at home. The crafts were an extension of suitable pastimes for Victorian ladies and at the start of the movement in the 1870s, work at home was the easiest for women to practice their craft.

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May Morris, Orange Tree embroidery (Image: FT)

The role of middle-class women in the Victorian era is encapsulated by the term “Angel of the House”. John Ruskin, a significant figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, viewed the home as a secular temple. Women were meant to act as the guardian of this temple while being protected by the turbulence of the commercial world. Women only earnt ‘pin’ money for their labour. Now, work by women of the Arts and Craft movement can fetch a fair price. Take Margaret MacDonald’s The White and Red Rose that sold for £1.7 million at Christie’s in 2008.

 

The scene of May Morris in her tapestry room reflects the relationship between the home and work for Victorian craftswomen. This, in turn, reveals the sexual division of labour. This is an idea explored by Anthea Callen: “The sexual division of labour is one of the key factors in the oppression and exploitation of women in a capitalist society.”

 

Although many women did take part in the Arts and Crafts Movement, it is important to remember that the crafts, applied arts and design were divided into male and female crafts. Men typically engaged with printing, metalwork and carpentry while women could engage in china painting, book making, textiles and jewellery.

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Art and Handicraft in woman's building of the World Columbian Exposition, Maud How Elliott, Chicago, 1893 (Image: University of Radford Digital Library)

There were of course exceptions to this rule, such as women from across the Atlantic, furniture maker and metal worker Madelaine Yale Wynne and Candace Wheeler who had her own decorating and textile company. Perhaps one of the most important roles of women in the Arts and Crafts movement was to make social change, with the aim of saving women from factory work or extreme poverty. In 1907, May set up the Women’s Guild of Arts to encourage women to design, make and collaborate and take on more of a presence in the Arts and Crafts movement. Mary Seaton Watts was one of the founder members of the Women’s Guild of Arts, believing that ‘art for all’ was a way of enriching life.

 

The Arts and Crafts movement professionalised women’s work in the home such as needlework and embroidery. This emancipated women, enabling them to follow creative endeavours. However, crafts such as embroidery suffered from being characterised as women’s work.

 

“As society “progresses” embroidery became an almost exclusively female activity, and over the centuries this relationship has been mutually destructive” said Rozsika Parker. She continues: “The same characteristic were ascribed to both women and embroidery: they were seen as mindless, decorative and delicate – like the icing on the cake, good to look at adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content.”

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Wall hanging designed by William Morris. Made by Ada Phoebe Godman (Image: V&A)

At one stage, textile design was an exclusively male domain whilst women were assigned the needlework, such as in this wall hanging, designed by William Morris and made by Ada Phoebe Goodman in 1877.

 

Women’s work and creativity were defined and limited by the Victorian male dominant ideology. For me, this makes the stories of women who found their own autonomy and agency over their craft within the confines of Victorian societies even more inspiring.

 

Annie Garnett from Bowness-on-Windermere, a middle-class girl who craved a creative path learned how to spin, weave and embroider and then set up her own business in 1891.

Jessie Newbery, an influential textile artist, married to “Fra” Newbery of the Glasgow Art School, headed the embroidery department of the school, celebrating the use of inexpensive materials. Phyllis Barron and her partner Dorothy Larcher worked together in London and in the 1930s, they moved to Gloucestershire where they produced textiles which used their home-grown plants for dyes and inspiration. 

 

In the technological revolution we live through today, it is no surprise that craft is having a revival. It is easy to compare this revival to the Arts and Craft Movement over 100 years ago. I only hope in our society today that a revived desire for craft is not tainted by confining or “othering” women, lower classes or any minority group for that matter.

 

Sources:

Anthea Callen, Sexual Division of Labor in the Arts and Crafts Movement - https://www.jstor.org/stable/1357958 

Arts & Crafts Tours - https://artsandcraftstours.com/the-women-of-the-arts-and-crafts-movement/ 

FT - https://www.ft.com/content/344542be-be33-11e7-823b-ed31693349d3  

Homes & Antiques - https://www.homesandantiques.com/antiques/the-forgotten-women-of-arts-and-crafts/ 

Widewalls - https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/arts-and-crafts-movement-women-artists 

William Morris Gallery - https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/collection/search-the-collection-65/may-morris-in-the-tapestry-room-at-kelmscott-manor-w158-1912/search/morris/page/9  

V&A - https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/arts-and-crafts-an-introduction 

The Revival of Korean Craft

Wednesday, November 3rd

K-Pop, Kimchi and of course, Squid Game are all Korean culture bites that many of us have enjoyed. It was lockdown when I discovered Korean dramas such as Crash Landing on You and 100 Days my Prince – I highly recommend – they will nourish the soul. This led to an intent discovery into the art, culture, fashion and food of Korea. So, what about Korean craft?

