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The interrelationship of Design and Craft

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  • Chhail Khalsa
    Chhail Khalsa

We are witnessing an increased interest in craftsmanship in recent times. It is a model encompassing design, skill, anthropology, cultural studies, with a major focus on sustainability and cultural identity.

Crafts were originally practiced as a part of social symbolism, communication and identity. Either practiced by a certain community for their own personal use, like embroidery done as a part of developing a personal wedding trousseau or done for a certain group of people, like the weaving practiced by traditional weavers all over the world for specific communities.


These days there is a very high interest in traditional crafts. Globally, crafts is the new buzz word. Every other designer feels like it's their moral duty to rescue crafts. While they might not be wrong. What I want to talk about today is about the ethical boundaries when it comes to design intervention in crafts. Where does Design end and Crafts begin? The craftsmen themselves started working with their craft without any design intervention before. So now, why do we feel like we have to ‘help’ or ‘empower’ them? 


Let’s dial back for a bit and look at history. Generally speaking, most traditional crafts began about a couple hundred years ago, mostly. These were practiced to satisfy a local, cultural need for a particular community. The craftspeople played diverse roles from being cultural insiders, creators, makers, designers to producers all in one. For e.g. a traditional weaver would have someone come by, to order a shawl. The client in this case (a person from a local community) would ask for a shawl, maybe perhaps give an idea about what they would like. It was the craftsman’s job to take the ‘design brief’, understand it, create, produce and deliver the product to the client eventually. Therefore, undertaking the entire ‘design process’ all on their own. As the industrialization came in, most of these crafts faced reduced demand, forcing them to diversify and transform. Here is when the designers came in.  


In theory, this was a good idea. Design as a discipline is capable of looking at new avenues for existing techniques. Designers were interested in taking these very exciting skills and converting them into viable products for a larger, more remunerative market, so these skills wouldn’t disappear. As noble as I think this thought is, often on a lot of instances this has been taken a little too far. 


There are many design companies and even NGOs that are trying to bring about a positive change by encouraging these communities and working with them. But at the same time, the boundaries of collaboration and co-creation get blurred with dictation. An NGO (name protected for privacy) works with indigenous women who do embroidery. These women used embroidery for their own wedding trousseaus. They would start as young as 5 years old to work on their wedding outfits. As the industrialization came in, these women didn’t want their traditional clothes and wanted to switch to more machine-made outfits. These women were then contacted by this said NGO to practice their craft for an outside market. So they decided to make embroidered outfits for an urban market using this indigenous embroidery. The women were given products with markings done for embroidery, along with the colors, and the stitches to be used. These women are used to imaging their products (clothes, home decor accessories) in embroidery, choosing their colors, techniques, placement of motifs all on their own. This is the craft essentially. In my opinion this NGO did allow the women to be independent through some income generation. However, it also disregarded their expertise, which spanned beyond just doing neat and tidy embroidery. They were their own designers. 

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It is very important to understand the craft before setting out to ‘empowering’ them. Frankly, this word itself is inappropriate. The crafts don’t need empowerment. They are quite powerful on their own. What they could use is ‘ethical innovation’. Ethical innovation is innovation done in a craft/society/community where the people involved, in this case the craftspeople, community or society members have a say in the process. It allows for a healthier exchange rather than a top-down innovation model.


So what could have been done, you may ask. Well, for one, the women could be trained in color and composition, trend research and design thinking over multiple workshops. This would allow them to design for a larger market. If the markings are important for consistent production, the embroidery women can choose the colors and the stitches. Therefore the process would allow them to actively participate in the design process.


A lot of designers or even NGOs work extensively with crafts. There is still a lack of sensitivity when it comes to collaborating with crafts in the right way. In my experience, I have seen that the craftsmen are also often eager to get instructions from the designers, as they are under the impression that designers are more educated and experienced and will therefore bring more value to their work. However, I strongly believe it is the job of us designers to make sure that we explain to them that the craft was in fact created by them and not us. No one can possibly know the craft better than the craft practitioners themselves. This will in my opinion spark a two-way mutual exchange of expertise instead of it being unidirectional. 


When working with Anuvad, we were faced with similar challenges. When we started the craftspeople were quite hesitant on giving their opinions about the work we intended to do. It was very vital to us that this project resulted from a ‘collaboration’ and not a ‘design instruction’. It took us 6 years of multiple visits to convince the craftspeople that we were serious and really wanted to do substantial work with them. We were talking about integrating technology in craft, which is quite a novel concept. It was very important to us that the craftspeople shared our vision. We did this through co-creation workshops, co-exchange of information, talking about possibilities over tea breaks with the craftspeople. We understood and accepted that the craftspeople don’t need us, we also need them. Thus began a mutual exchange. It's vital for us ‘designers’ to approach the crafts with a sense of empathy. Once we began to talk about our vision with them, over the third visit they started speaking their mind. We not only got interesting critical feedback from them but we got ideas. They finally started taking ownership of the work they were doing with us. The craftspeople are essentially designers with a high amount of skill so they are technically more qualified than us, if I may say so myself. 


Let’s understand that the craft is not just a technique or a medium. It is a community, it is an emotion. The next time we as designers approach such communities, let’s come from a place of empathy and mutual respect. The craft has been surviving on its own, without designers, for over a 100 years in most cases. If designers want to take advantage of their beautiful technique and aesthetic, we also need to understand that it belongs to someone. We need to think if we respect the skills they possess or do we respect the craft, the emotion and the practitioner? We are capable of creating a win-win situation for both the parties. So let’s do that.

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