The Future of the Designer Craftsmen Movement

28 December 2006

My collegues have not yet gotten comfotable with comments oin the blogosphere but my 4 parts on the future of our market (1, 2, 3, 4) has generated dicsussion by email and telephone. Shibori Girl commented on her blog, “shibori ramblings… “,Dec.21 .Here is some email that came from Jacqueline Rice and her partner, Uosis, of Guild the Lily.

Now onto your blog and your interview with Stacy Jarit of Artrider, what you have to say is very interesting and jibes with our own experiences exactly. This past year has been our worst. We did shows in both Westchester and Washington DC. The Westchester was so-so, and everyone there said Washington DC was a much better show. WELL, it was not better. Other people near us and some having done it long time were in shock. Some told us we got into this biz too late, the good ole days are over, etc. We’re not doing Atelier this February as it conflicts too much with ACC and we’re feeling too old to struggle so hard. ALSO the past few shows with Atelier have not been very good, getting a little worse each time. I’m fed up with Atelier, but Uosis is more hopeful. We have decided to try and do more retail shows and send pick boxes to a few of favorite retailers to make up for not being at Atelier. Uosis called a number of them before we made this decision to see how they felt about pick boxes, and they were all very supportive of that idea. What they’ll buy of course remains to be seen. Sometimes with pick boxes we let them keep the stuff for a month and try to sell from them, sort of like a trunk show without having to be there, which works well for us, as we don’t feel like we’re good at selling in those circumstance, as the sales staff usually works on commission and seems a little miffed at our taking their sales (very subtle—-but there).
We have heard from a number of people that things are horrible and if they trying to earn a living from this whole thing, they are sinking fast. We luckily have my pension and soon my social security to back us up. If we didn’t have those sources of income we’d be out of it too. We, just like many other makers, love what we do and can’t seem to stop.
I recently talked with Paul Smith at SOFA and asked him how the ACC conference, held in Houston this past October, was and asked him if he knew what it’s purpose was—he said it had no decernible purpose. Then I heard from some friends of mine that Garth Clark (NYC gallery owner/author/historian in the ceramics field) gave a talk at the Corcoran in DC recently, and he raked the ACC over coals for the worlds MOST BORING conference ever. Lee Eagle was in the audience! ACC had invited him to attend the conference, etc. He is VERY well respected and incredibly experienced and knowledgeable—-why they don’t pick his brain along with others like Murray Moss of Moss in Soho, I’ll NEVER understand. I have been keening and whaling about this stuff from the time I was on the ACC board. They WILL NOT LISTEN. Mark Lyman who recently owned SOFA was on the board at that time and he and Marc Grainor (the new chairman of the board of ACC, now) were the ONLY people who wanted to talk to me at the one and only board meeting I attended. Marc still is open to my thoughts—-so not all is lost.
Recently I started writing a little piece to them, before the Garth Clark diatribe at the Corcoran (I may get his talk in writing at some point, I’ll pass it on). I’m racking my brain trying to think of some positives that will persuade the ACC to work MUCH harder on how to include a younger cohort, both makers and as customers. I for one refuse to go down whining. What really baffles me is the obvious thing about the shows, is that they are cash cows for the ACC, so why don’t they put more effort and money into them? Why a useless conference? I HATED being on the board, but still feel that I want to say things to them, BUT will it make a difference?
I’m including what I’ve written, but not sent to them, to you. It’s still in draft form, so excuse the errors etc. (some of this has been said to the ACC in my exit letter, that they solicited) sorry about the length:
DRAFT COPY 12/2006
Dear Marc,
IS THE CRAFT AUDIENCE DYING?
It is time to move on from the preservation of status quo fine crafts, and expand how we sell fine crafts.
It has been apparent for quite sometime that the business of craft shows, and craft collecting is on the wane. Observations range from declining sales to an aging population of collectors, disaffected younger maker/buyers, along with fear for a future that will only embrace the world of design and imported mass production. Even suspecting that fewer and fewer people really want what we make is a great motivator for change.
The word craft appears to becoming more and more degraded, which answers superficially the question is the fine crafts audience dying. Careful scrutiny of what these many different crafter venues are proliferating finds there is still a link to how the American Craft Council promotes Fine Crafts. But we can certainly see why the ex-Craft Museum and others under took the arduous task of changing their name to eliminate the use of the word “craft”.
Recently I found some very interesting things that are a window into possible solutions, perhaps not as we would like it, but given the current state of general unhappiness and economic malaise, they may have potential.
FILLING THE VOID
DIY=do it yourself venues
Craftland
Craftster.com
Bazaar Bizarre/Not Your Granny s Craft s
In Providence there is a group of young people who sponsor a show only at Christmas time, usually in abandon ‘for rent’ or lease spaces in down town Providence called “Craftland”. The work shown is a range of hand made goods appealing to all that care about individuality and artistic expression. Attached are the website connections with related venues, like Craftster.com, that especially cater to a younger audience who still love make the handmade. These places also demonstrate the keen interest that the next generation has in hand making things for sale.
Whether these somewhat primitive and naive activities will help the fine craft business at ACC shows remains to be seen. It won’t be easy as the under 45 of today are extremely hip and they do vote with their wallets. Often their iconography is repellent to those from older generations. One thing I know for sure is that humor, playfulness, whimsy, music, body art, are a large part of the picture.
People to include in assessments of current state of affairs:
Nina Garduno—Free City Supershop, Malibu, California
Joseph Holtzman—former editor/publisher NEST interiors magazine
Simon Doonan—window dresser/mastermind at Barney’s NY
Murray Moss—leading edge design retailer NYC
Bennette Bean—artist 2006 room designer for ACC
