What is Craft?

Cinderella Table, Jeroen Verhoeven, 2005. Museum no. W.1-2006

Cinderella Table, Jeroen Verhoeven, 2005. Museum no. W.1-2006

To celebrate a partnership between the V&A and the Crafts Council, we asked leading figures in the craft world to tell us what the term craft means to them.

Mark Jones

Director, Victoria & Albert Museum (2001 - 2011)

Craft is remembering that art is seen, felt and heard as well as understood, knowing that not all ideas start with words, thinking with hands as well as head.

Rosy Greenlees

Director, Crafts Council

'Contemporary craft is about making things.  It is an intellectual and physical activity where the maker explores the infinite possibilities of materials and processes to produce unique objects. To see craft is to enter a world of wonderful things which can be challenging, beautiful, sometimes useful, tactile, extraordinary; and to understand and enjoy the energy and care which has gone into their making.'

Laurie Britton-Newell

Curator, ‘Out of the ordinary’ exhibition, V&A,  November 2007

'I use the word craft as an umbrella term, not as the definition of a separate discipline. I find craft difficult when it has an ‘s’ on the end; the crafts implies something clear cut, but it isn’t. When craft is involved with the making of something, be it a pot or a piece of writing, it usually means that the process of how and why it has been put together has been well considered, and generally I prefer it.  Instead of using "that’s cool" people could start saying "that’s craft"!'

Caroline Broadhead

Practitioner

'What craft means to me is the making part, the how you make, and this is an exchange with materials - what you give to a material, and what it gives back. This exchange can be awkward, it can be a struggle, or one party can dominate, but if it is a productive exchange, then that's when it's worth looking at. But ultimately, it is the extra something that makes it special.'

Christopher Frayling

Rector, Royal College of Art

'If you look up the word 'craft' in dictionaries of phrase and fable, the entry will say "see freemasonry".  That's craft as secret knowledge, locked away in some secret place known only to master-craftspeople. Although there's a strong element of tacit knowledge - as distinct from formal knowledge - in all craft activity, this is in fact far from a secret form of knowledge, just a very difficult one to pin down. Making close contact with materials, technical skills plus imagination, tangible results in the form of things, sometimes pushing at the outer limits of function, taking the material for a walk. The American Customs & Excise definition of 'a work of art' is that the owner must be able to prove it is completely useless. Craft work is something else, though it can produce objects for contemplation as well as objects for use.'

Amanda Game

Director, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

'Craft is the knowledge of a language and its expressive possibilities. Shakespeare’s sonnets; Thonet’s bentwood chairs; Shostakovitch quartets: all can be described in terms of craft. Human imagination can use craft to invent freely in the world of ideas, materials and forms. Thus are the worlds of design, art, engineering, science and architecture all born of craft.'

Paul Greenhalgh

Director, Corcoran Museum, Washington DC, and editor of ‘The Persistence of Craft’

'Craft has changed its meaning fundamentally at least three times in the last two centuries, and it means fundamentally different things from nation to nation even in the Western world. So there can be no one-liner that identifies larger single meanings, as it doesn't have one. If it is of use in the current context, it is to recognize the significance of genre-based practice in the arts. It should also be a useful category in a global cultural environment. It might even have meaning as a signifier of a socio-political outlook. But it should have nothing to do with aesthetics, and less to do with negative approaches to technology.'

David Revere McFadden

Chief curator and vice president, Museum of Arts & Design, New York

'Craft, art, and design are words heavily laden with cultural baggage. For me, they all connote the profound engagement with materials and process that is central to creativity. Through this engagement form, function, and meaning are made tangible. It is time to move beyond the limitations of terminologies that fragment and separate our appreciation of creative actions, and consider the "behaviors of making" that practitioners share.'

Professor Simon Olding

Director, Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, Surrey

'An expression of human endeavour creatively realised on the borders of utility, design, architecture, sculpture and art. Craft is specific, recognizable and broad enough to carry loaded meaning with good cheer. It means little without its association to the individual maker and the organisations that give it life and value.'

Caroline Roux

Acting editor, Crafts magazine

'Craft has never been more important than now, as an antidote to mass production and as a practice in which the very time is takes to produce an object becomes part of its value in a world that often moves too fast.'

Edmund de Waal

Practitioner

'Craft is a starting place, a set of possibilities.
It avoids absolutes, certainties, over-robust definitions, solace.
It offers places, interstices, where objects and people meet.
It is unstable, contingent.
It is about experience. It is about desire.
It can be beautiful.'

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