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August 03 2012

Food as art: it looks almost too good to eat

Put away your recipe books. If you're wondering what to eat tonight, take inspiration from the world of design, art and literature instead

A few years ago, I wrote a cookery book called Cherry Cake And Ginger Beer that was inspired by the delicious food and treats enjoyed by the characters in children's classics. There were recipes for Mary Poppins' Raspberry Jam Cakes, Swallows and Amazons' Seed Cake, and Anne of Green Gables' Layer Cake. The idea emerged on a family holiday during a conversation with my then nine-year-old daughter, who at that point was engrossed in a marathon reading of Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outer series, which contains multiple references to macaroons and fry-ups. As I was also something of a greedy reader when young, together we decided to ransack the library to create a collection of recipes that could be made with and by children who wondered how the foodstuffs that are so avidly consumed on the page actually taste off the page.

As it now turns out, the book was an early example of a new phenomenon that sees adventurous cooks finding inspiration everywhere but in a recipe book. Today, there is a flourishing movement of food from art and food as art, with young food writers and stylists mining painting, design, literature, poetry and even Pantone charts for ideas, and using them to create strikingly original dishes and recipes.

Megan Fizell, an Australian based in Sydney, is an art historian who began her Feasting On Art blog in 2009 as a way of combining her interests in food and art. The results are rarely a direct recreation of the image, but more image-inspired. So Cézanne's Still Life With A Plate Of Cherries (1885-87) is the jumping-off point for a rich and fruity cherry and nectarine clafoutis, while a glorious vase of red poppies painted by Van Gogh is the basis for lemon and poppyseed bread.

The blog is richly creative and educational, with each post providing a very palatable side dish of art history. It's also refreshingly down to earth, as Fizell tells of the challenges, difficulties and mess. Unlike more professionally produced shoots and articles, there is no pretence of perfection.

While her savoury dishes are historically accurate and authentic, many will be wowed by the sweet things she creates, the fabulous geometric Mondrian pound cake, colourful, circular Hirst cineole cupcakes, and Warhol-esque tomato soup cake. A chicken is a chicken, but sponge, icing, chocolate and food colouring are the kitchen creator's media, just as clay, stone and paint are for the sculptor or painter. In fact, there is little in the artist's studio that cannot be substituted in the kitchen.

Take colour charts, for example. Emilie Griottes was inspired by the Pantone colour chart to create a range of Pantone tartes. Griottes is a French food stylist and, although she gives recipes, the tarts are really for looking at admiringly, wonderingly, while you ask yourself why you never thought a banana, marshmallow or apricot was an example of a Pantone reference rather than simply a food. Hers is a playful approach, the grown-up version of the food art created spontaneously by children who arrange alphabet spaghetti into words and draw faces with ketchup.

Equally creative, but more low-key and with a plain, contemporary, fashionably stark aesthetic is the series of Fictitious Dishes, by Dinah Fried, an American graphic designer and photographer who takes famous literary meals and turns them into artfully arranged pictures on her website. So Oliver Twist's bowl of gruel is suitably meagre and miserable, while the famous chapter on chowder in Moby Dick is distilled into a thick, pale, appetising clam chowder (for another take on this, as well as Jane Eyre cardamom seed buns and Toni Morrison tribute beloved blackberry tart, check out Cara Nicoletti's yummy-books.com).

Fried's photographs are shot from above, so that they look like paintings, with the food arrangement becoming a modern-day still life. Since there is no text to explain anything, the images have the reverse effect of sending you back to the classics to read and digest the food sections on the page. There are just five dishes in the series so far, but Fried is asking for suggestions, so perhaps we can look forward to her interpretation of Miss Havisham's wedding feast or the wonderful descriptions of food in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar or George Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London.

Fried's approach is to stay close to the inspiration but to give it a cool, modern twist, whereas Eat This Poem, a blog written by young American poet, Nicole Gulotta, has a more reverent tone. It offers up recipes inspired by the spirit and mood of her chosen poems, mostly by contemporary US poets but with a few by writers such as Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Gulotta's dishes and writing are more tangential and esoteric. She is at her best, and the connections most interesting, when she is inspired by a poem that contains a direct reference to a foodstuff, such as when she selects Pablo Neruda's Ode To An Onion to create a rich and comforting onion galette with blue cheese and honey.

It's vibrant, energetic and very modish, but this style of arty food also raises the question of "gastro porn". Some certainly give out a look-but-don't-eat message, but the most successful combine fun and inventiveness to produce something you know will taste great and – you hope – be eaten with relish.

Taking art and literature as inspiration means no rules, and the freedom to express your culinary creativity as you please, according to your vision and the contents of your cupboards. It's a far cry from the hand-holding of our usual kitchen guides. If you don't know what to make tonight, start by putting away those recipe books.

• Jane Brocket's new book, Vintage Cakes, is published by Jacqui Small in September at £25. To pre-order a copy for £20, including free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0330 333 6846.


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May 30 2012

Home-Made Europe: the DIY geniuses shaking up design

A new book celebrates the resourcefulness of people who innovate everyday objects – from the prisoner who carved her own dildo to the man who solved toothpaste squeezing forever

The objects we buy are supposed to tell us something about who we are. But they don't tell us half as much as the objects we make, as even a quick flick through Home-Made Europe: Contemporary Folk Artifacts reveals. Here are everyday things people have fashioned with their own hands. Heaters, hammers, anchors, rat-traps, barbecues, showers and goalposts. They range from the pitiful – a child's grill for corn on the cob, rigged out of wires bent over tea lights – to the technically impressive – one man made a fridge. This is a catalogue of human resourcefulness.

Published by Fuel, the London-based design and publishing outfit that turned Russian criminal tattoos into a three-volume encyclopaedia, the project began with Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. This is the sequel. If the first volume was a testament to ingenuity behind the Iron Curtain, where not just poverty but a lack of consumer goods forced people to improvise, the European volume suggests something different: even when everything is available, it is still better to make your own.