Garth Clark—you know why!!!!
In California Nina Garduno who works as the men’s fashion buyer, for the highly regarded retailer Fred Segal in Los Angeles, known as a “hard edged fashion business” has started her own venue called Free City Supershop, in Malibu. I’m attaching a copy of the article in November 30, 2006 Style section of the NY Times, for you to read for yourself. In this article a tip off regarding the future, is how even Gap, a mass producer, is attentive to this woman’s vision.
The over arching theme that connects these two, Craftster.com and the others mention above and Nina Garduno, is the idea of authenticity, of not just selection but personal and intuitive expressions for real life. So much is mass produced in China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, India, etc. that we see everywhere, it seems certain that people have a craving for something much more complex than more “merch.” The ideas expressed in NY Times article, by Cathy Horyn, about Nina Guarduno seem prescient indeed.
I remain convinced that Moss and DeVera in NYC are still very important to our venture into the future. If you connect what those two savvy retailers are doing with that of the Craftland group and Nina Garduno there begins to be a coherent but not static vision emerging.
GRANDMA’S CLOSET
Since fine craft makers have a certain sensibility and age demographic that seems cast in the concrete of good taste and well made, as content, it would be a challenge to introduce new thinking instantaneously. Here are some ideas that might energize the current situation.
Let go of the ‘my space’ concept for the greater good regarding the way exhibitions are perceived. Think of the experience of shopping at Anthropologie, a bastion of the young, where it is like a bazaar without walls. (Anthropologie and ABC Carpet, are retailers who have that particular kind of authentic vision which appeals to those of us who love faux old, whimsy, color and sometimes irreverence.)
· A no booth policy would require a large scale visionary to co-ordinate the vast quantities of items shown at current craft shows, which would help change the way the shows look and give new talking points for the media, not just the same old, same old.
· The current jurying process indicates that since the ‘same old’ get in everywhere, (especially prevalent in shows like Evanston and the Smithsonian) one has to conclude that the next generation of maker isn’t even applying to these grand old craft shows. Which leads to the idea that an ‘invitation only’ process needs to be added to these shows to engineer capturing a younger cohort. A separate boutique like area could be established for these selected things, specifically appealing to a younger vision. Additionally selected items from the ‘juried in’ exhibitors could be included. This would only be effective if the attendance of a younger cohort could be increased so someone sees and buys this work.
· Using the gallery as an additional filter. The venue SOFA attracts many especially fine makers and numerous active collectors. SOFA is a show with the selection filter of the gallery. This provides for exceptional quality with work from high end craft makers. A clue could be taken from this, in that just the individual jurors don’t provide the most effective mechanism for showing excellence from many different age perspectives.
· Adding an exchange program that includes work from the likes of the British Craft Council would be another talking point for the media. We’re One World Now.
· More ways of including a younger cohort of makers: the younger maker cannot show in the current craft shows for two reasons, the cost of doing the show is prohibitive and isn’t covered by their sales as the audience for their work doesn’t attend. So what to do? (The Mentor program is a good start, but too small and too cheaply supported.) Corporate funders need to support named scholarships for new comers, if you like, ‘seed money’ for the future of a new generation of makers and consumers.
Since ‘Grandmas closet’ is a term younger people think of when they refer to the current craft show exhibitions. I have seen this in writing and heard younger people refer to what we do, in this disparaging and very telling way, repeatedly. It seems imperative that measures for including them in our venue is a survival tactic both cultural and economic.
Getting the word out to attract the younger maker and customer would require a dramatic change in the language and advertising methods currently used. At one point during the Baltimore show a couple years ago there was an attempt to use photos of young people enjoying crafts, it greatly offended a lot of the exhibitors. You gave up too soon.
By going to the Craftland information you will see Bazaar Bizarre (“Bazaar Bizarre: Not Your Granny’s Crafts!” find this on amazon.com) both shows specifically established by the next generation, which indicates two things to us; that there is keen interest by younger makers and that they are establishing their own venues. It would also be educational to know or at least witness the attendance at these shows, for both ages and numbers of attendees. The work made to sell in these venues is not fine craft, but it does embrace the ‘hand made’ ideal. I’m well aware there will be intense resistance to the inclusions of any of this kind of thing in our current shows, but this is the (much) younger generation, and to ignore them is at our own peril.
LETTING TURKEY INTO THE EU
There maybe another mechanism that could include the next generation of makers and consumers into our shows. Last years Bennette Bean rooms were extraordinary, appealing to us on a personal level, but his vision is part of the same old, same old.
· Attitudinal merchandise is called ‘street wear’, which Simon Doonan from Barney’s NY and Nina Garduno from Fred Segal in Los Angeles employ at the highest economic end. Another person who knows about attitudinal mind sets is Joseph Holtzman former publisher/owner/editor of “Nest” a magazine about interiors, has experiences directly related to how we live, he could possibly be of use. His recent venture is a book titled “Rooms”. Brain storming with these people could give ideas for connecting the current (read: OLD) fine crafters with the new crafters.
There needs to be a bridge between the generations, think of it as letting Turkey into the EU. I for one, refuse to see us just whimper, whither and die out. If any of these suggestions were acted upon the mainstream press would have something to say, they are hungry too, for new ways of thinking. Current craft show formats are not conducive to sales or even the press taking notice. The press has to come up with something to say everyday, 24-7. Media attention is paramount to the economic survival of all craft makers.

