Angela van der Burght
Box for the exposition Box, Galerie De Mijlpaal, Belgium; wood, paint, textile, gilded glass, transfer, 2003


– or ambacht as an exotic novelty

Angela van der Burght

Craft is a trend that took off and started to become hip some three years ago. From an etymological perspective, the word developed from the Anglo-Saxon craeft, meaning strength, skill, handiwork and artisanship, particularly in relation to the applied, practical arts.

Posted 1 May 2013

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– or ambacht as an exotic novelty

Angela van der Burght

Craft is a trend that took off and started to become hip some three years ago. From an etymological perspective, the word developed from the Anglo-Saxon craeft, meaning strength, skill, handiwork and artisanship, particularly in relation to the applied, practical arts. According to the Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [Etymological Dictionary of the Dutch language], the Dutch word for craft, "ambacht", comes from the 10th-century term ambaht, meaning a servant, profession or function; it is also found in all of the Old Germanic languages, e.g. in the Old Friesian word for handiwork. In the 17th century, the word split into two different manifestations: ambacht, signifying a lower-grade form of activity or trade, and ambt, meaning a higher-level function. In the meantime, "ambacht" has become virtually synonymous with the term "manually practised occupation", usually with an association to earlier times.

With the Meesterlijk 2010 event, the concept of craft really developed into a trend. Now, 50 years after the emergence of the Studio Glass Movement, it is apparent that a great many special exhibitions, discussion panels and activities concerning craft are being organised within the design world. New phenomena are emerging, such as; the website of the Hoofdbedrijfschap Ambachten [Netherlands central craft trade organisation]; the conference held in Brussels by the International Committee for Design History and Design Studies (ICDHS) on "Design and Craft: A History of Convergences and Divergences" – see; the "Design met Wortels" ["Design with Roots"] round tables organised by Tapis plein vzw, concerning craft and transmission; the theme Handicraft is Design chosen for the Helsinki Design Year 2012;; the new-look KunstRAI 2012 featuring contemporary applied art and design;; the exhibitions Excellent Craft at the Court in the Oranienbaum Palace ( and Focus on Craft at the Designhuis in Eindhoven. The symposium Me Craft/You Industry was held at the beginning of this year in the Zuiderzeemuseum, where discussion took place concerning craft and its contribution to today's economy and the economy of the future. The town and country planner and economist Pieter Tordoir argued that, with today's globalisation, we cannot just look backwards; by contrast, the cultural philosopher and commentator Henk Oosterling considered that an economy based to a greater extent on craft activities would benefit us all, by moving forward to an economy founded on skill-based labour, pointing out that, in the Netherlands alone, this is already creating some 900 000 jobs. Smári McCarthy, a graphic designer and former mathematical artist, added to the discussion by stating that there are perhaps three possible perspectives: first, the perspective of those who believe that industry is the prime area of activity; second, that of those who think this about handicrafts and artisanship; and third, possibly, the viewpoint of those who are searching for a new way to achieve a more sustainable, social and creative world populated by people with a sense of well-being.

Is there still anyone out there who knows about history or the reality of day-to-day existence? According to the conclusions reached by the students from the Forum section of the Design Academy Eindhoven, who described their experiences, as part of the "Focus on Craft" project, working with artisans during a six-month stay in Turkey, the latter evidently had no knowledge of the glass world. For the full story, see the booklet published by Forum 3 as part of the exhibition in the Designhuis Eindhoven.