The handmade has risen back to the surface of consumer culture, with luxury goods brands deciding that craftsmanship is the key to our wallets – cue advertising campaign featuring a man in a leather apron and a soft-focus close-up of his tools. Suddenly we want to know more about the people who made our handbag/jeans/whisky: we don't want products, but stories. When I wrote about this last year I called it "craft fetishism". But the objects in this book are the opposite. Not made to seduce, they possess none of the glamour of the master craftsman's finish. As the author Vladimir Arkhipov writes, "They are part of that special class of functional objects in the world that were not made to be sold".

Almost universally, they were made to do a job. And that job might require you to cut your hair without making a mess, in which case you'd attach a hoover to your clippers, obviously. The results are often pragmatic, such as the safety glasses twisted out of a wire and some cellophane, but that's not to say they lack skill or pride. One woman who did a spell in prison carved herself a very lifelike dildo out of a piece of rubber.

The makers' motives are not always need or thrift; sometimes it's pleasure or obstinacy, or serendipity – a road sign that happens to make a perfect tabletop. This kind of uncelebrated creativity brings to mind artist Jeremy Deller's Folk Archive, which catalogues everything from protest banners to pizza kiosks. Deller has written a short foreword here, in which he makes a distinction between these objects and DIY, "a hobby that seems so pleased with itself". The difference is that the DIYer seeks to emulate the professional, whereas these objects all share the nonchalance of the amateur.

And the makers are certainly not pleased with themselves. They speak like Beckett characters. "What's there to say?" and "I didn't do much." A man (from Ireland no less), who made himself an easel, says: "They want four hundred pounds for these. I says, 'For what?' I have hands. I can spend the money on tubes of paint." Indeed, some objects would barely deserve to be published if they weren't entertaining plot devices: one man made himself a step out of a slice of tree trunk – a step to climb in through his window because his landlady, who didn't like him, kept locking him out.

There are all kinds of "maker" subcultures. There are the techie tinkerers who flock to the Maker Faire with their rapid-prototyped, Arduino-powered creations. There is even making as a form of critique, as in Thomas Thwaites's Toaster Project, his quest to make a toaster from scratch (mining the iron ore for the steel grills and so on) to highlight the resources that go into a product Argos sells for £3.99. But these folk artefacts are neither critique nor subculture, neither knowing nor community-minded – they're just a raw human impulse. Their makers do not consider themselves designers, nor do they aspire to be. And yet they create moments of rupture in a world that, as Arkhipov points out, is created by specialists. "If there were suddenly no more professional designers or object-makers left in the world, then the process of creating new designs, new forms, would of course not diminish."


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January 26 2012

Why I hacked a knitting machine

Artist Andrew Salomone makes innovative knitwear, from a Bill Cosby jumper to a sweater that lights up when music is played. John McDonnell finds out how - and why

Some people use hacking to attempt bold endeavours like undermining the governments of tyrannical superpowers, while others use it for more trivial purposes, such as making all of the female characters nude in Skyrim.

Brooklyn-based artist Andrew Salomone's innovative use of hacking to make custom knitwear will neither change the world nor impress gaming nerds, but it is going to make a lot of crafters very, very excited. After getting the help of some tech-savvy friends who fiddled with a USB cable to connect a Brother KH-930e electronic knitting machine to a computer, he is now able to make the machine knit photorealistic copies of digital images, sort of in the same way a desktop printer reproduces an image.

Using this novel technology and his vivid imagination, the 29-year-old has produced a number of brilliantly intricate pieces, including a jumper featuring a recursive image of actor Bill Cosby (Bill Cosby wearing a jumper with Bill Cosby wearing a jumper on it), a scarf with the waveform of a well-known drum break, and even a jumper based on a YouTube video.

How did you come up with the idea of hacking a knitting machine?

I used to live in a really badly insulated house and I ended up sleeping in a balaclava in the winter. Then I realised that my neighbours might see me walking around the house in it, so I decided it would be a good idea to make a balaclava with pictures of my face on it. A friend of mine, Becky Stern, had an electronic knitting machine from the 80s and I asked her if it would be possible to knit digital images with it. She thought it was, so she contacted a friend who is an electrical engineer and they figured out how to hack it. Then my friend showed me how to do it and let me use it to make the balaclava with my face on it.

How do you get from the design stage to making the knitwear?

The process basically consists of messing with the image in Photoshop until it looks right as a pattern. It can be tricky, though, because the dimensions of the image will come out differently depending on how tight the stitches are set on the machine, so designing an image to be knitted to a specific size can take some trial and error.

Can you print any design you want, or are there limitations?

I can print any design that has been converted into a 1-bit bitmap file, but there are a lot of limitations. There are only 200 needles on the knitting machine, so a piece of fabric can be only 200 stitches wide – that means I can work only from designs that can be reduced to a maximum of 200 pixels wide. The machine can currently knit only two colours per row, but I'm experimenting with ways to get more colours per row, and changing colours between rows, too.

Have you long been a fan of knitwear?

Well, I'd say I was a fan of sweater weather but I didn't really know anything about knitwear until I started working with the knitting machine. I originally had no plans beyond that first balaclava project, but by the time I finished that I started to have an inkling of how interesting and complex knitwear is. It's like learning a foreign language I never knew existed. Now whenever I am out I'm constantly staring at the knitwear people are wearing and trying to deconstruct how it was made in my head.

What was the inspiration behind the Bill Cosby jumper design?

I was thinking, "OK, what can I make with this knitted fabric? A sweater? OK, what kind of imagery relates to the idea of what a sweater is?" and I just kept on coming back to Bill Cosby. Then the challenge became trying to see how much detail I could get and still make the imagery recognisable. I also made a project about Bill Cosby a few years ago and I made a sweater for Amy Winehouse, so I liked the idea of bringing those past ideas together. Plus, Bill Cosby seemed like someone worth making something for.

Tell me about the Amy Winehouse piece

I embroidered a sweater with all of Amy Winehouse's tattoos in all the correct places so that, if she were to put on the sweater, the embroidered images would be on top of the tattoos they covered up. She seemed like someone who had enough problems and really just needed to put on a good sweater. I wondered if she didn't wear sweaters much because she was preoccupied with showing off her tattoos. So the sweater was an unsolicited solution to a problem I perceived Amy Winehouse to have. I sent her pictures of the sweater, because I meant for her to have it, but I never got a response.

What other designs have you made?

