Worth a Thousand…

What does a craft historian, like myself, want to know about design?

Mostly, how something gets made – and how people think about the process of making. It’s a famously difficult thing to pin down. Hand vs. head, materiality vs. language, skill vs. concept: there are plenty of ways to put craft in its place. It’s easy to make it seem like it doesn’t involve conscious thought at all. Imagine a skilled carver, chipping away; or a potter throwing one perfect cylinder at another. These processes seem more intuitive than discursive.

But any craft theory worth its salt needs to account for making as its own way of thinking. Every little decision along the way, even if it’s hard to put into words, affects the design. How do we get at this? In the case of a finished object it’s quite difficult. The small-scale hesitations, corrections, improvisations are usually concealed by the perfection of finish.

All the more so when we are talking about a mass produced design. Here, the micro-decisions that happened during the development phase are entirely hidden from view.

And that brings us to sketches and prototypes – the things that Tristan and I will be discussing on this page. Sketching is not normally seen as a craft process, perhaps because drawing is so strongly associated with the study of fine art. Modeling or constructing a 3D prototype is closer to most people’s associations with craft (maybe because of the choice of materials – like clay and wood). But prototypes can be seen in fine art too – like the Bernini maquette below, currently featured in the V&A’s exhibition on the Baroque.

Bernini clay model

What this suggests to me is that we should think of preparatory studies of all kinds – in either 2D or 3D, and in any material – as an arena of craft practice. These objects are the surviving traces of skilled thinking, a thinking that doesn’t happen in the form of words.

Often sketches can be very unselfconscious. Sometimes they are treated as masterworks in their own right, signed and sold for a great deal of money. Sometimes you can make a strong link to a surviving design; but often they are thought bubbles, disconnected from any further concrete result.

Sketches can preserve traces of practice by accident, too: the coffee stain, the smudge, the fold are all evocative and occasionally telling details. And their materials used for sketching and modeling are more important than one might expect. In the next post, I’ll look closely at one design studio that serves as a great example.

One last thing: in addition to the posts by Tristan and myself, we’ll also be inviting our students to contribute. And of course we’d love to see your comments. Hope you enjoy this discussion of the craft of designing.