Back to the drawing board: the crafty art students rejecting digital – The Guardian

Once it had connotations of classroom cutting and sticking or haberdashery departments, but today the word “craft” represents a movement of makers investing time in mastering skills, experimenting with design and labouring over one handmade object at a time.

With the recent launch of Amazon Handmade after the international success of Etsy, crafted items are now more accessible than ever. Against a backdrop of the 3D printing revolution, craft is still going strong and many young people across the UK are still interested in learning traditional techniques – such as stone carving, silver-smithing and wood work.

Karen Westland is currently on a silver-smithing residency at Bishopsland, near Reading, the only place in the UK dedicated to teaching traditional silver-smithing techniques.

She says that when people choose to buy a crafted object, they buy the whole package, the materials, combinations of processes – and the creator’s touch.

“People are buying a piece of you, rather than the work itself,” she says. “There’s something special about being able to make something unique that’s the only one in the world.”

She studied silver-smithing and jewellery at Glasgow School of Art, where learning computer aided design (CAD) is an important element of the course. “I have one rule in my classes,” says Hamish Dobbie, a second year teacher of CAD. “If you can make it by hand, then you’re not making it in CAD!”

Dobbie studied at Glasgow School of Art before he started teaching there. He believes that digital will never fully replace handmade techniques: “No matter how far technology advances, people will always want to physically interact with objects to make them,” he says.

However Jyri Kermik, course leader of 3D design and craft at Brighton University, sees a place for CAD alongside traditional techniques, and says it is just another tool that has become an extension of the body.

“Craft has always been about connecting what’s in your brain to your hand. With digital technology, you can make shortcuts,” he says. “You may not actually need to touch the material, you just make it directly from an image in your mind, to a 3D drawing – and then you print it.”

A student on Kermik’s 3D design and craft course, Evan Reinhold, says: “I think what makes craft ‘craft’ is the fact that people have spent more time thinking about what they’re going to make.

“It’s a buzzword at the moment because there’s a reaction against post-modern globalisation, and the label means doing something with a bit more of a reasoned intention, rather than just because you can.”

Reinhold is interested in “hacking” industrial techniques – which involves deconstructing the processes behind machine made objects and recreating them through traditional techniques. “It’s about realising that stuff doesn’t just turn by magic,” he says. “It’s made somewhere and by someone and I think that’s been forgotten.”

Initially impressed by the advantages of digital techniques, Reinhold’s coursemate, Jack Scott, decided to stick with pen and paper, and traditional woodwork techniques. He says: “At first I was really interested in digital, but when the material comes out uniformly and perfectly all the time, it takes away the charm element of human touch. It’s quite impersonal.”

Scott started working with wood after taking an interest in the material while studying furniture at City & Guilds. “People may have fewer crafted objects in the house, but they have longer emotional durability, and actual durability because people take care of them better. Already we’re at a stage where we could live without any hand crafted objects, but people value them more and I think they work well together.”

On the historic carving course at City & Guilds, no digital techniques are taught at all. “It’s quite extreme – like stepping back in time.” says Esme Toler, who graduated from the course this year and is now doing an apprenticeship in decorative arts.

“In a way it’s quite short sighted, but there’s a lot to be said for it”, she says. “People still have a desire to have something created by a human. They still invest in handmade.”

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