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Barbara’s Blog #8: Art, Craft or Design?

Our regular blogger and design champion Barbara Chandler navigates a semantic sea.

Yes, but is it art? The classic put-down, with a sneer or a scoff to dismiss outright a painting, sculpture, or installation that breaks away from tradition.

But what is art? And for that matter, what is craft – oh and design? All this started when the digital poster popped up on my screen promoting  “Collect, the international art fair for contemporary craft and design.” A triple bullseye, then. But what is the difference between these three golden goals? (“Oh that’s a can of worms,” presciently observed DN furniture maker Angus Ross – more of him below.)

Obviously I had to start with Isobel Dennis, the dynamic Collect director. She explained that this prestigious show was founded in 2004 to put craft into a fine art context – “a pioneering aim.” Grayson Perry winning the Turner Prize for ceramic pots the previous year was a turning point for craft, she says. “It made the whole world sit up and take notice.”

(Incidentally all Collect talks are on the Crafts Council’s YouTube channel.)

A cohort of 20 doughty DN makers is exhibiting at Collect which runs virtually until March 24th. “Quality of making is what’s important,” adds Isobel. “We look for originality/individuality, and skilful knowledge of materials. But we added design into the title more recently. Artists and makers today work freely across all craft, art and design disciplines, experimenting with different materials, techniques and concepts.”

And what do our exhibiting members think about all this terminology talk?

Ace potter Linda Bloomfield, who can make 30 pieces in a day – “60 if pushed” – sees her tableware as “the intersection of craft and design – everyday objects that enhance our daily lives.” But art, she adds, has an idea or concept to make us think. Like her Collect bowls with lichen-effect glazes that reference the blight of pollution on the natural world. “Well, I think I am equally an artist, craftsperson and designer,” muses Margo Selby – “but my handloom enriches my commercial textiles – I call it ‘art into industry’. “

No, it’s all about design for me, says furniture-maker Angus Ross – “this starts with a brief, and ends in an object.” Function is key – but also the user’s experience “in mind, body and spirit.” And craft? “Well, that’s using my material –  wood – in the most effective, efficient and sustainable way possible.” And art? “The expression of ideas is interesting but not my principal concern.”

Angus met our founder Peta Levi at New Designers in 1992. At that time, the new graduates didn’t like the craft label – they thought it smacked too much of corn dollies and crochet. Thus evolved the term designer-maker, which Angus, and many others use to this day

But Angela Fung, of origami fame, said stop worrying about the words. “They’re boundaries, stifling creativity. Maker, designer or artist? Why not be all three?” Embroiderer Jacky Puzey agrees. “Such distinctions are arbitrary,” she says, calling her work a “hybrid” practice. Digital making adds another dimension to the debate, adds Jacky, who herself uses a large-scale repurposed industrial embroidery machine.

Blurring the boundaries are the august Royal Academy of Art who have a lovely page on their website flagging up “12 makers on Instagram to inspire your creativity.” Their work is diverse, from typography and collage to baskets, baking, crochet and knitting – with exhortations to have a go yourself. Who could fail to be inspired? Even if simply to knit blankets, as I’ve been doing for the two newest babies in the family.

Last year the Crafts Council quizzed 15 makers on “what craft means to them.” Their resulting words are a river of self-expression featuring vision, dreams, meditation, exploration, meaning, energy, alchemy, and yes, art, craft and design.

Over nearly ten years in Mayfair, The New Craftsmen gallery has been a big player in expanding the image of craft, effectively mixing “collectable/art” craft with “functional/usable” pieces. The two are linked, says co-founder Catherine Lock, by shared values. “Each is human-made by an individual with hand, skill, thought, imagination and narrative entwined. Beauty brings them together.”

I’ve always loved the great selections of usable craft at the David Mellor stores, which were founded nevertheless by one of our greatest industrial designers. So I asked David’s son Corin, now in charge, what he thought. “To me design is a process,” he said, “part of which is working out how a thing will be made, probably in volume. Craft is making one-offs largely by hand.”

Sue Pryke, DN brand ambassador, TV judge and long-term successful ceramicist, has links with industry that make her “properly a designer-maker. Because I create volume ranges for Ikea, and do collaborative projects with smaller factories, as well as supplying my hand-made ware to restaurants and individuals. But clearly some craftspeople are more closely aligned with art, and make more of a cerebral statement.”

Or are we sinking in a silly sea of semantics here? “It’s what I do that matters,” I hear you say. “Not what I say I do. Or even what you and others say I do.” Because it is the direct experience of a piece – visual, emotional and tactile – at a gallery or fair, or in a studio or shop, that prompts a desire to acquire and use or collect. This is why displaying work is so important – it offers that direct connection with a potential user or collector. Despite a plethora of online events, it’s what we’ve all been missing this past year

But I think what you call yourself does matter. If I happen upon your work at a gallery, a fair, or in a shop, I can indeed plunge straight into a direct experience, enhanced perhaps by meeting you the maker, to share context and provenance. Otherwise, I will need to be led to your work – attention piqued perhaps by an article, or a poster, or an internet search. I will see you billed as an artist, and/or a craftsman, and/or a designer, and/or a maker. And this will shape my wish to see and my understanding of your work.

Finally, Rosy Greenlees, executive director at the Crafts Council since 2006, shared some inspiring insights exclusively with Design-Nation. “Regardless of what you call it, this is an incredibly rich and exciting time for makers,” she said. “We have seen a blurring of the distinction between amateur and professional; digital technology has expanded the making process and social media the audience reach. There’s been a growth in workshops and social making and a recognition that craft can be good for your health and wellbeing. A concern for the environment has led to a host of new ways of making from upcycling, to recycling to new materials made of anything from mushrooms to industrial waste.”

Who could fail to feel excited and enthused to be connected to this buzzing makers’ world? Whatever you/we decide to call it…

Design-Nation’s showcase for Collect 2021 remains on Artsy until March 24th and can also be seen on our showcase microsite, with a catalogue available to download. A short on demand programme of talks by Design-Nation members is here.


Spey Bench by Angus Ross

Zoetrope II by Margo Selby

Detail of Chinese Laundry by Angela Fung and Ashley Bedford

Detail of Peacock Hanging by Jacky Puzey

Lichenicolous Basalt Forms by Linda Bloomfield

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Liz Cooper


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