Making And Connecting

in conversation with Marion Poortvliet and Willemien Ippel (Crafts Council Nederland)

Crafts Council Nederland (CCNL) is the Dutch version of what is already indispensable for decades in England and many other countries: a platform for contemporary craft. CCNL collects and shares knowledge, presents best practices and makes connections between artists, disciplines, education and the public, for a viable creative industry, now and in the future. Traditional techniques are given a new life; they are translated and decoded to prevent them from disappearing. And to use them as innovator and economic stimulus for the creative sector

Crafts Council Nederland is a private initiative, founded several years ago by two individuals interested in re-establishing the position of crafts in the contemporary Dutch cultural landscape. What was the initial idea behind it, did you meet your own expectations, and how do you see CCNL future development and impact both on a national and international level?

Crafts Council Nederland started as a private initiative in 2012 and was formally established as a foundation in 2013. The idea behind establishing a Crafts Council was the conviction that crafts are important for future innovation. Not only for making beautiful objects, but also for learning by doing, for gaining knowledge and for sustainability and social innovation.

Since the 1980s in the Netherlands there was barely any infrastructure for the crafts left. Also, an old-fashioned idea of the crafts dominated the cultural space. On the other hand, the younger generation attributed the crafts as ‘cool’, even though a lot of basic techniques such as textiles and woodwork were no longer taught in schools, and there was barely anyone left to transfer the knowledge. This is how in Holland also a lot of designers became makers themselves.

We first started by making an inventory of makers and skills - the ‘Craftsmap’. Afterwards, we started a campaign with a contest in which we intertwined crafts, creativity and business. We also designed a system for knowledge and skills transmission and started presenting the crafts on a high level, both nationally and internationally.

Now we are at the point where we have built a solid infrastructure and can start looking in the new ways in which the project can be continued in the future. We also have to make sure to come up with sustainable ways of long term funding for our activities, make connections and secure the continuation of our initiative. So far, we are receiving a lot of invitations to participate in different events from foreign embassies and other initiatives, such as yours, and are especially keen to work within the European cultural circle.

CCNLs’ ‘Craftsmap’ acts as a valuable resource for research and constitutes a database of creatives who are all high-ranking in performance — through skills and exceptional quality of making. What criteria do you apply in mapping the experts?

The ‘Craftsmap’ is a curated inventory of craftspeople who have exceptional skills, who can both make high quality products and teach others how to do it. Besides craftspeople and creative makers, we also map courses, studios, museums and collectors who are all a great source of deep knowledge. We visit (and therefore know) all the people before we place them on the ‘Craftsmap’. One of the intentions of the map is also to place in focus craftspeople who in the last decade, in comparison to their collaborators designers, got none of the acknowledgment and media space for their work. The craftspeople who are on the map also teach in the Meet the Master programme.

Through Meet the Master tutoring activities you attempt to share knowledge and make connections between the makers and the public. Who are the users of this programme and what role does education play in your projects?

In our organisation education is the key. We are in constant search of knowledge, and we try to ensure that it is transferred. As a result, new knowledge is being developed. With this dynamic process we create a loop. We organise education for children from 4 years old, but we also have participants at our master courses who are 80 years old. Meet the Master programme is meant for (young) professionals. Most of the classes take 2 to 5 days. Craftklas is our newest programme and is still in the developing stage. With this programme we want to educate children and young people in schools, first by giving short term classes, and then gradually by reintroducing crafts in the curriculum. It is a long process, but we do it step by step, and we already introduced it to a number of schools in the North Holland.

You also describe yourself as a multi-varied platform for contemporary craft where different disciplines all unite and where craftsmanship is nurtured and passed on to a new generation. How does one define contemporary craft? How does contemporary craft relate to the nostalgic idea we tend to have about craftsmanship from the past?

We tend to tell new stories without being nostalgic. We also tend to make the connections between heritage, design, art, fashion and architecture in new and unexpected ways.

Generally speaking, it is not the techniques but mostly the products that were made old-fashioned. For instance, we don’t wear wooden shoes anymore, so there is no necessity to make them in large amounts. But the skills of woodworking are still very relevant. By transmitting the skills to the younger generation, we enable them to make their own products with it. In the making itself there is a lot of knowledge and innovation that needs to be rediscovered and that happens along the way through experimenting. The output of the making is not necessarily only a product. It is also knowledge of different disciplines (such as mathematics, agriculture etc.), but also connection to one’s body and therapeutic effects that working by hands has on the individual. We tend to emphasise all these aspects when talking about the role of crafts in the contemporary society.

In today’s rapidly changing social and environmental conditions, what can we learn from haptic knowledge, thinking by doing and innovation through (hand)making?

Making is a typical human feature, it is in our DNA. It is also how humans have developed — by making and reflecting. Through the making processes knowledge was transmitted from one human being to the other, including oral stories, secrets and rituals connected to making. In the last decades the knowledge connected to intellectual processes was somehow overvalued. Now that robotics can take over a lot of our brainpower, we can ask ourselves, what are we? How do we evolve? What is human? ‘Suddenly’ we rediscover and recognize the making together with its aspects of the embodied knowledge, as a source.

Creative industries and its concept of measuring the economic value of the creative work have long debated the role of crafts and its contribution to the sector. Where would you say the relationship between crafts and creative industries lies and what benefits can creative industries gain from crafts?

A lot of what we consider creative industry today, have their roots in the crafts. Let me give you an example. You can probably say that ‘knitting’ is not a very useful skill anymore if you need socks — because you can better/faster/cheaper buy a pair. But there are skills connected to knitting. Knitting perfects fine motor skills, has been said to improve memory, works both sides of the brain, and prepares children to become better readers. Those values cannot be measured by numbers. On the other hand, the newest “flyknit” shoes of NIKE use the very old techniques in a new way, use high tech materials and are standing very well at the market. This is the other aspect of using crafts to gain new values in making and selling products. Both examples qualify crafts as part of the creative industry model.

Regardless the geographical location, it seems like makers are all facing similar difficulties: the lack of support from public institutions for sustaining their businesses and the lack of adequate representation on the market when in competition with global brands. What antidote can designers offer in such situation, if any?

The world has become bigger and IKEA is usually very close, to speak metaphorically. We should not be too nostalgic about it. But we should, as consumers, become more aware of where the products we use come from and also learn to appreciate handmade beauty again. Not to leave it all to the makers.

Knowledge of how things are made, knowledge of materials and quality has been changed over the years and it is unmistakably linked to fast trends. Designers can definitely offer craftsmen the innovative and fresh view on the product, and craftspeople can on the other hand offer designers new insights into the working processes, quality and sustainability of the product. It is a two-way process, and it is a huge challenge as well.

During the MADE IN Seminar #2 in Zagreb, you touched upon an issue of co-dependency of craft and design fields, the necessity of collaborative practices, and their individual contributions to the making processes. Design practitioners draw from traditional making techniques by experimenting with materiality and tactility but also in ways of addressing the production cycles, usage of local resources and reuse of materials. On the other hand, Does Craft need Design? What enables fruitful collaborations between the two disciplines?

Connection is the key. Connection between people, but also connection between different parts of the creative and making processes. Our organisation tries to act as a mediator and catalyst of these processes of connecting. We all need each other as soon as we start to see the process through the holistic and participatory glasses in which all the different parties are interconnected and mutually dependent. For example, to start weaving linen, you need to first know about the agriculture and farming, about the soil and seeding. Once you understand it, you can also start redesigning the making process itself. Our definition of design is no longer limited to a product only, but it refers to one of many processes in a system of activities that support and reinforce each other. It revolves around the connection between the head, heart and hands.

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