Why Handmade Products Are As Valued As Ever

Photo-illustrations by Ruth van Beek

In our automated age, the painstakingly handmade objects created by today’s top artists and artisans seem both nostalgic and daringly modern.

The word craft has always denoted something made with a high level of skill and quality. But it has also been a victim of changing tastes and fads. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, craft was often regarded—wrongly—as something folksy, and was eclipsed by a new wave of industrial design and the collector-driven craze for design art. And in the past decade, craft, like the word luxury, has been so overused that it has lost much of its meaning. But real craft endures in makers today who use wood, stone, ceramics, metal, glass, or fiber as a creative medium. Aric Chen, the curator at large at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum and the curatorial director of this year’s Design Miami, says that one of the keys to this work is that “it takes time, and time itself is a luxury; it also takes time to appreciate on the part of the viewer.” Craft, he says, “equals rigor, no matter what the material.” 

In our automated age, the painstakingly handmade objects created by today’s top artists and artisans seem both nostalgic and daringly modern. Photo-illustrations by Ruth van Beek

In the world of design, some people never thought otherwise. The Loewe Craft Prize, which was conceived by Jonathan Anderson, the Spanish fashion brand’s creative director, to honor important contributions to contemporary craft, is in its third edition. Among the works by this year’s 29 finalists, two of the most striking projects were woven. In his Geisha Handbag Series, Deloss Webber, a Washington State–based artist, fills rattan baskets, some of which have bamboo handles, with pieces of granite, rendering them nonfunctional yet arresting. Inspired by Japanese ikebana baskets, Webber’s pieces add what he calls “an ironic narrative of fashion” to “the primal combination of fiber and stone.” The work of Korean artist Youngsoon Lee—whose Cocoon Top Series 1 is a totem-like stack of eight baskets made of rolled and woven mulberry paper from old books—is an attempt to revive a venerable but long-neglected craft. 

Today’s artists embrace a wide range of materials and techniques, including new or re-imagined ones. For the Milan-based architect and artist Vincenzo De Cotiis, materials can “connect, and in doing so establish a dialogue between them,” to create what he has called a “perfect imperfection.” His rugged DC 1807 table, for example, is made of cast brass and recycled fiberglass, with a resin top in which Murano-glass beads and marble are suspended. De Cotiis says the contrast between the marble and glass creates “a perceptive short circuit.” At a comparatively monumental scale, Ode—a piece he created for an exhibition organized by Carpenters Workshop Gallery at this year’s Venice Biennale—is a series of angular sculptures that are mirrored on one side and painted fiberglass on the other. Inspired by menhirs, or ancient megaliths, the “opaque and vibrant” piece, De Cotiis says, questions “the significance of raising walls,” and “the sense of identity that we all seek in a sense of belonging.” 

Aaron Poritz, a designer and artist whose studio is in Brooklyn, started working in ceramics and wood at an early age. After studying architecture, Poritz decided to design furniture in wood. Among his limited-edition pieces, which are shown at New York’s Cristina Grajales Gallery, Poritz’s Tambour collection of cabinets takes traditional tambour doors and adds the natural patterns of veneers made from woods like black walnut. “A lot of my pieces are frames for naturally occurring phenomena,” he says. Poritz also creates ceramic vessels, and has been exploring sculpture. He worries that “the space where the authentic and the real are actually happening is quite small.” But if his work is any indication, that space is only getting bigger. As Chen puts it, craft is “a never-ending story that speaks to a profound desire, a human need to find meaning in things and how they’re made.”