Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Role of the Handicraft in Mass-Production

Can pieces that are mass-produced ever hold the same value as something of which only one exists? Consumer culture has long played upon the notion that the fewer the number of a product available, the higher the perceived value of that product. For this reason, many manufacturers will only roll a small number of their goods off of the assembly lines, to keep the demand high and to sell them at a premium price. This commonly agreed-upon theory treks into unsure territory when the product at hand is a piece of art. The following three artists put their hands to the test to challenge this very idea – Charlotte Perriand, Cipe Pineles, and Hella Jongerius. The three each lived in separate eras, practiced in different media, and yet all grappled with the inherently oppositional issues of mass-production and consumerism in their daily practice.

Upon her graduation from the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs, Perriand was dead-set in her intentions to create her own furniture, playing by her own rules. When she realized that none of the artesanal furniture shops in her French hometown were willing to break the mold of traditional furniture-making techniques, Perriand threatened to cast aside furniture design as a profession completely and began to study agriculture instead. She eventually finding solace in the architecture firm led by famed architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier had already established a hardened set of objectives that he demanded from the furniture he allowed to grace his building designs, but Perriand refused to conform completely to these ideas. She felt that furniture deserved a stronger role in the life of a building. It wasn’t merely a placeholder to clarify how a room is to be used, as Le Corbusier’s furniture had been used in the past. To Perriand, the furniture could, and perhaps should, be a focal point in its own right. And, thus, she went on to design several lines of tables and seating that utilized the materials of the machine age aesthetic – mostly chromium-plated tubular steel, leather and glass – and merged them with her own deep understanding of how humans would interact with the furniture. She raised the expectations of furniture as an element of forward-thinking design, and, as a result, was heralded by Europeans as the well-to-do bought up her pieces.

Ironically, Perriand’s furniture was almost always photographed for advertising purposes in the singular. The singularity of the furniture in the advertising pieces allowed the viewer to take in the delicate features of the piece and to revel in its intricate attention to detail. In practice, however, most of Perriand’s furniture was used in large groupings, as in a set of eight chairs at a dining room table, or a row of multiple barstools in a café. This was the truth of how her pieces were used, typically in bulk arrangements, and it naturally took away from the intimate relationship that the owners had with each individual piece. There is a strong dichotomy in the way that Perriand designed her furniture – to be reveled in its uniqueness as a singular piece – versus the reality that her furniture was mass-produced and used in large quantities.

Custom furniture, it could be argued, is inherently designed to be prepared in small quantities, and may well raise an eyebrow when it is sold en masse. In mediums that are intended for mass production, such as postage stamp design or textile design, there are separate challenges that must be addressed. Take the case of graphic designer and magazine editor Cipe Pineles, for example. She can be credited with creating the format for the modern magazine layout as we know it today. She took women’s magazines produced during the 1930s and -40s and transformed them into cohesive, multi-page works of art that told a story through a marriage of text and image – generally one of the woman’s world outside of the home.

Pineles never intended for her work to be framed and hung on the wall. It was designed from the forefront to be printed by the hundreds, maybe thousands, spit through the presses and shipped off to bookstores and check-out lanes across the country, where young women of all walks of life could pick up a copy of Glamour or Vogue or Seventeen magazine and be inspired.
The fact that her work was reproduced in numerous quantities here does not change its value in the same was as in the Perriand case, based solely on the nature of the media. Magazine design is quite different from furniture design. While a once-popular magazine may become a collectors’ item once only a handful are left, a magazine that only affords to print a few issues is sometimes also deemed relatively worthless. From Pineles’s example, it becomes clear that the basic nature of the medium must be considered in determining the value based on its quantity of reproduction.

