Ellen Himelfarb puts four programmes through their paces
The year is 1995. I’m in the basement of my parents’ house stripping the lacquer off a wooden table I found in a skip, before applying découpage effects to the surface. To keep myself company in my makeshift workshop, I put a Talking Heads record on their old turntable, or tune in to public radio.
Were I born later, I’d be joining the booming audience of more than six million weekly British podcast listeners, flicking through dozens of craft podcasts on my smartphone. With hundreds of stories at a tap and a swipe, from big-name artists for inspiration to DIY gurus for troubleshooting, I might not have felt as isolated as I did; I might not have abandoned my nascent métier in vintage furniture. But times have changed. As US illustrator and maker Nicole Stevenson says in an episode of her podcast Dear Handmade Life called ‘The Evolution of the Handmade Movement’, crafting in the 1990s ‘was like the Wild West’.
At least, that’s how many American craft podcasters – the pioneers in this burgeoning niche – see it. US craft podcasts like five-year-old Dear Handmade Life and newer arrivals Weave and The Modern Maker set the mould as support networks for the craft industry reboot: modern woodworkers, knitters, potters, illustrators, bookbinders and weavers who started businesses around their kitchen table, registered with PayPal and made a decent go of it. They may reference the (pre-millennium) Craft Days of Yore in parentheses, but they speak directly to Generation Etsy.
Which is how Stevenson has managed to set herself up as an authority. For an hour every couple of months, she and her guests have returned to the proverbial kitchen table in Orange County to discuss how to market craft, brand craft, write about craft and stay mindful of craft – and keep the money rolling in. Empowerment, through the transference of know-how from an almost exclusively female panel to a presumably female-heavy audience is top of the agenda. She would have made a delightful companion as I upholstered my kitchen chairs in fuchsia PVC.
The Modern Maker, hosted by New England-based furniture designers and YouTubers Chris Salomone, Ben Uyeda and Mike Montgomery, sits on the other side of the gender divide. Equally chummy, equally can-do, the trio deconstruct the handmade life as if sitting around the buzzsaw in the garage. (Students of American talk radio may hear in them echoes of NPR’s elevated grease-monkey, call-in programme Car Talk.) Alas, not even their bro-mantic rapport can enliven the subject of bamboo plywood and routing, though their podcast has managed to amass 600k subscribers.
The predictable gender-binarism of craft broadcasting is unsurprising, in a world where fabric and wool occupy aisles far removed from wood and metal at the craft shop. The bias toward young crafters also makes sense as some 41 per cent of them in the US are considered millennials, between the ages of 18 and 34.
You also get the sense that podcasting by and for American creatives is more concerned with logistics, functionalities and financials than pure enjoyment of the art. In that way, craft podcasts are not unlike fashion and design education: big on merchandising, light on artistic expression. The irony, of course, is that podcasters do their best work over long-form, nuanced discussion.
In the UK, where 130,000 people practise craft professionally and the industry contributes nearly £3.4bn annually to the economy, two new podcasts are shifting gender biases and basking in big-picture themes. It is with the debates around craft rather than the practicalities that Material Matters with Grant Gibson and the Justyna Green Podcast allow themselves to shine.
Crafts’ former editor Grant Gibson has employed his connections in the industry and skills as an interviewer – honed during his 10-year tenure on this magazine, as well as at FX and Blueprint – to style a Desert Island Discs of makers. His discussions with historian and Crafts columnist Glenn Adamson and potter Edmund de Waal sweep across decades, yet the modest 40-minute duration and attentive pacing keep the rhythm tight.
In the hands of guests like Adamson, fluency in a medium is ‘material intelligence’ and, as with other subjects and disciplines, it’s ‘like being well-read’. When Kate Malone opens her pottery studio to Gibson, they discuss not only working with clay but how her relationship to clay has been moulded over time – how the ‘material matters’ in the context of her life.
Similarly, Justyna Green brings an intellectual enthusiasm to her self-titled podcast, being a communicator and not a creator herself. Stripped down, casual and somewhat under-produced (all guests will invariably be shouting over a siren in the background at some point), her show explores the long timeline of British craft and asks – possibly too often – that evergreen question: Is craft on its deathbed?
To answer, she invites the beau monde of creators and curators, like Elle Decoration editor Ben Spriggs, Switzerland-based, limited-edition furniture designer Ini Archibong and journalist and curator Hugo MacDonald, whose Useful/Beautiful exhibition at the 18th-century stately Harewood House (see Crafts, no. 277) is providing a platform for debate about the many rebirths of British craft.
While Gibson’s podcast is deeply personal and often biographical, Green takes a more theoretical (and succinct) line of questioning that has an appeal not only to makers but to students of craft, technology and science. No longer is the craft approach ‘uncool’, assures her guest Annie Warburton, CEO of London incubator Cockpit Arts. The curiosity with how things are made is more than simply a hipster obsession; it’s tied up in sustainability and a renewed desire for physical connection. ‘Part of that is a reaction to our digitised lives,’ says Warburton, ‘and partly that neglect of the sense of touch that is so vital to us as humans. It’s a silent sense so we forget about how important it is.’
Therein is the craft podcast’s dilemma. To attract the sponsors it needs to survive, it demands big subscriber numbers – just the sort of digital devotion that crafters are often running away from. Perhaps the background noise of whirring potters’ wheels and table saws will be tantalising enough to send listeners on a quest for actual material connection. Or perhaps it’s simply enough to provide thoughtful listening material for a young crafter hard at work.
Ellen Himelfarb is a freelance design and travel writer