It’s Crafty–It’s Just Our Type

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Art Center’s South Campus used to be called the Southern California Cooperative Wind Tunnel; it’s a monstrous concrete hangar where they tested supersonic engines. Today, it’s blanketed with black astroturf, swathed in designer textiles, and seats its not-quite-packed audience comfortably in Steelcase Think chairs.

The Mars Rovers inspired the “Radical Craft” theme of this conference. Chee Pearlman, program director (above, looking so LA), said she was stunned when watching computer animations of a Rover landing on Mars that an object so technically advanced was ultimately “so handmade, so bespoke.”

Even though it surrounds us–the pop beauty of a carved mango-on-a-stick, the delight of a handwritten note–craft has become maligned (remember that formerly-known-as museum?). And that’s the mission for this conference–to reveal the elements of craft in all design pursuits.

Adam Gopnik, up next, called craft “decaffeinated art” (something that Pearlman disagreed with later–offering that radical craft might be better described as “design on speed.”) Gopnik says our obsession with objects reveals how we’re drawn to craft–he absolutely advocates Gillette’s five-blade razor as the perfect example. Craft strikes us because we can see its inherent usefulness or the specialized skill and technique needed to create it. A interesting argument, but the brilliant New Yorker writer’s keynote was more like a voluminous art history lesson with the words “radical,” “craft” and “design” inserted for effect.

Perhaps this is because of something Gopnik calls the Tchotschke Challenge: the fact that we don’t really have the words to accurately describe what we admire about objects and what attracts us to them. We’d venture to say that design itself has the same Tchotschke Challenge, where designers find it difficult to simply and succinctly describe what they do.