 

There is currently a huge revival of craft in Korea. From 1392 to 1920, during the Joseon dynasty, the government held ideals such as frugality, honesty, and simplicity. Therefore, craft was not about producing something perfect or astounding but instead about balance. Craftspeople strove to make objects of elegance that were also practical and used materials economically. Craft was central to Joseon daily life, but the traumatic colonial and post-colonial periods of the 20th century saw craft’s existence diminish.

 

In recent times, new craft movements have emerged as a generation of makers want craft to become a central part of Korean life again. Some artists have discovered new ways of making craft and experimented with materials while others have embraced traditional techniques and recovered long-lost skills.

 

A Visit to the V&A

 

On a perfect autumn afternoon, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. Pursuing a moment of calm and reflection, I happily stumbled across the Korean gallery by chance. I soon discovered how much there is to devour and learn from the craft of Korea.

 

In 1888, the V&A museum received its first groups of Korean objects. The V&A has a very particular collecting history, and this coupled with recent discussions on whether it will reorganise its curation by material have been areas of controversy. When it comes to the Korean collection today, many of the objects have been acquired through funding from Samsung. The collection spans the fourth century to the present day.

 

In 1992, the V&A opened the Korean gallery. It was the first permanent gallery devoted to Korean art in London. What is currently on display is small, concise and carefully curated. It offers a wide-ranging selection of Korean objects, especially celebrating craft and fashion with special attention on how contemporary makers are reviving traditional techniques. The gallery is long and thin, in the form of a corridor that connects the Medieval and Renaissance room to the Cast Courts. It is potentially easy to bypass but don’t miss it next time you find yourself there – it is well worth the visit.

 

Next year, the V&A will host the exhibition Hallyu! The Korean Wave opening in September 2022, exploring Korean Wave’s impact on creative industries. With the current exhibition banner showcasing an image from PSY’s Gangnam Style music video (remember that old chestnut?), it looks to be a sensational showcase. I hope the V&A will celebrate the craft objects they already have in their collection and bring attention to the importance of Korean craft.

 

5 Things Korean Craft at the V&A Taught Me

 

1. Upcycle, Upcycle, Upcycle

 

Jogakbo is a Korean wrapping cloth. It is traditionally made from stitching together left-over fabrics from clothing and bedding in the household. Scraps of fabric are upcycled since the Joseon dynasty and many Korean artists embrace this sentiment when making objects today. Patchworking fabrics is all the rage in contemporary Korean craft. Hurray for upcycling!

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2. Hats are Key

 

Straw, bamboo, horse or human hair, woven silk, leather and oiled lacquered paper were all materials used to make hats. In the Joseon Dynasty, no one would leave the house without donning a hat. Hats indicated the wearer’s gender, age, occupation and social status and there were many wonderful hats for significant occasions. In the late 19th Century, travellers to the Korean peninsula described the nation as ‘the land of hats.’

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3. Never Underestimate a Ceramic Bottle

 

During the Joseon dynasty, a sophisticated drinking culture developed. Therefore, ceramics bottles became popular liquor bottles and ceremonial wares. Now, these iconic bottles inspire artists to create sculptural ceramic works.

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4. Dress to Impress

 

Until recently, women in Korea would wear specific colours to reflect their marital status. Engaged women would often wear pink whereas married women would wear indigo. The curved sleeves of the Jeogori (jacket) in the V&A are typical style of the late 20th century. You’ll see me in a 90s Jeogori in no time.

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5. Learn from the Best 

 

In the V&A, you will find a silver inlaid bronze jar. It is incredibly detailed and made with such fine craftsmanship. It is made by Kim Yongwoon, a Living National Treasure. He champions the kkium ipsa technique of the Goryeo dynasty (918 – 1392) and he trained from the master craftsmen Song Jae Hwan. I find that the best and most extraordinary crafts are always those passed on from generation to generation.