Trends come and go, moving in waves. In the area of styling and product design, those waves tend to last for about 14 years, with the avant-garde, the followers and the laggards forming up in that order around topics which are important to society. Styles may last for a longer period, however, as can be seen in the emergence of craft as an ecological style which reappears and manifests itself roughly once in each generation. But whatever may have happened in the past, craft, as well as involving the exercise of skills, has always been first and foremost a means to an end. When the Arts and Crafts movement came into being around 1850 as a reaction to the industrial production of ugly consumer goods, it represented a plea for applied art and design to be accepted as "art" in the refined sense of the term. Medieval, hand-made, traditional, artisanal production was seen – like craftsmanship itself – as an ideal. Modernism and the International Style emerged as a reaction to this, manifesting themselves as part of the reconstruction process after World War I. Decoration and ornamentation gave way to the new "machine aesthetic"; industrial designers made their presence felt in factories (; and from 1930 onwards Organic Design sought to present components from architecture and interior design as a single, harmonious whole, with natural shapes and materials gaining ground. The year 1948 saw the setting-up of the Centraal Orgaan Scheppende Ambachten (COSA = Central Body for Creative Crafts); at first, "so-called 'creative craft artists' struggled with an identity crisis, inasmuch as craft art was not accepted as Art with a capital A, since art had to be uplifting and innovative and could certainly not have any practical function. Moreover, attention was increasingly focused on industrial styling and design, which sometimes resulted in the fruits of the honest labour of potters, gold and silversmiths or glass-blowers being looked upon with a certain disdain" ( From the mid-1960s onwards, Anti-Design and Postmodernism rebelled against Modernism, seeking to undermine hollow aesthetics by inserting bad taste, decoration and humour into the equation. The Craft Councils were set up and the Crafts Revival movement came into being, with a great deal of interest being shown in the Fireborn techniques; thus the Corning Museum of Glass organised the first Modern Glass exhibition in 1959 and the Studio Glass movement came into being.

In the 1980s, educational projects, centred around a main subject, were carried out within the framework of vocational training in art, whereby, from amongst the different perceptions, all aspects of the visual arts, disciplines, materials, techniques and skills were offered as subjects on study courses in the different disciplines. Most academies dismissed the costly first-grade lecturers and did not provide any teaching in the intervening period in relation to artistic crafts and accompanying schools of thought: crafts were declared to be "suspect", until Jeff Koons shocked the art world by using artisans to execute his works. His pornographic glass sculptures dating from 1991, made by Pino Signoretto as part of the series Made in Heaven/Kama Sutra, acted as the spur, within the world of plastic art, to seeking out artisans capable of executing works.

Now and then, I see students and the work that they produce, and am shocked by the lacunae in their knowledge and ability. The extent to which this generation gap has developed may be seen in the context of the entries for the exhibition Glass is more! as part of the Dutch Design Week Eindhoven 2011. One of the members of the panel responsible for judging the entries (and, in some cases, rejecting them without any argument) herself exhibited 10 glass industrial ceiling lights featuring attractive but non-functional transfers. The ceiling lights were dazzling, but arguably fell within the ambit of design because they "tell a story about our history (Form Follows Fiction). See article Design/Antidesign. At the eleventh hour, a presentation (entitled Crafts Matter) took place in the main building, where craft workshops demonstrated their abilities, which could well be of use to designers. Following a robust exchange of views, Glass is more! was once again received with open arms.

In an article appearing in 2011 on the site, freelance journalist Chris Reinewald gives an interesting account of "untamed thinking" and the role of craftsmen. He concludes: "Towards the end of his Spinoza lecture, Sennett expresses concern over our instant visual culture. Where words and literature slow down time, and even delay its passage as we read, we are in danger of succumbing to a visual bombardment, an attention deficit disorder.” Accordingly, he advocates a visual literacy. If we learn how to experience and fathom images better, we will avoid being so easily controlled by them."

Stimulated by a renewal of interest deriving from the growth in DIY and hobby activities, the new craft revival wave, involving the concept of activist crafting or craftivisim, is being promoted, superficially by cutting and pasting under the guise of expressive or free design, "manufracturing", conceptual crafts, edition design or decorative design, in such a way – and presented so often as "the Emperor's new clothes" – that artistic crafts must now regain a place in education. This also applies to the craft of draughtsmanship. The question is not whether craft constitutes art or design, but rather how this can be. Art must not just confer a higher status on design. This is illustrated by the failure of the designers' collective Studio Job – following heated discussions – to comprehend that its hand-crafted linen Auschwitz tablecloths and napkins and Buchenwald fence are not simply ornamental or decorative objects but images with a special meaning to which, as was apparent, the designs had all along time been adapted. This is not something that anyone calling himself an artist should ever do.

As with any form of hype, all this will pass: so let's move on in our quest for things of true worth!

See >Jeff Koons, Violet Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991, coloured glass, courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan: 33 x 69.1 x 41.9 cm (13 x 27.2 x 16.5 inches)

January 2012 for Fjoezzz Cutting Edge

©Angela van der Burght
Translation James Benn, Brussels

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