I made a scarf with the waveform of the Amen break – which is a drum sample a lot of early drum'n'bass was based on. That was basically a project for audio geeks, because pretty much anyone who knows breakbeats also messes around with audio software and knows what a waveform looks like.

How did the YouTube video design come about?

I saw a Christmas lights display video set to a Slayer song on YouTube and I loved it. I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if I could make a jumper that was a reasonable facsimile of a popular YouTube video. So I knitted a screenshot of the house in the video and then Becky Stern installed electroluminescent wire on the inside of the jumper and hooked it up to a sound driver. The jumper lights up when it detects sound above a certain level; it works with any music and it works really well in the dark. 

Do you plan to sell your knitwear commercially or is this just an art project?

All the stuff I've done so far has definitely been art projects, but a lot of people have contacted me asking me to sell things. I'd love to be able to oblige them, but I'm still figuring out whether it would be feasible to produce work commercially. A lot of people have asked if the Cosby sweater is for sale, but I'm still holding out for him to wear it one day, so it's not. But maybe in the future I will make an edition of Cosby sweaters.


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September 02 2011

Nazis, needlework and my dad

Not many men belong to a stitching group, but Tony Casdagli picked up his enthusiasm for the craft from his father, who kept himself sane by fashioning subversive messages as a PoW

After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: "God Save the King" and "Fuck Hitler".

This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. "It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds," says his son, Tony, of his father's rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. "He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity," says Tony. "If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it's very calming."

Tony should know. The 79-year-old picked up his father's stitching habit after a lifetime at sea serving in the Royal Navy, and from 6 September two of his pieces will feature in a new exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Power of Making. Tony is thrilled, but the relationship between father, son, needlework and suffering is complex and occasionally ambiguous.

The son of a family of Greek cotton merchants with operations in Manchester and Egypt, Tony and his mother, Joyce, were separated from his father when war broke out. During the disastrous allied campaign in Crete, Casdagli was captured. For a month, Joyce had no idea whether he was alive or dead; for a year, Casdagli did not receive any letters or parcels.

Most of Casdagli's confinement was spent in a German castle. Life for a British officer was not as brutal as it was in Japanese camps but it still involved terror, hunger and deprivation. Casdagli scrupulously wrote down and crossed out every day in pencil in a small black notebook. "He was very meticulous," recalls Tony, more than once. Casdagli made lists of everything – every window pane broken in bombing raids, every letter sent and received. He recorded "Improvisations", such as making a "watch stand" from a "broom handle & incendiary bomb" and "Reflections" on hunger: "Unable to remember in which hand to use knife and fork on arrival of first Red Cross parcel."

Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.

When Tony was 11, he received a stitched letter through the post. "It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again," Casdagli laboriously spelled out with finely stitched letters.

In a bleak, claustrophobic part-map and part-diagram, his father created a needlework of "Room 13, Spangenberg castle". The stitching depicted inmates' cells, a few lumps of coal, a sign saying "bath every 14 days", and a menu: "soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina". At the bottom was a Union flag. National flags were forbidden in the camp, so Casdagli sewed a canvas flap over it with "do not open" written on it in German. "Each week the same officer would open the flap and say, 'This is illegal,' and Pa said, 'You're showing it, I'm not showing it.'"

Captured officers played cricket and other games to pass the time, but needlework proved surprisingly popular: Casdagli ran a class for 40 officers. Was his "Fuck Hitler" gesture a great risk? "It would certainly have been torn down and he would've been put in solitary confinement or worse," says Tony. But he does not believe his father would have been executed. Despite seeing a fellow inmate shot in the back for accidentally tripping an alarm, Casdagli stuck to his policy of being unrelentingly unco-operative. One Christmas, a senior British officer struck a deal with his German counterpart that no one would try to escape, in exchange for a comfortable Christmas. Casdagli stayed in bed and refused to eat. "Pa was very cross about that. One of the few duties a PoW had was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for his captors by trying to escape," says Tony.

Among his father's works hanging above the stairs in the London home that Tony shares with his second wife, Sally, is a small, sad piece. It lists the years 1939 to 1943 alongside Joyce's initials and the words: "Any day now." It was to be another two years before Casdagli saw his wife and son again. In April 1945, in an "absolute daze", he was flown back to Britain, given a cursory medical and £10. Then he caught two buses to find his way home. Joyce had gone to pick up Tony from school. "At 12 noon, they arrived, and my cup of happiness was FULL," wrote Casdagli in his diaries.

Sadly, his joy could not so simply erase four traumatic years in captivity. Tony describes his father as "very frustrated" when he returned. His time in prison unsettled him, and soon afterwards he went to Greece to fight in the civil war. He met his second wife there.

Meanwhile, Tony entered the navy, and hardly saw his father. He "half-heartedly" stitched as a teenager, but at sea he was always too busy to do it. When he retired from the navy, however, he and Sally, with their daughter Lucy, moved to Highgate, north London near where his father kept a flat.

Then on holiday in Cornwall, the retired son and his elderly father began stitching together. "We used to sit alongside each other doing it. Pa didn't talk very much, but we would sit and talk a bit while we did it. There were so many questions I should've asked and didn't," says Tony. "I never asked him why he pinched the old general's wool."

Stitching requires discipline and patience, two qualities Tony must have inherited from his father, but the two men developed unique styles. Tony's father created intricate symmetrical patterns. "He didn't have an enormous imagination, Pa. He liked doing things rather than inventing things," says Tony. In contrast, Tony enjoys designing his needlework. Six years ago, the wife of an old naval friend introduced Tony to the Chelsea Women's Cross-stitch group. Tony became the only male member, mentored by Joyce Conwy Evans, whose work is displayed in Canterbury cathedral and the V&A.

Tony is self-deprecating about his work, but not self-conscious. He used to enjoy stitching while waiting at airports, but cannot any longer because his needles are banned airside. "I'd sit and do my needlework after going through the gate, and people would gradually move away from me," he jokes. Now he tends to stitch in the evenings, when Sally is reading. Most of his works get sent to his five children, who live all around the world. Each grandchild receives a special piece; sons get the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. He is currently stitching one for his latest grandchild, Griffin, which depicts the mythical creature with the body of a lion and an eagle's head and wings.

