ON CRAFTSMANSHIP: TOWARDS A NEW BAUHAUS, CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING (2011) London: Oberon Books, 144 pp., ISBN 978-1-84943-072-2, Hardback, £9.99
Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton
Christopher Frayling was Rector of the prestigious Royal College of Art, London from 1996 to 2009. He has also chaired various important bodies including Arts Council England and the Design Council. This book brings together eight of his articles first published between 1984 and 2007, with all but two of them being published by 1991. They all are concerned to a greater or lesser extent with craftsmanship, which as he acknowledges in the Introduction ‘has again become fashionable’ (p. 7). He is erudite, always readable, in fact one of those amiable authors who charms you into feeling you have a reliable guide to a subject. Frayling feels no need to let the reader know about the reading he’s done on the subject: he’s a scholar who wears his learning lightly. In the Introduction is as concise yet comprehensive summing up of the main issues around craft that you’re ever likely to find. The book can be read in one sitting and you never have to think too deeply.
The first chapter is the result of a close reading of The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Stuart, published in 1921. Frayling uncovers the author’s exploration of the meaning of craftsmanship and the clash between the ideas of the British Arts and Craft Movement and economic and other realities. Stuart discovered that it’s one thing to intellectualise craft and often quite another to practice it. The second chapter is a review of Martin Wiener’s 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. Despite being the first country to industrialise, there was always, according to this thesis, a sense of shame attached to this and a belief in a superior, pre-industrial idyll. This has caused a steady decline in manufacturing in England and an association of craft with the past, countryside and nostalgia, all of which Frayling abhors. In the third chapter Frayling tackles the topic of skill in a similar vein. He goes on to explain that skill is considered important for craft, but it is unclear what skill means. Of interest to readers of this Journal would be Frayling’s summary of Robert Witkin’s advocacy for children learning craft, because it provides the correct balance between opportunities for expression and the reassurance of having to work within the boundaries set by the requirements of using certain materials and processes. Children, he claims, find this very attractive.
The next chapter is in two parts. In the first he debunks the way intellectuals idealise the nobility of hard, physical labour. In the second, he explores notions of craft at the German Bauhaus (1919 - 1933). This provides him with a further platform to emphasise that craft and industry are complementary rather than opposites. After this there’s a chapter which presents the transcript of a conversation Frayling had (in front of an audience) with the furniture designer-maker David Pye, (who is influential in craft theory for his theory of risk production – craft, versus production of certainty – industry). No details are provided about the context of this discussion apart from the date of publication (1991), but much of the conversation is about the correlation or clash between craft and modernism. After that there’s a chapter which explores the way craft has shifted from being under the wing of the Arts and Craft Movement to being postmodern, as craftspeople adopt the model of the artist. He doesn’t use the term postmodern, but his description of appropriation of images, use of irony and pastiche indicate that this is what he’s describing. He continues trying to pin down these ever changing definitions of craft and art in the penultimate chapter, where he is in editorial mood: ‘The crafts in education…must be allowed to breathe, even though they tend to be expensive and space consuming. “Making” – taking time over making things – must be valued’ (p. 123).
In the last chapter Frayling attempts to answer the question ‘…if one was founding a new Bauhaus…for the early twenty-first century…what might that place look like?’ (p.133). It would need to have faith in the future, he writes, a future it was itself helping to shape; it would be multicultural, informed by the latest visual culture, able to set its own agenda, solve problems, embrace technology (including digital technology) and with the flexibility to respond to a fast changing world. It would value teaching as much as the other professional activities of its faculty: ‘At the moment, if you ask artists who teach about the work they do, they never talk about their teaching. In our new radical academy they will…’ (p. 137). It will be a research institution: ‘Our new Bauhaus will be an MIT of design’ (p.138). In keeping with Herbert Read’s view, this institution would also provide opportunities to learn through as well as about art and design. His last point is that his new Bauhaus would be interdisciplinary: ‘…a place of convergence…at many different levels: between the present and the past…between fine art and design…between technology and design…between making, prototyping and reproducing; between design and packaging…between the applied arts and design…and above all between the world inside the academy and the expanding world of the creative industries…’ (p. 141).
As a keynote address or a speech at graduation such rhetoric might sound convincing, but on the page the judgement has to be more mixed. He sounds too much like the chair of a committee forever trying to arrive at a compromise or convergence. His one battle: that craft does not have to be associated with the past and the countryside has long been won. He doesn’t grapple with contemporary issues around craft, such as slow design. In the Introduction he states that the articles in this book ‘…have been revised or tweaked for new publication…’ (p. 20). All the same, many show their age. Some of the issues debated, such as between craft and modernism have disappeared into history; his conversation with David Pye, if conducted today, would surely acknowledge the possibility that those who practice craft just might be female. And as the world has opened up, so he might not anymore make the tacit assumption, as he has in most of the book, that the readership is from a similar English background and shares his background knowledge and reference points. Moreover, a scholar writing today would be expected to have some sort of theory to hang the arguments on. In revising he seems to have shorn the text of any notes, references or bibliography; there are none in this book. Nor is there an index, which is a shame. The last few years have seen a flurry of important new publications about craft, to which this volume provides an easy reading footnote.