Tuesday, 5 July 2011


On Craftsmanship covers impressive ground over its short 144 pages. Christopher Frayling was in charge of the Arts Council from 2005-2009 and his inherent knowledge of art and design makes this book a joy to read.

A key battle that Frayling fights throughout is that of rethinking the meaning of craft - an 'over-used and much abused term'. Some of this abuse comes from brands - he mentions recent campaigns from Levi's and Camper that use the well soiled word.

However, advertising and branding tends to tap into the current feeling and Frayling acknowledges from the off that craftsmanship has 'again become fashionable'. He cites Richard Sennett's 2009 book The Craftsman as 'timely and even urgent'.

Frayling's eductional background (he taught History at the University of Bath) gives On Craftsmanship some decent weight but never alienates the reader with it. Instead, it couples references to the past with an eye very much on the future. For instance, George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop, is lauded (it describes events in a wheelwright's in late 1800s Farnham, Surrey) as 'of considerable interest to anyone who seeks to write about the practice of a particular craft, from an historical or a contemporary point of view'.

According to Frayling hand-work and mass-production existed side by side into the late nineteenth century. 'The specifically English experience of industrialisation involved a close interaction of the two... it was not simply a matter of industry taking over from craft, but of craft within industry'. Frayling returns to this point with the contemporary example of smaller workshops in Italy working together and keeping stable through periods of economic turmoil due to their flexibility. He goes on to write of the possible future for this kind of making: 'Industries of a few people, creating local networks with new kinds of tools, maybe linking with larger networks'.

In one chapter that documents a public dialogue with David Pye (a craftsman, teacher and writer) Frayling talks of the crafts 'edging rapidly... in the direction of abstract art'. Originality over all else seems to be his concern. He finishes the talk with a quote from the poem 'Things Men Have Made' by DH Lawrence that is worthy of sharing and neatly sums up the importance of making:

Things men have made with wakened hands,
and put soft life into are awake through years with
transferred touch,
and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made

The final chapter of the book is entitled 'The New Bauhaus' (which is also part of the subtitle of the book) and is a fantastic blueprint for the future of design education. Let's hope Vince Cable et al read it.

Thanks to George at Oberon for sending a copy of the book, it is much appreciated.