A closer look into Pineles’s past, however, reveals that she began her artistic training as a highly skilled watercolorist. During her studies at Pratt, she was revered as one of the best watercolorists the school had ever turned out. She went on to participate in painting residencies and to host several exhibitions of her watercolor works. But when it came time to get a ‘real career’, she gave in to the demands of consumer culture and found her niche in an industry that catered to art that could be rapidly reproduced. She more or less abandoned her watercolor talents, inserting them into her works only infrequently, and instead adopted the cut-and-paste techniques using photographs and mechanically-reproduced typeface. While Pineles’s skillful eye is clearly at work in her magazine layouts, her skillful hand is reduced to a rare appearance.

Lastly, let us consider the work of Hella Jongerius. Jongerius is a designer who is difficult to categorize neatly, for she is constantly adopting a new medium. She’s been proven successful in ceramics, textiles, furniture, etc., generally staying true to her theme of producing items for the home.

Jongerius began by designing home furnishings and art installations with the intention that they be mere singular pieces, never to be reproduced. They were made to be displayed temporarily in a museum or two, at which point she would then go on to create her next round. By now, however, Jongerius has been practicing on her own and with her self-directed team for several years, and she too is beginning to consider the role of her pieces in the mass market. Unlike Pineles’s magazine layout design, and perhaps to a lesser extent, also unlike Perriand’s furniture, Jongerius’s installations were intended to be singular, highly detailed works. They were designed to challenge the viewer or user on an intimate level, leading them to think twice about the nature of the materials being used. Jongerius would be the first to admit that her work is perverse. One minute she is reinforcing expectations, only to pull the rug from under our feet the next. These conflicting impulses reflect her ambivalent attitude toward the design world and what she calls “this whole marketing shit.”

But even Jongerius has found herself trying to find her own place in the world of consumerism. She recently has been teaming up with companies that manufacture popular lines of art pieces to create her own works that will be mass-produced through their companies. In interviews, she has said that she’s never entirely sure if her pieces will survive on the mass-market. “I want to explore whether my ideas will stay alive if I’m designing for a larger market. Maybe people will be disappointed, or maybe I’ll have to accept that I can’t change the world but, for now, that’s what’s triggering me.” In each piece, she struggles to incorporate the quality of the handmade artifact with a design that can be created in large numbers with relative ease and efficiency. Says Jongerius, “The craftmanship comes from the romantic, down-to-earth farm girl in me, and the industrialisation from the metropolitan power woman.”

Jongerius’s work is intentionally meant to question presupposed notions of how things work. She makes vases with holes in them. She designs dinnerware that has large ceramic figurines in the center of the dishes where one’s food would typically go. She’s even made a line of ceramic dishes connected by a string handle. The natural thought is to be able to pick the grouping up by the string, but, hopefully, the viewer will realize before doing this that the dishes will crack or shatter if they collide with each other when the string is raised.

So far, Jongerius has proven to be a success on the mass-market. Her lines of vases for IKEA, as well as her animal-inspired line of dishware for Nymphenburg Porzellan, are both widely popular, catering to consumers on opposite ends of the consumer market. Indeed, Jongerius has proven that her designs can conform to production costs of both the penny-pinching and exorbitant budgets.

Jongerius, as well as any artist moving her pieces to the masses, must consider the possibility that a level of hand-detail may be lost when a machine, especially in the cases where the original piece was hand-made to exactitude, pumps the pieces out. Manufacturing technology has undoubtedly come a long way in the last century or two, but the debate on whether the machine will ever equal the artist is one steeped in ages-old controversy. The Arts and Crafts movement rallied against the social and artistic consequences of ill-considered machine use. They valued hand skills because they expressed the individuality of the worker, the same individuality that the machine would naturally obliterate.

