Before the industrial revolution, going back to medieval times and before, in Greek and Roman societies, marketplaces were characterised by the presence of local craftspeople selling their wares. During this time, the market place could only survive if the craftspeople attended to trade their goods. However, these marketplaces experienced a restructuring with the adoption of mechanised, mass production and today the attendance of makers, whether craftspeople or general labourers, is no longer a requirement for a thriving marketplace. Marketplaces have become more complex, offering a wide choice of products, and crossing vast lands to serve diverse populations.
Craft and the mass market have had a tumultuous relationship since the development of these mass markets. Unable to satisfy the fundamental ‘mass’ scale of mass production, new materials and means of production have supplanted craft goods, a potent example being the practice of basket weaving that was almost entirely undermined by the plastic bucket.
Competitions within the mass market play a key role in promotion and marketing and have an even greater importance for crafts. For many craftspeople, awards such as the Loewe Craft prize, form the basis of financial support for their work. While fundamentally unsuited to mass production, craft is well attuned to competitions for excellence, however to be eligible it needs to aspire to art; to move away from functionality and the interactions that we have with use objects and towards the meditative study of classical art and specifically sculpture.
It could be argued that these awards do little to help crafts compete within the market as functional goods, and, however true this might be, this argument does little to identify what the optimum place and relevance of craft today is. While craft moves towards a less functional realm within the mass market, as artworks celebrating human activity, it’s worth looking again at how the tacit knowledge and skills inherent in craft can move beyond any previous conception of craft. Designers and producers are beginning to look at ways that craft techniques and traditions can benefit the mechanised production of goods, finding new relevance for the field along the way.
These new ways of bringing the lessons from craft to the masses through mass-produced goods are unlikely to win any awards, and it’s likely, that like ergonomics, they will become taken for granted as they are standardised in line with market demand.