Visions of Catalonia (Designing crafts)

This edition of the Biennale vindicates craftsmanship as a method of producing objects of use, of a domestic nature, beyond decoration or aesthetic enjoyment and shows how design intervenes to give them utility. The axis of the selected proposals lies in the relationship between design and craftsmanship, and you can find everyday objects, from hydraulic tiles to pitchers, from seats to lamps, from switches to coffee makers. The selection shows a variety of disciplines, techniques and materials ranging from ceramics, paper, woodwork, textiles, natural fibers or 3D printing.

A selection of artisans and creators, based in Catalonia, participates, presenting hybrid projects between both disciplines, where factors such as the reduction of materials and/or objects, the use of raw materials from proximity, production processes with zero waste, high product durability and dignified aging, and easy return to the cycle of the circular economy.

The Beauty of Utility

The advent of the industrial revolution meant craftsmanship lost its leading role in the production of consumer goods. Despite the inexorable march of mass production, the dramatic reduction in the gap between cost and profit led many people and groups to raise the alarm about the danger of this paradigm shift, which reached far beyond a productive change to completely upend social, urban, labour and even neighbourhood and family structures. William Morris, the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement, actively opposed this new model, not out of nostalgia for mediaevalism, as has often been argued, but to try to ensure that the nascent working class benefited from better conditions and could continue to maintain the network of mutual aid and support that the craft guilds provided.

However, Morris’ discourse was an exception. The new means of production made claims to a monopoly on the production of consumer goods. Adolf Loos and his “Ornament and Crime” explains that without ornament the artisan will be able to focus on using the best materials to make a product with a long useful life, yet, an assimilation is made between ornament and craftsmanship. Similarly, the Bauhaus school has gone down in history as the one that broke with the past and tradition and, therefore, has in many cases served as a reference for displacing craftsmanship. However, in its founding manifesto, Walter Gropius said, “There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan”.

Unfortunately, clumsy and self-interested interpretations have led to the disregard of these pleas in favour of craftsmanship; society, including creative people, rushed headlong into mass production, forgetting the know-how and advantages of craftsmanship. The outcomes are well-known: western civilization has undoubtedly achieved a degree of convenience unimaginable a century earlier and the democratisation of design has made products of all kinds available at low cost to practically everyone. On the other side of the coin, however, is the vast number of people in large swathes of the world who do not reap the same benefits, but instead suffer the side effects of globalisation – from job insecurity to climate change.

Today, more than 200 years later, all signs point to the fact that the production model that started with the coal revolution, the steam engine, the fossil fuel combustion engine and all the subsequent improvements and advances, is floundering on all sides. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the planet’s limited resources, nor to the working conditions that offshoring has distanced us from, but which are still appalling.

A new paradigm is on the horizon. Without knowing the specifics, all signs point to it involving major social upheaval. One possible response is the restoration of crafts as a way to produce domestic objects, objects designed to be used beyond decoration or aesthetic enjoyment. This has come about because “utilitarian” crafts embody several advantages: the improvement of working conditions for workers, the pleasure of work when producing these objects and respect for the environment. Thus, the relationship between design and traditional craftsmanship has perhaps been the area where the best results have been achieved, in which successful cases have merged the effectiveness of design with the know-how of craftsmanship.

Key aspects of these hybrid craft and design projects are the use of fewer materials and/or objects, the use of local raw materials, zero-waste production processes, long-lasting products that age well, and their easy re-entry into the circular economy cycle when the object reaches the end of its useful life. These are local projects that are sensitive to the work processes with an eye to both the people responsible for production and environmental management. They are also projects designed to have a long useful life, both in terms of functionality and to avoid succumbing to fads that eventually lead to obsolescence.

Utilitarian craftsmanship in the 21st century

Craftsmanship and design both share the most essential feature of any project: function. This is their raison d’être. Both are a means, not an end in themselves. They are at the service of the user, not the other way around. They are tools to improve lives; both seek answers, to provide solutions to the problems of our relationship with the environment and with others. If we agree on this point, it all comes down to seeing which strategy most effectively solves each problem and each need, and I also include emotional and narrative ones in these shortcomings.

However, in their differences also lie their common ground, as the two disciplines can teach each other aspects that can feed into the other. Here, I believe, we can see the values of disciplines and processes, and how they can help us to face an uncertain but fascinating future: that of the very existence of human life on the planet.

In this exhibition you will find “normal” or perhaps “super normal” objects, to borrow the term from designer Jasper Morrison. These objects that do not shout, but rather whisper in the ear. From hydraulic tiles to water jugs, from seats to lights, from switches to coffee pots, they deliver utility and aesthetic enjoyment without all the trappings. The beauty lies in their use, which offers a complete experience without separating aesthetic sensations from functional pragmatism.

Oscar Guayabero