The Future of the Designer Craftsmen Movement-part 4

18 December 2006

Parts 1, 2 and 3.
All of this thinking started with the conversations with Stacy Jarit of Artrider, but in the end this is my interpretation.
From the “Sea of Gray” organizers and exhibitors have perceived a need for younger exhibitors and younger customers. I don’t know if these are the same problem or different ones but lets take them one at a time and then see if they are related.
How to appeal to younger customers, Jarit talked about her attempt to get younger people to the show; they came they were in awe but they didn’t buy. Now money maybe tighter in the people with new homes and small children, but surely some of that group has disposable income. I suspect that our refined costly objects don’t fit into their life style. They might prefer to spend their disposable income on flat screen TV or latest cell phone or Blackberry– meaning that they value different things. I don’t see much enthusiasm for objects or things in the younger generations. Some how expensive things seem oppressive. Maybe we have truly moved to the Experience Economy where you are not interested in a gumball for 25¢ but if the gumball rolls down a track and lights come on as it passes by you will pay 25¢, not for the gumball but for the fun.
ACC has ideas that repetitive booth structure of our craft fairs is boring to our customers. Customers are used to a much more sophisticated or fun shopping environment. I have to agree after a visit to Anthropologie; being in the store was exciting, the kind of excitement I remember attending the early craft shows in the 1960’s. Both ACC and Jarit have tried to move exhibitors out of their comfort zone and change their displays. Artrider tried it at a small 40 exhibitor show; only 6 participants tried something new. Jarit felt her attempts were unsuccessful because it is too much work for the exhibitors.
What does too much work for the exhibitors mean? These are hard workers who already put in long hours at their studios and on the road. Their booths have many functions; display, lighting, selling (sales receipts, credit card machines, informative info, mailing list), stock storage, packaging, and security and exhibitor support ( floor padding, water, food). Oh yes, and the materials must be fire proof for public spaces. Booths have slowly evolved from the card table days and no good idea goes uncopied. This is a lot to pack into a 10” x 10” space and it must be portable! That means that you can pack it into your vehicle, get it there, unload it and set it up. The reverse, knock down and pack into the vehicle and move out, must be accomplished in a few hours on Sunday evening after selling all day. Some exhibitors even ship their booths. Not a trivial redesign project.
Demonstrations are much loved by the public and would seem to add the experience/educational aspect to the fairs. Making is a messy business that requires many tools. My experience is that demonstrations somehow detract from selling. Is it because I am not in the booth during the demo or is it because demos appeal to makers rather than buyers? Jarit thinks that it is an increased burden on the exhibitors – more stuff to pack, carry and plan. If it is held in a separate place it removes exhibitors and customers from the selling field. Such events are poorly attended; time is a very scare commodity today. Attending a lecture or demo is just one more thing to accomplish during the few hours at the show, before meeting your friend, spouse at 4 PM. In the booth space is a problem—the booth with its tiny footprint is already fully utilized. So an improvised space can block the flow of foot traffic in your booth or the surrounding ones (endears you to your fellow exhibitors and the fire marshal).
So how do the customer learn how it is made? Somewhere other than our craft shows. This educational mission was mentioned in part 3. Once they have some idea of how your craft is made, details about your specific process can take place in the booth. I have decided that the blogosphere is one place that this type of exposure can take place and you readers are part of that experiment. No wonder you were named person of the year by Time magazine.
The idea of time as the scarcest commodity leads us to a new phenomena– the multipurpose activity. A craft event that fits into this is visiting artists’ studios. This type of cultural tourism is organized with maps and organizations. The tourist acquires a map, via mail, Internet or handout, and then travels to several artists’ studios in a localized geographic area. There maybe a designated time, such as this weekend 10-6PM, here’s the Yellow Springs one. So far the most successful are in the rural NE (Putney Craft Tour), a densely populated region adjacent to urban areas. The urbanites are attracted to the quaint rural areas in addition to the artists studios- makes a nice day trip. Getting people into the studios is ideal for education, you have all your tools there and it is easy to demonstrate with multiple works in progress. Some studio tours are less successful; could be location or distances. I don’t think all the variables are fully understood yet.
Is the Internet the future of Fine Crafts? Yes and No. This kind of work has not been a hot seller on the web. The Guild, an organization with many years experience in selling Fine Art and Craft, from a book sized catalog published several times a year, started a website,, to sell on the internet in late 90’s. They were very enthusiastic and even I signed up. In two years with them they sold one scarf. So maybe, I think, a scarf is something that you have to see and touch and then try on. They have since returned to a printed catalog along with the website and are still selling the same type of fine art and craft to the same clientele that they built that their business.
So what types of crafts are selling on the web? A search of eBay in my field, shibori turns up nothing interesting made in the USA. Handmade things for sale on eBay seem to work best at around $25. I can’t make things I’m proud of and make a living at those kinds of prices. What about Handmade Catalog, Yabble Babble and Etsy? My idea is that they are outlets for hobbyists. Possibly important as a way to get your feet wet in the field, but the prices are discouraging low to anyone thinking about health insurance, so I don’t know if it hurts or helps. The prices on Etsy have moved up a bit but I don’t see anything say in women’s jackets like what is available in the Fine Craft Shows(Guild the Lily or Latifa Medjdoub, . In general clothing, especially unusual things you must see, touch and try on before you buy it. So I don’t think that the web is a big seller.
The websites can play a follow up role for people who do go to the shows. If some one saw something and wants to buy it later, the website is an easy way to see images to remembering the possibilities. Mark Thomas said that his site has increased sales after the shows.
What about younger makers? Here the web and blogs have shown me the exuberance of young makers. Whip Up, a group blog, and Ready Made, by the magazine, can show you the show the enthusiasm, skill and creativity of these younger makers. They make thing from different materials and different esthetics than my generation. These sewers maybe recycled or reconstructed. Remaking t-shirts is an activity that spawns books. But then most of the fabric stores have closed and there are many T-shirts available in drawers or thrift shops. So the starting materials are different but the ideas and discipline are both there, these are the future generations of makers.
Now these makers are selling at places like Craftacular (the Dec.11th,06 entry), with informal booths and DJ’s the whole time. Audiobook give-aways. This rocks! Selling at a party. I don’t know if my oldest customers would enjoy the DJ’s or even be able to carry on a conversation (needed in order to buy) in this kind of venue. I might be ready to give up the circuit after three days of loud music.
The future of selling crafts, as a way of life, is probably detectable somewhere in the fog and sound of Craftacular.


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