Tuesday, October 9, 2012

thoughts on the Studio Magazine article, working with large retailers, and 'craft' becoming mainstream

Back when I was in art school I had a favourite inspiration go-to book in the school library- it was an Arts and Crafts Movement book - I think it's the same as this Phiadon book, but it had a different cover back when I was looking at it, so it's hard to tell.  The book was literally filled with drawings of designs for teapots, mugs, textiles, rugs, china patterns, and glassware from this period.  While I was preparing for my talk at the Gardiner Museum in June I found these slides I had taken from portions of the book as a reminder of how much I had been inspired by the drawings of designers from this period.  I can't help but think of this book and these drawings when I see Molly Hatch's work, especially the teacups from the Mimesis Series.  I absolutely love how she drew teacups from this period onto a simple wheel-thrown mug.  I just had to buy one- a real one, hand-thrown, mishima incised and hand-painted, by Molly herself.  Imagine my surprise when I saw her designed version available in Anthropologie Stores a few months later, just as I had finished and was about to ship off my very large 450 vase Anthropologie order!

Which leads me to the article that was recently written in Studio Magazine, an Ontario Crafts Council publication geared towards professional crafts people within Canada.  I was approached to be included (along with a couple of other amazing artists) in an article about Anthropologie buying Craft and agreed to share part of my experience of filling a couple of small orders (the article says 1 small order, but it was 2), and then a really large order of 450 vases for them last year.  The premise for the article came out of a curiousness about what happens when a retailer gets behind a craft aesthetic, both by purchasing directly from artists and designers, or from creating designs in collaboration with an artist.  I think more opportunities have opened up to work with retailers over the past few years then perhaps previously, and while I myself have jumped on this band-wagon, I also recognize that it's a hard path to navigate as it's relatively new territory.  As artists we understand the role and commitment a gallery plays in our career, but the role of retail is something entirely different.  Many artists and makers that I talk to are wondering whether working with a retailer is right for them, and I guess I saw the article as an opportunity to explain a little bit about what's involved.

In the article I shared how the work load for an order of this size was really much larger then my studio of mostly myself can manage (although I did manage to do it!) and that, over the months it took me to fill the order, I didn't have the space or the ability to work on any other creative work.  I felt that it was important to share the reality of production when the work is created 'in house', as opposed to if the work was designed by an artist but produced over-seas.

 Since finishing the Anthropologie order last fall, I have had a lot of time to think through whether I would ever do an order like that again.  While I was really learning on the fly (ie steep learning curve!!), I very quickly realized that I am an artist and maker of small batches, not a ceramic manufacturer.  I have appreciated the ability of a retailer to promote my work the way Anthropologie did, but understand too well the limitations of my ability to produce a volume of work consistently for a retailer of that magnitude. While I have some misgivings and am frustrated by the lack of North American ceramic based manufacturing options for retailers, I would likely opt to design if this kind of opportunity ever came up again.

I think the article brings up some positives and negatives of retailers at large jumping on the 'craft bandwagon'.  It's not just Anthropologie who is working with artists and makers- there are many other large retailers doing the same.  I too have noticed terms like 'handmade', 'woven', 'knit', and 'hand-painted' being added to manufactured items as a way to add value and somehow increase sales based on the addition of a crafty term.  These are words that were once used by us as makers as a way to distinguish their work as being of more value (and thus more $) then manufactured items, but now everyone seems to be using these terms and it's become confusing to the average consumer.  Clearly hand made is a trend that is becoming more mainstream and we as professional makers aren't quite sure what to do with this kind of "success".  Sometimes I compare it to the rise of Skateboarding- which started out as really small sub-culture and then blew up into mainstream proportions.  A lot of hard-core skaters I know went underground when it all became so mainstream- that or just kept trying to do bigger and better tricks while they rode the wave of popularity.  Not to say that the hand-made movement is exactly the same, or that we have to have the same response, but just that I find it kind of interesting considering a few years ago someone made the comment about my work- that it was a 'bit too handmade looking', and now that's what everyone seems to be looking for.


amy h said...

Yes, I've seen a lot more handmade things in the catalogs places like West Elm are constantly sending me. I like to see the work of individual artists/makers featured, but then I often see products on the next page with unattributed handwork, and I imagine the worst (workers in poor countries being paid little to work in tough conditions). These things are being marketed side by side, and they aren't the same. I start to wonder if the attributed work is just a loss-leader for the outsourced labor work. I have no idea what the labor situation is for West Elm and Anthro (I don't want to single them out when they may be just fine!), but unfortunately I tend to be cynical about big retailers. It's a difficult issue to pick through! I love seeing makers get their due attention and business, but I also wonder about the larger picture.

dahlhaus said...

Hi Amy- yes I agree, there is still doesn't seem to be enough transparency around who is making the manufactured or 'handmade' work over-seas. I know West Elm does some work with Aid to Artisan and they had me sign an 'ethics-type' clause to do with working conditions for my employees, no child labour, etc. when I worked on the order for their Vancouver launch.
In any case, I think the bigger picture has a lot to do with the consumer culture we live in and not having a real grasp on how the items we buy are made and what the 'true cost' of making those products are- economically, politically, socioeconomically, environmentally, etc. I can't help feeling like I'm part of the problem when I think like that though- it's a really vicious circle when you think about it.