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3 Responses to “The Future of the Designer Craftsmen Movement”

  1. glennis Says:

    ok..it’s taken me a little while to absorb this post and i’m still working through it but i wanted to make a comment on the idea of the “no booth policy”.
    this is a concept i have used at past shows (commercial gift shows) that seemed to work for us. instead of having a booth with just my product, a group of us would share a booth or a row of booths and mix our products together. (kind of like a rep group would but much more artistically) it allowed for cross selling of lines, sharing customers, and giving the buyer a “real” shopping experience. we merchandised the product in a way that could be replicated in their shop. the buyers loved it.
    in a retail show setting, it was key to selling product. it kept people in the booth longer looking over merchandise (they didn’t want to miss anything) and we all know the longer a buyer convenes with the product, the better the chance for a sale.
    i know i am coming at this from a different perspective and i don’t have any experience at the fine craft shows but
    …..just my 2¥’s worth

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  2. RacheLyra Says:

    I love this series and thought I’d chime in here. I am coming up on the one-year anniversary of my young-centric trunk show out of san francisco, Pandora’s Trunk. I see a lot of my work with that show being about introducing the next generation of supporters of the arts to their duties. San Francisco is a city of young, affluent transients and a lot of the effort of my show revolves around forging relationships between the customers and the makers. There is an interesting dynamic among the vendors at the show – about half of us are pros who are trying to pay our rent, the other half are hobbyists who are part of craft’s growing revival among the young. There is some friction there, and on a small scale I have problems with the level of commitment and care vendors will take with their presentation and work if their livelihood depends on it or if it doesn’t.
    I frankly am not sure how to transition my craft efforts (my livelihood as well) to a larger scale. I am capable of producing work that will appeal to a wider range of customers than my standard base, but it’s spot-on that without young customers it will be harder to make any sales with the next generation aesthetic. Maybe some sort of mentorship is in order – combined with the idea of combining booths I think it’s the beginnings of a potent, if complicated to begin, strategy to approach the changing of the guard in larger shows

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  3. betsy Says:

    Karren,
    As someone who has written and researched about the rise of the current craft resurgence, I see the resistance to change begins with linguistics. With comments like:
    “The work made to sell in these venues is not fine craft, but it does embrace the ‘hand made’ ideal.”
    How is a collaboration/integration to be expected? I think that the disdain that is held goes both ways, not just from what we’re doing upwards, but from the top down as well.
    As neither side seems to take the other seriously, it sometimes seems futile to attempt to work together, but for survival of craft (whether “fine” or others), is something that needs to be addressed and looked at openly.
    best,
    betsy

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