Major Casdagli died in 1996, aged 90. Did he approve of his son taking on his passion? "Towards the end of his life not quite so much, because he thought we were in competition," says Tony. Having said that, Tony and Sally agree he "would be so thrilled" that Tony's work is to be exhibited alongside the creations of professional craftsmen and women in the V&A. Major Casdagli's stitching was born out of suffering, but later it became a particularly fiercely pursued habit. "He did it for defiance to start with, then he did it because he did it," says Tony. "He hated finishing them because it meant he had to do something else. He loved doing something slavishly. He was a great slave."

Power of Making is at the V&A from Tuesday until 2 January 2012, www.vam.ac.uk. A Stitch in Time: God Save the King – Fu*k Hitler! by Captain A Casdagli, available from lulu.com. Tony Casdagli is participating in a free workshop at the V&A. Crafting the Collection: Power of Making, 17 September, 11am-4pm.


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August 01 2011

The art of craft

In a post-industrial culture that romanticises the handmade, designers are being called upon to do something they haven't for a century – make stuff themselves

Flicking through the latest issue of Port, a new "thinking man's" magazine, I came across a photograph of a kind that is increasingly ubiquitous. In an article about two young design practices, there's a picture of a box containing a hammer, some leather-working tools and other bits and bobs of workshop flotsam. With the same pinpoint focus that a food photographer might train at a boeuf bourguignon, the image fetishises its subject – in this case not French cuisine but craftsmanship.

It seems no magazine about material culture, from Monocle to Inventory, is complete these days without a behind-the-scenes story on a little-known clothing or furniture brand featuring people in leather aprons and workbenches strewn with chisels and offcuts. There's nothing new about the kind of products these studios create. What's new is the desire to reveal the process and not just the finished object. These are not-so-subtle messages reasserting the value of the handmade over the machine-made.

On one level, this is just fashion. When Levi's launches a marketing campaign called Levi's Craftwork to sell one of the most mass-produced items of clothing in the world, we can collectively roll our eyes. But I wonder if there's something more profound going on.

In his 2008 book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett makes a case for homo faber (or "man as maker"). Harking back to the workshops of the medieval guilds and to the studio of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, Sennett set out to prove Immanuel Kant's dictum that "the hand is the window on to the mind". It is only through making things, he says – by trying and failing and repeating – that we gain true understanding. He is not, like some latter-day John Ruskin, arguing that handmade things are better than machine-made ones. He is simply saying that skilled manual labour – or indeed any craft – is one path to a fulfilling life.

Sennett's idea of a "craftsman" is highly inclusive, but, at least since the industrial revolution, the designer and the craftsman are traditionally different roles. In the world of the Fordist production line, the designer created the templates that industrial craftsmen would replicate in the hundreds or thousands. The conspicuous consumption that defined the second half of the 20th century was driven by mass production; by men (though not always men) in charge of machines. And what Karl Marx called "commodity fetishism" – that ineffable something that gives an object a perceived value greater than its actual material cost – is best exemplified by machinic perfection: the sheen on an iPad, the techno-treads of a Nike trainer. But it seems that increasingly we are swapping one fetish for another.

There is craft fetishism aplenty at an exhibition of work by young designers currently showing at the Villa Noailles near Toulon. The villa, which was built by an art collector couple in the 20s and became a productive playground of sorts for surrealists from Max Ernst to Alberto Giacometti, has a long tradition of patronage. Now it hosts annual exhibitions of work by young designers, and this year's was typical of the direction that graduates' work has been taking in recent years. Almost all the designers seemed concerned to introduce a craft dimension to what would ordinarily be industrial objects. Jean-Baptiste Fastrez created a series of hairdryers with a range of distinctive wooden handles. Is it so frustrating knowing that all those plastic handles are the same, or is the hairdryer-cum-tomahawk simply more manly?

Fastrez is not against industrial production. Indeed, you can't make the working end of a hairdryer or a kettle without it. But his designs for kettles come with a set of standardised plastic and electric parts, while the bodies can be chosen from a series of hand-blown Pyrex or hand-shaped ceramic vessels. Like many designers of his generation, Fastrez is rejecting the one-size-fits-all outcome of traditional manufacturing. In his case, he is appealing to a growing taste for customisation – one that new production technologies are making ever more realistic.

Others in the show, however, have more primitive aims in mind. Icelandic designer Brynjar Sigurdarson created a torch with a long wooden handle, like a broomstick or spear. As many of our modern-day accoutrements – watches, calculators, diaries, newspapers and even torches – converge into a single device, the phone, it's as though Sigurdarson wants to rediscover the atavistic quality of this product, a tool for the hunter-gatherer within.

A number of the designers expressed how important they felt it was to make things with their own hands. This is partly an ethos – much like the slow food movement – but it is also a necessity. Who else is going to make their work? The rise of the designer-maker has a lot to do with the fact that while design is an ever more popular career choice, the opportunities to work with manufacturers are not growing at the same pace (and in the UK are actually diminishing). Where product and furniture designers once aspired to get their work mass-manufactured, many have now given up on the idea. Before the recession, a phantom career path seemed to open up, where a select few designers could sell their work in galleries. Once that bubble had burst, the market replaced the notion of the designer as artist with a humbler proposition, the designer as craftsman.

The problem with craft, of course is that it's expensive. In the 70s the Italian designer Enzo Mari was so disgusted by the quality of affordable furniture available to the public that he created a set of designs which people could make for themselves with a few pine planks, a hammer and some nails. He distributed his Autoprogettazione designs for free to anyone who would send him a stamped envelope. He had more than 5,000 requests. If you wanted to build yourself an Enzo Mari wardrobe today, however, the cost of materials alone would set you back more than a wardrobe from Ikea. And if you paid a craftsman to build it for you, you'd be looking at about four times the cost. This is how much global economics prohibits the idea of accessible craftsmanship, at least in the developed world.

There's no real question of returning to a craft-based economy (or only in the darkest fantasies of a global economic meltdown). What we have here is a post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial. In a culture with a surfeit of branding and cheap mass-produced goods, we romanticise the handmade because we yearn for quality, not quantity. The irony is that while western consumers aspire to craftsmanship, the majority of the world's population lives in countries that have local craftsmen but aspire to industrialised products. Mass manufacturing will be essential to lifting a billion people out of poverty, and providing basic goods that we took for granted long ago. Meanwhile, we'll be seeing more crafted industrial objects coming our way, as we lust after craftsmanship we can't afford and disdain the industrial products we can.


