all this useless beauty

Sketch (leaves) 2005, blown glass, 15 x 23 cmcali balles, photo

i came across this paper* while researching for my project and prepping for the last lecture of the year before presentations, and it really highlights some of the ideas i’ve spoken about previously as well as given articulate phrasing to some really interesting connections in the relationship between craft, design and digital technology. craft and design have had a schism since the industrial revolution, when, for all intents and purposes, design was born. greg calls design ‘creation for reproduction’ – making with the direct intention of replicating, and thus requiring systems and standards to ensure exactness throughout that reproductive process. and most digital technology reflects this, presenting us with clean and simple efficiencies of form but very little humanity. i think that craft, however, embodies a bit more of our humanity as the unique experience of making by hand can’t be replicated and our tools and processes do not become extensions of ourselves, but rather interfaces in an empathetic relationship with the materials, the ideas, the user and ourselves. and beauty.

jayne wallace and mike press (the latter of whom is speaking this week in halifax at nscad university’s neocraft conference- i SO WISH i was there) express their thoughts on the role of beauty in craft, it’s approximation in design and it’s role in creating better digital technologies.

1st part of the excerpts below (2nd to follow shortly)

Beauty, we argue, plays a vital role in humanising technology and ensuring its cultural relevance… Industrial design can
employ the illusion of beauty to temper the beast of technology by providing a veneer of desire, seduction and usability. But let us not confuse eternal beauty with the passionate but fast fading blooms of desire. We enjoy the delights of the G4 Powerbook as much as the next fashion-conscious academic, but only as a well designed one night stand at the orgiastic party of our consumer culture.

moar Our concern in this paper is less with detailing our underlying research and the consequent critique of market-driven design ‘beautification’ which we have elaborated elsewhere but more with detailing the unique value of craft as a process of innovation and suggesting its implications for digital culture. Our starting point is a question that too few of design’s beauticians appear to be addressing: what is beauty?

Beauty is something that we all know, and yet it defies analytical definition. Furthermore, our experience of beauty centres on our quest for it, which is in most cases unsatisfied. According to Dewey: “Beauty is at the furthest remove from an analytic term, and hence from a conception that can figure in theory as a means of explanation or classification.”

[dare we say tacit?]

Our conception of beauty, which arises from the perspectives referred to above, is centred on experience rather than objectified possession. It is a journey or quest we forever travel; the significance is the journey itself rather than the unattainable end. This voyage of discovery relating to pleasure, joy, thankfulness and veneration is a relationship we have with the object or experience we find beauty through. This is a cyclical relationship of yearning, courtship and love, and which is a defining factor in the connection between beauty and craft and is central to the process of making.

This process, which centres on the relationship between the creator and the handmade object, highlights why craft objects possess qualities of intimacy, beauty and sensitivity, while designed objects do not. The designer is necessarily distanced from the object by engineering, marketing, and all the other specialisms involved in bringing that object into being. But the craft maker is the only person who creates their object. This object arises from an intimate relationship between the maker and their material and, indeed, an attachment with it. So the maker feels attached to the object, knows that they and only they could create it, and thus ‘loves’ the object of their labours. It is this love of labour, process, material and object that is distinctive and it is this which discovers the qualities of beauty in the object.


We propose that there are three central characteristics of craft that enable it to find beauty:
(i) enchantment, (ii) empathy, and (iii) intuition. Enchantment is an outcome and part of the interpretative frame of craft practice, the facilitators of which include empathy as a fundamental aspect of the craft process, unifying maker, material and user. Intuition is linked to a sense of ‘knowingness’, placing craft beyond reducible definitions.

*can i just say that i’m really annoyed by publication portals? i know that ppl need to make money and publish in well-respected peer-reviewed journals blah blah blah, but goddammit it’s frustrating when you come across the abstract of a paper that REALLY turns you on and makes your head explode and it’ll cost you XXXX amount to read. ARGH!! where’s the open library of knowledge in publications, other than the ssrn? come on elsevier and blackwell… lemme in!!

(and while sometimes contacting the author works… it’s still a crappy system)


Filed under adventure, conversation, ideas

2 responses to “all this useless beauty

  1. Mike Press

    I am glad that you found the paper of some interest to you. It’s funny… you write something, then forget it for a few years then somebody points it out to you again, and it connects immediately with something else you’re working on and fills the gap in thinking that you have. Or maybe there’s just holes in my brain.

    Also, I share your frustration on the exclusiveness of academic publishing. We need a better system that is open access. The Design Journal (where the paper is published and which I’m an editorial board member of) is shortly to shift to another publisher. They seem more committed to issues of fairer access. In the meantime, you’re right. Blagging a copy off the author usually works best!

    I wish you success with your work.


  2. Mike – loved the paper and can relate to the unanticipated and unintended connections that do indeed fill the gaps.
    so sad i missed your talk at neocraft last week, and am looking forward to the podcasts!

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