Artists like William Morris, commonly accepted as one of the leading voices of the Arts and Crafts movement, faced a similar battle as those of the aforementioned artists with his own furniture design. Morris’s furniture was based on traditional rural forms and he exemplified his ‘truth to materials’ by staying true to manufacturing his chairs using the rural traditional methods. According to Christopher Crouch in his text Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture, “This use of a pragmatic traditional solution to design, one that emphasized hand labour, sits awkwardly with the industrial world that existed around Morris. However, he was not unaware of this contradiction. . . . The Arts and Crafts designers wanted a mass market, and therein lay their dilemma, for their intention was not to design, as Morris put it, ‘for the swinish luxury of the rich’.” Many of the artists of the Arts and Crafts movement would go on to choose sides. Some accepted that their one-of-a-kind artwork was only to be marketable to the rich, while others accepted that the machine age was too strong a force to fight against and instead made concessions in their designs to accommodate the process of machine reproduction. As a compromise, Morris suggested that, “should the designer be engaged in designing for machine production, then the object should look as mechanical as possible” (2).

This debate has been going on for the past century at least (and much longer if you include Walter Benjamin’s argument that the ancient Greeks dealt with the first methods of reproduction via branding and stamping), and we as designers may have to accept that the debate may never be totally satisfied (1). As art students, our professors, our clients, and even our bosses constantly pull us in opposite directions – to maintain that traditional hand skill, but at the same time to remain abreast of the new technological advances in design software and machinery. Professors like Lorraine Wild, a graphic design professor at Cal Arts, are well-aware of these stresses in the classroom. It seems to be just as confusing to the professors to know what to teach as it is to the students to know what to pay the most attention to. She argues, “The knowledge gained through activities that can be described as tactical, everyday, or simply craft, is powerful and important, and it must form the foundation of a designer’s education and work – it is how we create ideas.” She goes on to explain that there’s a difference between ‘design’ and ‘craft’. According to Wild, ‘craft’ seems to be limited to the making of one-of-a-kind things, whereas ‘design’ is aimed at mass production. By this definition, perhaps the handicraft versus mass-production argument is rooted in a faulty decision to try to merge two contrary practices (3).

Walter Benjamin adds that works of art have always been reproducible. The key factor comes down to the method of reproduction being used. Replicas that are made by the artist or his pupils diffuse the original slightly by removing the element of its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. Replicas that are made via technical reproduction, according to Benjamin, will always depreciate the actual work of art. Says Benjamin, “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (1).

As a designer trying to find her niche in the art world, I’m tempted to say that one’s level of reliance upon mechanical processes for mass reproduction should be based, at least in part, on the skill of the artist. There are countless technologies available today to help aide the novice create a piece of ‘art’ that rivals the quality of other pieces he has seen. However, the limitations of that technology put up unnecessary barriers to the designer’s creativity. The designer finds him or herself conforming to the rules of the machine rather than working with the materials at hand to find the absolute best design to complete the piece in their imagination. I would say that the vast majority of designers will hold onto these crutch-like technologies to make up for the skills that they are lacking, with the tradeoff being the ability to mass-produce their mediocre designs into a more lucrative product that can reach a larger audience of potential customers. If a designer has enough skill to create singular pieces that can not only stand on their own but also create enough revenue through their intermittent sales, then I would strongly encourage that person to cast aside the technology and to remain true to their traditional skills.

I believe that in my work, I will remain hard-nosed and continue searching for a way to merge the machine with craft. It may be a fruitless search, a search of intrinsic opposites, but to find a solution that could solve this ages-old debate would be well worth the effort. I honestly don’t know if my work could stand on its own in a gallery and bring in a steady income, and so, out of a little uncertainty and a lot of desire for regularity, I will join the masses in relying on technology to make my art an attainable commodity. I will attempt to maintain the highest level of detail possible as well as the natural variation of human error. Perriand, Pineles, and Jongerius have all sought their own ways to grapple with these questions. While we can look at their struggles as they play out over the past century, even when coupled with the in-depth research conducted by Crouch, Wild, and Benjamin, a clear solution is yet to be found. Let the search continue.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1935.

[2] Crouch, Christopher. Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

[3] Wild, Lorraine. “The Macramé of Resistance.” Date unknown.

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