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April 18 2011

Pat Russell obituary

Calligrapher and church embroiderer renowned for her resplendent copes

Pat Russell, who has died aged 91, was renowned as both a calligrapher and a church embroiderer. One of her most prestigious embroidery commissions was for St Paul's Cathedral, in London, to commemorate the Queen Mother's 80th birthday, in 1980. The resulting set of festal copes (ceremonial cloaks) was used at the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales the following year.

Throughout her working life Pat never stopped exploring lettering, using different tools and techniques. Her use of abstract and symbolic designs, as well as letterforms – the shapes of letters as they are written or drawn – established her reputation for breathing new life into church embroideries. She was also an inspirational teacher, mainly at Oxford School of Art (now Oxford Brookes University), where she taught lettering from 1951 to 1988. Her distinctive approach was captured in two successful books, Lettering for Embroidery (1972) and Decorative Alphabets Throughout the Ages (1989).

She was born Patricia Cooch in Wembley, Middlesex, and moved with her parents to Farnborough, Hampshire, where she was first introduced to calligraphy at Farnborough Hill convent college by Minnie Hall (who had been taught by Edward Johnston). Pat attended Chelsea School of Art (1938-39), where she was taught by Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. One of her earliest commissioned pieces was a hand-lettered poster for a small exhibition of Sutherland's work.

She studied under the calligrapher MC Oliver at Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute (1953-54), where her fellow students included Heather Child and William Gardner. She cited Oliver as a great influence – "a good, sound teacher who taught in a practical manner". Pat was elected a member (now fellow) of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1954.

Many formal calligraphic commissions followed.

After a brief spell in advertising, she returned to Farnborough when war broke out and went to work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) – first in the accounts department and then in the aerodynamics department. It was while at the RAE that Pat met her future husband, Birrell Russell, who was responsible for erecting the radar aerials along the south and east coast to identify enemy aircraft. After the war, Birrell worked at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Oxfordshire. While working on an experiment there, in 1949, he fell from a ladder and died, leaving Pat with two small children. Forced through economic necessity to return to work, she started teaching graphic design evening classes at Oxford School of Art.

Inspired by the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford arranged an exhibition in 1964 entitled Modern Art in the Church. Pat decided to submit a cope with lettering around the orphrey (the band of embroidery bordering a vestment). This was a big undertaking as buying the fabric was expensive. Fortunately, she had already invested in a Bernina sewing machine. The lettering was designed in freely cut paper, each letter being built up of little strips. In between each word she inserted a cross form. "In a church service," Pat said, "the priest doesn't want to be read up and down, but the letterforms must be there, decipherable if not easily readable." Different colours and textures of yellow, gold and brown were used in this cope, irrespective of whether for background or letter, the lettering being hidden in a richly patterned band.

In response to a commission for Worcester Cathedral, the Very Rev Tom Baker, who was dean at the time, praised her "sensitive awareness of the demands of liturgy and architecture on all embroidery work".

Throughout her embroidery career, Pat continued to work on calligraphic commissions. She collaborated with the binder Ivor Robinson on a number of books. For Pat, a manuscript book, made by hand, did not need to conform to the usual parallel lines of text and rectangular format, and could employ more unusual handmade papers. A special style of lettering could be developed appropriate to the tone of the subject matter.

Pat travelled widely throughout the latter part of her life, especially in Japan, Australia and Canada, where she was much in demand to lecture on church embroidery and lettering. After retirement from church embroidery at the end of the 1980s, she was free to indulge her passion for experimental lettering, working in paper pulp, on silk and then on a Mac (a 70th birthday present from her son). She was thus able to continue the work she had commenced, on receipt of a Crafts Council bursary in 1978, "to investigate the influence of tools, materials and techniques on the character of letterforms". She continued to teach and exhibit until her mid-80s.

Pat served as chair of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators from 1989 to 1991; she was a founder member of the Letter Exchange and the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society; founder member and president of Oxford Scribes; and a member of the Art Workers Guild.

She is survived by her daughter Jennifer, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her son, Graham, predeceased her.

Patricia Mary Russell, lettering artist, born 17 August 1919; died 12 March 2011


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November 21 2010

When only a really sharp pencil will do

An enterprising New York cartoonist has started a bespoke pencil-sharpening service – at $12 a pop

Would you pay twelve dollars to get your pencil sharpened? Hand-sharpened, admittedly; lovingly so, and it comes posted back (including overseas) with a certificate, and its own shavings in a bag, and careful little rubber protectors. But, still … that's something like £8.40 in Limey-money.

If you do David Rees, a New York state-based cartoonist for, among others the Nation and Rolling Stone, is your guy, blade at the ready. He describes himself as a "craftsman" who "practices the age-old art of manual pencil sharpening". We called him to check if he was for real.

A pencil-sharpening business. You'll have to excuse this, but … what's the point?

I forgive you. Well, in late spring of this year I had a temporary position with the US Census, and on the first day we all had to pull out our No 2 pencils and have them hand-sharpened. I had such a good time, I wondered if there wasn't a way to make money by sharpening pencils. I've had a great deal of encouragement and enjoyment, and while it might not be entirely serious, it's not done at all as a joke, and I'm delighted to answer any questions on it.

Obviously, I want to ask: 2B or not 2B? But I should probably change that to: is it making money?

Oh God, no. I've sold about 100. But that's around the world. And it is, slowly, taking off. Someone heard about it in Germany recently, and I've had a sudden run of orders from there. Anecdotally, I hear people don't like to use them: often they're given as a present, and just sit there, sharp forever. 2B? Well, I'll do pencils sent me, but more often now I'll prepare my own, which are the standard yellow No 2 – I think that's HB2 over there – with the metal band, the iconic childhood pencil. And I do do it lovingly. Sometimes with a box-cutter, but I've been given a nice German single-blade hand-sharpener, and take great care with the packaging, and it comes with a poster. And it gives me happiness, because at that stage life had just become a little bit …

Leaden?

