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  • Ariege sideboard designed by Sarah Kay and Chris Eckersley, made by Jeremy Higson at FBB Ltd. Image courtesy of artists

Why machines are not the enemy

Designer and curator Chris Eckersley explains the ideas behind his new exhibition Real Craft

It’s a popular myth that old skills are dying out. You only have to look around to see high levels of craft skill still practised in everyday making and manufacturing – but much goes unrecognised, thanks to the bad press machines are sometimes given as an aid to manufacture. This is a mindset which insists anything made in a ‘factory’ – as opposed to a ‘workshop’ – cannot be ‘crafted’. Even a workshop can be suspect; since Bernard Leach told potters they were artists, the craft preference has been for ‘studio’ production. Easily portrayed as inhuman (think of Chaplin’s Modern Times) and the enemy of hand-production, in truth the machine is, as everyone knows, simply a useful tool.

Silk scarf on loom, Sarah Beadsmoore

Eventually many of these prejudices can be traced back to William Morris. Before Morris, Henry Cole and the Design Reform movement had been critical of the goods produced by British manufacturers, crusading against what he saw as bad taste; but Cole had no problem with the use of improved manufacturing processes. Morris, however, blamed the machine for the decline in standards, and sought to return production methods to a pre-mechanised age, as described in his utopian 1890 view of a post-mechanised future, News From Nowhere. Although a devout socialist, it is obvious that Morris’s early Nimbyism was quite reactionary. The message: is ‘No factories in England’s green and pleasant land’ – which is easy to say if you’re high up on the Victorian rich list.

Gordon Russell is a much more interesting character. Growing up in the Cotswolds in the early 1900s, an area then heavily under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he set up a furniture workshop in the village of Broadway. But by the mid-20s he recognised hand and machine as complementary, installing bandsaws, planers, dimension saws and the like, to gear up for batch production. ‘The most urgent job of all was to teach the machine manners,’ he said later. So he’s a key figure, the direct link between the Arts and Crafts and the Modern Movements.

These days the notion of craft skill aided by labour-saving machinery is common in all sorts of specialised trades. This is part of what I call ‘real craft’: real in the sense that it’s undertaken by highly skilled people in many fields in the everyday world; not in a fine art studio, nor at a heritage site, nor as a hobby or pastime. Sometimes their input is recognised; sometimes they are anonymous. They don’t necessarily identify themselves as artists, or as ‘special’ – but still they have pride in their work and a satisfying job.

Inkhead Espresso Cup designed by Florian Hutter for the New English

Besides, carpenters, plasterers, tailors, forged-metal workers, musical instrument-makers and others still work in ‘real’ ways, recognisable from centuries ago. In his 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talks about the transition in modes of production from the Mediaeval to the mechanised eras: ‘A remarkable symbiosis occurs. Handicraft lives on side by side, or intermingled with, industrial production, for the Gothic roots did not perish altogether. A token of this was the obligation to pass through the traditional stages from apprentice to journeyman and master. Even the factory mechanic was trained in a similar way.’ Over 60 years on this is still relevant.

My exhibition therefore pulls together examples from a diverse group of craftspeople to illustrate an idea of ‘real craft’. Some are well known in their own right; some work behind the scenes in bigger organisations. The common thread is that everything is made with care, with love, and with a very high level of craft skill.

Real Craft is at New Brewery Arts, Cirencester, from 4 October – 16 November.