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Notes on Collecting Contemporary Korean Craft

 

A few favourite Korean artists that you should be keeping an out in Craft right now.

 

Kim Yikyung – Ceramicist

 

Kim Yikyung is the “mother” of modern Korean ceramics and renowned for her moon jars, a distinctive shape to Korea. No jar is the same, setting them apart from standardised shapes in Chinese and Japanese ceramics and the upper and lower parts of the moon jar have to be made separately because of their scale. Her moon jars are just pure magic.

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Master Lee Sang Jae – Basket Weaver

 

Lee Sang Jae uses sedges, rushes and reed to create beautiful baskets and mats. He learnt the art of weaving from his family and Lee Sang Jar’s mission is to keep tradition sedge weaving alive.

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Lee So-ra – Textile designer

 

Lee So-ra is a self-taught artist who uses fine hand stitching to make Jogakbo. Her beautiful patch work wall hanging are made using “Oksa” – a natural silk known for its translucent properties. She hand-dyes the silk using botanical ingredients and has shown at Collect fair and has collaborated with interior designer, Rose Uniacke.

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Can Craft Save the World? An Evening with Goldfinger Design

Wednesday, October 20th

I arrived in London, ready to take on the city, just as London Craft Week was kicking off. From East to West, North to South, London’s craft scene filled the city with events, talks and workshops. Being the craft obsessive I am, I went along to as many events as possible.

 

Amongst all the potting, quilting, perfumery, fashion, leather tanning, basket weaving, watch making and cocktail making (well, drinking!), there was one question that struck me most: Can Craft Save the World?

 

On Goldborne Road in West London, you’ll find the Trellick Tower. It’s an imposing Grade II listed Brutalist building that inspired Ian Fleming to write his infamous Bond villain Goldfinger. And it’s also home to a craft driven social enterprise: the aptly named Goldfinger Design.

View of the Goldfinger Design exhibition space in Trellick Tower (Image: Louisa Hunt)

Goldfinger’s mission is to show how high-end design can and should have a positive impact on the planet and on people. The idea for the workshop-come-community project was founded from a desire to make a difference to the world through the production of beautiful objects.

 

CEO, Marie Cudennec Carlisle was in Hong Kong when she witnessed an abandoned fridge floating along the river. It shocked her to see such a substantial object discarded, with no possibility of future use.

 

And so Goldfinger emerged. It’s a neat structure. Their workshop produces wooden furniture that feeds back into the Goldfinger academy and People’s kitchen, providing education to young marginalised people whilst at the same time fighting food waste.

Goldfinger Design desk (Image: Louisa Hunt)

For London Craft Week, the enterprise welcomed the public to their space for an auction of their new Ayrton collection. The collection adopts circular design, showcasing chairs, desks and benches made from reclaimed teak worktables from Imperial College. The event was tied together with a talk by writer and speaker Katie Treggiden, champion of circular design with a life-mission to answer one question: Can Craft Save the World?

 

It’s an empowering question with a far from simple answer.

 

Treggiden argues that craft can save the world if we consider waste as the raw material for the future. She claims ‘waste doesn’t exist’ and that ‘waste is a man-made concept’.

 

We live in a linear economy. Too often, we consume commodities only for them to be unnecessarily thrown away. There is waste everywhere you look. It begs the question of what purpose does design and craft have if it only contributes to the linear economy and leads to more waste?

 

Treggiden points out that everything in nature is circular. If we could reframe the way we look at waste, we could build a circular economy thereby growing our understanding of materials and ensuring sustainable craft and design. At the centre of this are makers who create objects of beauty that will be treasured and passed down the generations.

 

However, shouldn’t we also question the responsibility placed on art communities to ‘save’ the planet?

We are all responsible for the climate crisis but do we place too much onus in our cultural discourse on the creative communities to ‘save’ us and show us the way?

 

All the same, I left Trellick Tower feeling inspired, by the objects, the space and the people. In the end, it was a line from Goldfinger’s manifesto that made me feel that craft does have the potential to save the world but it rests in the hands of the people and the community to make the change happen:

 

“Let’s reset our relationship to the living world.

Our everyday choices have power.

Choose as if all life depends on it.”