Something like that indeed. And since then I have, honestly, had satisfaction, and people have said good things about artisanship, and individuality. Is it art or is it stationery? Bang in the middle, I would hope.

And no one accuses you of sharp practice?

The reaction has said, I think, more about the US than about me. The LA Times ran a piece recently and the reaction, the many comments, were split completely along the lines of what it means to be an American now. Half of them celebrated the fact that, in their words, anyone could have the inventiveness to make a go of anything, and thus they should abolish the welfare state. The other half professed despair that there are people rich enough to spend 12 bucks getting their pencil sharpened.

www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com


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November 09 2010

Graham Hughes obituary

Art director of the Goldsmiths' Company behind the renaissance in modern silver design

Graham Hughes was a tall, ebullient, dashing figure who created a postwar renaissance of British silversmithing and jewellery, as art secretary, and subsequently art director, of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, in London, from 1951 until 1981. Hughes, who has died aged 84, grew up knowing many of the most eminent silversmiths of the interwar period. His father, George Ravensworth Hughes, had worked at the Goldsmiths' Company until his retirement as the company's clerk in 1953, having initiated their most important commissions, purchases and patronage during the interwar years. GR Hughes was a modernist, in sympathy with the progressive Design and Industries Association, but he also successfully organised the wartime production of the Stalingrad sword of honour, presented to Stalin in Tehran in 1943 after being displayed to awed crowds in Westminster abbey.

Graham was sent, in his father's footsteps, to Eton college, Berkshire, followed by two-and-half-years' wartime naval service on a minesweeper, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947, to read history. He switched to law and was increasingly drawn to the arts, attending lectures given by Nikolaus Pevsner. In 1951 he married Serena Robinson, then reading music at Newnham College. Her father was ESG Robinson, the classical numismatist and keeper of coins and medals at the British Museum. The young couple had known each other from childhood. In the year of his marriage, Graham joined his father at the Goldsmiths' Company, recruited as exhibition secretary during the Festival of Britain, and subsequently involved in a series of well-designed historic exhibitions of English silver in the early 1950s.

Graham was, however, firmly committed to the contemporary; while being in no sense a functionalist, he frequently expressed disquiet at the absence of variety and surface decoration in contemporary design. The silversmiths he admired were mostly recent graduates from the Royal College of Art, above all David Mellor, Robert Welch, Stuart Devlin and Gerald Benney, whom he dubbed "the silversmith's Henry Moore". He also encouraged the maverick architect Louis Osman and the sculptor Geoffrey Clarke in their silver designs.

Most of the dramatic silver in the Smithsonian exhibition British Artist Craftsmen, which toured the US during 1959 and 1960, had been commissioned by Graham under the aegis of the Goldsmiths' Company. Graham worked hard to persuade industry and business, the church and the universities to commission interesting silver. He organised generous gifts of radical silver for formal dining to the new universities during the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 he was appointed consultant art director to the Royal Mint and began the promotion of the medal form, encouraging artists to design medals and organising the landmark international exhibition Medals Today at the Goldsmiths' Hall.

In 1961, in collaboration with Shirley Bury at the V&A, Hughes staged the International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery 1890-1961, beautifully designed by the architect Alan Irvine. It including makers from 33 countries. Contemporary British jewellery was weak, so Hughes commissioned directly from painters and sculptors such as Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink, Terry Frost and Bernard Meadows, and included brilliant up-and-coming jewellers such as John Donald, Gerda Flöckinger, Andrew Grima and Donald Thomas.

This was the start of significant support for designer jewellers by the Goldsmiths' Company and as always Graham was capable of grand gestures – on one occasion buying an entire exhibition of student work organised at Hornsey School of Art by Flöckinger. Out of the 1961 show came Hughes's book Modern Jewelry: An International Survey, 1890-1963, which was incisive, opinionated and full of insights.

In 1965 Graham took on the chairmanship of the beleaguered Crafts Centre of Great Britain. He moved its premises from Hay Hill in Mayfair to a warehouse in Earlham Street, Covent Garden, an area he realised would soon become fashionable. He encouraged splendid shows there – of jewellery by Flöckinger (1968), textiles by Ann Sutton (1969) and glass by Sam Herman (1969). In response to the new "hot glass" movement, Hughes (with Susannah Robins, director of the Crafts Centre of Great Britain) set up and part-financed the Glasshouse in a warehouse next to the centre. This was the only place in Britain where the general public could see hot glass being blown.

He retailed robustly, setting up Crafts Centre outposts in Toyko, North America and Australia and taking groups of makers, including Flöckinger and the potters Anthony Hepburn and Janet Leach, to Japan to make important contacts. The parties at Earlham Street were memorable – Donovan sang, Yehudi Menuhin was a presence and snacks arrived courtesy of a newly formed enterprise, Pizza Express.

As art director at the Goldsmiths' Company, Hughes had little interest in the conservatively minded manufacturing silversmiths – the "trade" – and was impatient with budgets and committees. But the silver, jewellery and medals that entered the company's collection during his 30 years at the Hall testify to his unerring eye for new and exciting work and form a secret history of modern British postwar art.

By 1981 Hughes had tired of the Goldsmiths' Company and its governing body and he resigned, shortly afterwards buying Arts Review from the Sovereign Publishing Company of New York. He flung himself into art journalism with zest, running the magazine from his house in St James's Gardens in west London. This was where he and Serena bought up four children, as a family greatly adding to the gaiety and seriousness of cultural and musical life in west London, above all by helping found the W11 Children's Opera, which is still running.

After 10 years, by now living main- ly in East Sussex, he sold Arts Review and settled down to writing books. The first was a scholarly study of Renaissance Cassoni, or dowry chests (1997), much of it written in his daughter's house near Perugia, Italy. The most recent, David Watkins, Wendy Ramshaw: A Life's Partnership (2009), paid tribute to two jewellers whose work he had supported throughout their long, distinguished careers.

He is survived by Serena, their daughters Emma, Clare and Hatty, and son Ben.

