Nº 265

Gestalten im Dialog

Triumph of Craft

More and more companies are integrating craft-based processes into their product development, exploring new paths both in formal and technical terms. This does not mean that industrial design has become obsolete. Instead, it is enriched by a dimension that appeals to the senses and that involves imperfection and local tradition.

For decades, design was governed by a strict hierarchy: mass-produced objects promised the present, while handmade products appeared backwards and outdated. Things have changed. Today, the work of carpenters, upholsterers, and glass-blowers appeals not only to hipsters. More and more, companies are following the trend towards craft products that has affected almost every field of design in recent years. The reason for this change of mind is simple: perfect industrial forms are being contrasted with something that appeals to the senses, that is archaic and not totally perfect.

“Thanks to smartphones and the cloud, our lives are becoming increasingly immaterial. Instead of photo albums, we have digital folders that we hope will survive the next software update. As a result, we long for real materiality,” says Sebastian Herkner (↗ form 263). For several years, the Offenbach-based designer has been working for craft companies like the porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal or the Czech glassmaker Verreum. His own breakthrough also came with a handmade design: the Bell Table, presented in 2009 at the Salone Satellite in Milan that has been produced since 2012 by Classicon.

Initially, it took Sebastian Herkner a long time to find a producer for the voluminous glass base. Finally, he discovered von Poschinger, a glass-blowing company from the Bavarian Forest with a history going back almost 450 years. “For young designers, handcrafted objects have the advantage of being produced in small numbers. For an industrial plastic chair, I have to produce an injection mould for 50,000 euros. A glass mould is made of wood, turned on a lathe, and costs just a few hundred euros,” says Sebastian Herkner, explaining why upcoming designers are so interested in such supposedly conventional techniques.

In January 2016, the 35-year-old presented his “Sala by Sebastian Herkner” series for Ames at the International Interiors Show in Cologne. Since being founded in 2006 in Germany’s Eifel region by the Columbian Ana María Calderón Kayser, Ames has been exploring cultural intersections in design. All of the products in the collection were created during several weeks spent in Columbia. “Our idea was to work with the craftspeople and their materials and colours,” explains Ana María Calderón Kayser. “Instead of removing them from their everyday routines, we wanted to establish a dialogue.” Rather than simply being asked to realise a finished design, the craftspeople were involved in the process. What are they capable of? How do they work? What are their strengths? “Out of this approach, we developed something where the craftspeople kept their identity and culture, but blended with my input,” says Sebastian Herkner, “otherwise it would just have been a souvenir of Columbia.” Authenticity is the key here – twinned with a tendency towards imperfection. “Craft products are characterised by their uniqueness, varying in colour, surface, and structure – which makes them appeal very human,” Ana María Calderón Kayser sums up their impact.

Danish furniture manufacturer Menu is also pursuing the craft approach with its “Nepal Projects” launched in 2015, including a woollen teddy bear, bowls made of paper and fabric, and cashmere blankets and cushions. The collection’s appeal lies in its blending of a reduced, Scandinavian design language with traditional Nepalese production techniques. The project is being supported by Danida, a Danish government development programme, because it is aimed primarily at young women. Many Nepalese women are sent to work in India or forced into prostitution, both of which lead them to be rejected by their families. In this case, the tendency towards craft is not just about enhancing European production aesthetics with appealing materials and finishing techniques. It is about providing active economic development aid in another country.

This broadening of design horizons has also long since reached the fashion industry. One designer currently causing a stir in Milan is Stella Jean. Born in Rome, with Haitian roots, she combines African patterns and colours with the Italian dressmaking tradition. Among her patrons, she counts Giorgio Armani, becoming the first female designer to use his Teatro Armani in Milan for a fashion show in 2013. And when Rihanna wore one of her dresses to a reception at the White House in Washington, she made the label famous overnight. “African fabrics have just as long a tradition as those from Italy,” she says, explaining her motivation. “Instead of looking down on them, we should view them as equals.”

Through the contact with Simone Cipriani, head of the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, she was able to work directly with craft companies in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia, and Haiti. In these countries, the significance of individual colours, patterns, and combinations were explained to her. “I can’t just select fabrics on the basis of whether or not they appeal to me. Through them, I’m coming into contact with centuries-old traditions,” says Stella Jean. Since then, she has spent several weeks every year with the craftswomen and develops 60 to 70 fabrics per season. “This process is very important to me,” explains the 36-year-old. “They don’t work for me. We work together.”

The Belgian accessories manufacturer Lrnce, founded in 2013 by Laurence Leenaert in Ghent and Marrakech, also emphasises intercultural exchange with a similar focus on the collaborative aspect. The bags combine different colours, patterns, and materials to create an interesting blend of European and North African influences. “Don’t forget that everything is carefully made by hand,” it says on the home page, “so give us some time to do this specially for you.” Special requests are explicitly welcomed: “I would like to hear them,” says Laurence Leenaert.

What these various projects show is not a rejection of industrial production. Most of the products are still mass-produced by machines. By involving an appeal to the senses, as well as imperfection and local traditions, the designs regain aspects many people believed lost. In this way, the ongoing Eurocentrism of design is being expanded to include other cultures – a positive and long-overdue side effect.




Having studied design, Norman Kietzmann moved to Milan from where he reports for numerous German and international design publications. In 2009, he co-founded the Designjournalists network. In form 257 he wrote about the design collective Field Experiments.


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