• George Graham McKenny Hughes, arts administrator and writer, born 17 April 1926; died 5 October 2010


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November 02 2010

Lab craft: digital adventures in contemporary craft

A new Crafts Council touring exhibition presents the imagined as real objects



June 24 2010

Craft is about more than crochet

Our knowledge economy may place little value on physically making things, yet the benefits and satisfaction are immense

In a budget week that has seen the country united, or otherwise unhappily welded, in austerity, one would feel safe to assume that uniquely rendered, artisanal objets d'art may not head its shopping lists. Not so. On Tuesday, while George Osborne was perfecting his "this hurts me more than it hurts you" face, another economically anxious audience was receiving more cheering news. At Assemble 2010, the Craft Council's annual conference, research was launched showing that – despite a recession – the craft market has been attracting more buyers and enjoying a stronger commercial image than ever before.

The reasons for this blooming are fairly self-evident. The ubiquity of similarly conceived, only differently branded, goods has powered a craving for authenticity. Add to this an increasing disillusionment with companies who would rather we concerned ourselves with the lifestyle a product signals, rather than its inherent quality or purpose. A growing environmental awareness means that purchasing decisions are now more weighted according to sustainability and local sourcing. Likewise, the resurgence of interest in acquiring skills that are more hand than head – be that knitting a jumper or planting an allotment – inevitably steers trade: 21% of people who had bought craft had themselves taken part in a craft activity six or more times in the past 12 months. The same surely can't be said of shoppers at Ikea, unless craft activity includes assembling a flat-pack Billy bookcase – and doing so six times a year would send a body round the bend.

Those of a sunnier disposition can read this as evidence of a population's nascent attempts to redefine their consumer activity for an – allegedly imminent – post-consumerist era. Though one speaker noted that the luxury goods market, flagging in the downturn, has been frantically appropriating the operative language of craft, with Louis Vuitton, for example, introducing in-store ateliers that offer customers some handmade with their handbag.

For the cynics who consider this to be the same old binge-spending at a different checkout, and those who point out that contemplating a non-essential purchase will be an impossibility for many after a VAT hike, it's worth then considering some fresh qualitative research from the Craft Council, which assesses the social contribution made by makers. Some 70% of makers now practice portfolio working, which means that they are sometime employed in community and educational settings as well as creating.

One project encapsulates this social subsidy. The Xtravert programme in Cornwall is run by a group of furniture designers who teach carpentry to young people not in education, employment or training. (How ironic that, as the country anticipates mass youth unemployment, the term Neets – previously used to shame the feckless teens of Vicky Pollard parody – will soon come to define a whole generation.) Now developing into a financially self-sustaining business, making furniture and sheds to order, the initial draw for this notoriously attendance-phobic group was that – all keen skaters – they could learn how to fashion their own skate ramps. Concepts such as discipline, work ethic and personal utility took on an immediate meaning: if the wooden boards weren't flush then it was your own wheels that would stall.

It's one example of the benefits of manual competence that the American philosopher and mechanic Matthew B Crawford eloquently argues for in his book The Case for Working With Your Hands, a bestseller in the US and published in Britain last month. A former Washington wonk who became so disenchanted with cog-in-the-wheel, white-collar life that he relocated to Virginia to open a motorbike repair shop, Crawford rails against the learned helplessness that leaves us deeming it more efficient to buy the upgraded model of a household appliance rather than develop the capability of fixing the old one. And, while he's rigorous in avoiding the mysticism that often gets attached to "craftsmanship", he is unusual in doing justice to the genuine satisfactions it offers.

We are not only rendered passive and dependent, but our relationship to the material world is detrimentally altered by the knowledge economy, which values above-the-neck abilities above all others. The term itself, as the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang contends, is complacent: it's an insult to suggest manufacturing work isn't based on deep and long-garnered knowledge.

Jobs in skilled manual trades are proving hardest to fill in difficult times when millions are facing unemployment. Yet vocational training remains the Cinderella stream of education, burdened with the assumption that it is for the otherwise disadvantaged, despite the reality that the reverently pursued university degree for all now offers little more than a do-not-pass-go to the brew.

The craft renaissance is far more complex than the cliche of the middle-class mummy hooked on crochet. It speaks to a more visceral, and socially urgent, need to reconfigure the nature of work.


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March 17 2010

The V&A has quilts all stitched up

The V&A's new quilts show is already causing a stir, with international enthusiasts block-booking hotels in west London. Viv Groskop finds out what all the fuss is about

As you step through the heavy wooden doors into the V&A's new quilts exhibition, the first thing you see is a four-poster bed, draped with bed hangings from 1730; these are made up of 6,500 individual pieces in shades of red, brown, green and blue. The lighting is low, the walls are baby pink, there are weird, echoing noises. I don't want to say it's womb-like, but it is.

Quilts is a strange, fascinating show, six years in the making and the first the V&A has ever devoted to the subject. It provides a window on to a world – a predominantly female world – that feels private and somewhat undiscovered. Already, it is one of the museum's most successful exhibitions, with 8,000 advance ticket sales; quilting groups from the US, Australia and Japan have made block-bookings with local hotels.

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. "I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry." She thinks many people will come not so much to marvel, but to gain inspiration for their own handiwork.

Not just a female pursuit

Personally, I think the exhibition's appeal is much simpler than this: quilts are comforting, intriguing, intimate and heavy with history. To enjoy them, you don't have to want to make one (and I really, really don't). But the air in the first room of the exhibition, which houses the oldest quilts, has a wonderfully musty tang to it, like breathing in the past – it's a transporting experience.

There are 71 pieces here, mostly displayed as intended: on beds or as wall hangings. Many give an insight into family life of their period; several are exhibited alongside letters and diaries. There are quilted cushions from the 18th century, when a mother was expected to "lie in" after childbirth, embroidered with mottoes such as Health to the Little Stranger and the slightly less sinister Welcome Dear Babe. (These gifts were given after birth; it was thought that receiving them before labour would make it more painful. If only a cushion could make a difference.) Every quilt tells a story: one depicting Aesop's Fables, dated 1780–1830, clearly shows evidence of two hands – one detailed and precious, the other slapdash. You start to form stories about who these people might have been.

Is this a women's exhibition? Yes and no. It showcases the ways in which women have used quilts to document the big events in their lives – love, marriage, birth, death, even their thoughts on politics and patriotism. But it is not an exclusively female art. One of the star exhibits is Grayson Perry's wonderfully disturbing Right to Life (1993), which depicts embroidered pink foetuses against a background of red, white and black velvet. And there are several military quilts, one thought to have been made by a private serving in India in the 1860s (soldiers were encouraged to take up embroidery to stop them drinking and gambling).

Some of the pieces are unexpectedly satirical. A cover depicting the A-Z of Love (1875-1885) shows a young couple cringing next to a moustachioed man, who represents G for Guardian. Other quilts are overtly political: one takes a fabric template of "Her Most Gracious Majesty Caroline, Queen of England" as its centrepiece. Caroline was never Queen; when she was divorced by the future George IV, many women were disgusted. (Jane Austen wrote: "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband.")

Impatience is a modern vice

What struck me most was how intricate the 300-year-old work was compared with the contemporary quilts. Perhaps this is an unkind thought. I'm sure a lot of work went into Tracey Emin's To Meet My Past, despite the self-consciously faux-naif stitching. Equally, Jo Budd's Winter/Male and Summer/Female (2010) is strikingly beautiful; but it is a quilt made of giant slabs of colour, not tiny woven pieces. Quilting has moved further towards the grand statement, and there is a kind of impatience to the more modern pieces. There is another tension here, too: the earlier works were never intended as art, or to be exhibited. It made me want to see more examples of modern domestic quilting, rather than the professional art work of Emin and Perry.

Above all, a theme of confinement pervades this exhibition – literal confinement (labour and childbirth); and domestic: these pieces required hundreds of hours of homework. Later, the theme resurfaces in another form. One of the most striking quilts here is by prisoners at HMP Wandsworth. The slogans are funny and poignant: "I miss my family"; "I will go home"; "I didn't do it, guv, honest". Having time on your hands can feed an extraordinary creative focus, whether you are an 18th-century woman, or a 21st-century inmate.

Quilts 1700-2010 is at the V&A from 20 March until 4 July. Details: vam.ac.uk.

Sew simple: How to make a quilt

Where to start

The V&A's Patchwork for Beginners by Sue Prichard is excellent, as are a number of free online tutorials. Quilting.about.com is a good place to start, or eHow's videos (tinyurl.com/ehowvideos). Save your cash for pattern books – Kaffe Fassett is worth a look, or for modern stuff try the Material Obsession set by Kathy Doughty and Sarah Fielke. There are lots of workshops: I learned at Liberty (liberty.co.uk), but London's Make Lounge (themakelounge.com) and Brighton's Just Sew (justsewbrighton.co.uk) come highly recommended, too. The Quilter's Guild can help find a course (quiltersguild.org.uk).

What to buy

Basics – a rotary cutter, cutting mat and a decent ruler – start at about £30. (Omnigrip rulers and Olfa cutters outshine any other products.) If you don't want to fork out just yet, though, get a decent pair of fabric scissors and cut each piece out with a cardboard template.

Stick to cotton, and mix expensive, patterned stuff with cheap, plain fabric to keep costs down. Liberty have a new range of material tied into the V&A show; if you're after something bright and contemporary, Amy Bulter quilting fabrics (at John Lewis) are your best bet. Or design your own – see UK-based thefabricpress.com – or recycle dresses or table cloths.

Seeking inspiration

Flickr's quilt group should give you a few ideas (flickr.com/groups/quilts/), as will blogs such as aquiltaday.com. See what contemporary quilters such as Laura Kemshall (sixart.co.uk/Laura_Kemshall) are up to; I also like the picture-heavy book Quilting, Patchwork & Appliqué: A World Guide by Caroline Crabtree and Christine Shaw. If it's real-life inspiration you want, take a trip to the Quilt museum in York (quiltmuseum.org.uk) or join the hardcore quilters who fly in from all over the world for Birmingham's four-day Festival of Quilts in August (tinyurl.com/festivalofquilts).

Perri Lewis


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January 11 2010

Craftism | Visual art review

Arnolfini, Bristol

This exhibition, knitting ­together craft and ­activism, could hardly be more timely. With its enthusiasm for making and ­doing, its commitment to local ­context, and its determination to get us all ­foraging (bring rose hips to the gallery in exchange for a free drink), Craftivism cheerfully exemplifies the zeitgeist.

It is also participatory, and the ­suggested interactions are hard to resist. In the main gallery, Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler's Bau-Stelle invites us to work on a giant wooden sculpture, attaching and removing sticks of wood. Both architectural and toy-like, it's the antithesis of grim hours spent battling flat-pack furniture. Playing on primary-coloured gym mats, a community of small-scale builders quietly forms.

Mandy McIntosh, working with local knitters, has created a social space with seats, hammock and craft-book library fashioned in rope, while recycled clothing is reworked into vivid, traditional Nigerian dresses that you can wear around the gallery. There's a knitting bench, a cluster of computers converting keystrokes to music, and a map of food to forage for around Bristol. Even local wrestlers join in, making masks from their clothes and personal effects, and displaying them in bill posters.

While the artworks are engaging, the themes feel familiar, ­overlapping with many other current invocations to grow our own, make do and mend. ­Ultimately, the most ­radical point is the act of ­bringing craft into a slick gallery ­setting. Too often modern art has sidelined craft, its homelier sibling, and it's good to see this challenged with such spirit.

Rating: 3/5


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January 04 2010

Four short links: 4 January 2010

  1. Why Git Is So Fast -- interesting mailing list post about the problems that the JGit folks had when they tried to make their Java version of Git go faster. Higher level languages hide enough of the machine that we can't make all of these optimizations. A reminder that you must know and control the systems you're running on if you want to get great performance. (via Hacker News)
  2. Wooden Combination Lock -- you'll easily understand how combination locks work with this find piece of crafty construction work.
  3. From Moleskine to Market -- how a leading font designer designs fonts. Fascinating, and beautiful, and it makes me covet his skills.
  4. Terrastore -- open source distributed document store, HTTP accessible, data and queries are distributed, built on Terracotta which is built on ehcache. A NoSQL database built on Java tools that serious Java developers respect, the first such one that I've noticed. Notice that all the interesting work going on in the NoSQL arena is happening in open source projects.

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