Saturday, 12 February 2011


Grant Gibson portrait in CRAFTS magazine by Karen Caldicott

I am an avid reader of the magazine CRAFTS. I was very lucky to meet its editor Grant Gibson at a private view at FLOW Gallery in London and when I timidly asked him if, for once, he would agree to be interviewed instead of interviewing people, he very kindly accepted.
We met at the Craft Council and I asked him questions raised by some articles of the last CRAFTS issues. I would like to thank him again for his time and his approachability.

Are the journalists writing for CRAFTS magazine artists themselves?

It is a combination, really. Some of them are professional journalists, some are academics, few are makers (we would like to have more), but I think it is important in my opinion that we have a mix. The most important thing is actually that there is knowledge and that it reads well, so that we have a mix of ages and backgrounds.

How do you choose the artists featured? Do you try to create a balance between the number of established artists and newcomers?

Because we cover craft in its broadest sense, we try to get a mix between newcomers and established names and a mix of disciplines as well. We try to give the reader a sense of the variety and dynamism that exist within the sector and we try to mix it up and it is me who chooses. It means taking the wildest possible numbers of displays and people. You constantly try to publish things that you hope people will want to read.

Crafts Magazine almost has a monopoly of publishing on craft in the UK. As a consequence, do you feel that you have a responsibility in the craft world as your magazine, in a sense, sets the trend?

I think that regardless of whether we are the only craft magazine in the market (there are other ones but generally more specialised, e.g. on textiles, ceramics,...) you do feel a responsibility just by publishing something. You have a responsibility regarding people who are reading it and to the sector you are representing. So, yes it is a heavy responsibility, but it has been made easier by the fact that a lot of good work is going on and you have to reflect that and talk about it... and critique it as well because I think any discipline needs criticism to improve.

In your editorials, you often refer to government policies in the field of craft. In the last issue, there is a good example with “The age of the Craftsman”, an article by John Haynes, the current Coalition's minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning. Are you not annoyed by the lack of action and the seemingly stagnating situation?

A reason to publish that text by John Haynes was that I am very intrigued by how the craft world will respond to it. But it‘s there and in print now, and in 4 or 5 years time we can have a look and see what happened. There is a piece coming from Tanya Harrod in the next issue that is a response to it and we will see. But the reason to put it in here was that I went to the talk he gave at the RSA and I think it is fascinating that a government talks about craft. And it’s not just him there who is talking about craft: there is Matthew Crawford’s book (The Case for Working with Your Hands), an article in GQ and on one level I think it is very positive that the government talks about the word "craft", a word that has had some negative content, particularly in this country.
I'm not saying it is my job to include everything that John Haynes agrees with, but the magazine in general should be a forum for opinions, and what we are trying to do is reflect a diverse range of them. It seems quite important at the moment to see what the government says, and it is my duty to reflect that.
This is also the reason why we have published the text by Mike Press “What craft has given us” in the magazine's "Archive" section. This piece was written in 1997 when the Labour government came to power when we had all this optimism, a lot more optimism than there is at the moment.
But yes, further education is still having distinct difficulties, so the reason to publish those pieces is basically to show a kind of diverse range of opinions.
And we are very lucky because we have 30 years of very high quality magazine and great writing behind us. 

Is the UK particularly hit by the crisis in education? And how will it affect the craft sector?

Yes, I think there are issues and they will emerge in the years to come, and we will see what kind of makers we will produce. I have attended a couple of recent addresses and the position is “I love the arts, I love the crafts, I love culture but we have to cut in terms of funding”. We are in a very particular moment and decisions have been taken in the arts all across the board. When I arrived here 3 years ago, what struck me most was that the craft sector was rather similar to design in the mid 90’s. There are a lot of extremely talented people doing fascinating work who don’t get the recognition that their talent deserves. What we are trying to do is highlight as many people as we can.
Now, about the changes in education, craft is very affected because it is a quite expensive thing to run, you know, with the tools and equipment… But I went to the London Design Review last week and this sector is also talking about funding issues. We will have to see how that affects the quality of the production of craft and design arts in the years to come. I don’t think it is going to be very positive.

At the moment, books, articles, surveys often sing the praises of the "one-off", the hand made, its beauty and the satisfaction it brings, but it seems that design and art are the main benefactors from this trend: design gets "crafty", and art is rediscovering materials and techniques associated with craft.  However, the true makers of original, hand made and unique objects do not seem to really catch up. Why?

I don’t know. I am wary, to be honest with you, of categorizing stuff, I don’t like it. But I think it’s ultimately to the benefit of the craft sector that the art world and the design world are reconsidering the roles of making. Let’s take Ted Noten for example: do we call him a designer or a craftsperson? How do you define him? He is exhibited in COLLECT, but he has also been profiled in design magazines.

Nowadays, the word craft is overused in many situations; do you think it harms its significance and what it represents?  (I am referring to articles such as "The beauty of the bike" or Tim Clement’s portraits of London makers). Isn’t the meaning of craft becoming more and more confused? Perhaps we should use another word, like Applied Arts?

Here is my take on this: I think in the past the sector has been too lost worrying about terminology. So I think it is going to reach out to the broadest possible audience and make people appreciate the skills that go into the things that are made. And my feeling is that they have to worry less. The bike is an interesting story because it was really about broadening this magazine and looking at "making". The bike story is about things beautifully made. In this country, in the past 15 to 20 years, we have moved away from "making" but I think it is important that we re-emphasize its importance. Now, one could spend time debating whether this is craft or not craft, but it becomes counterproductive. So I am reasonably laid back by definitions.
And what we are trying to show in the magazine, (and what Sennett’s book was about) is how notions, ideas of craft seep into everyday life or the things we use, or the things we are sitting on…  That intrigues us and I think we must, from time to time (not all the time) broaden out and investigate that a little bit. And that is why we are doing that.

The resurgence of interest in activities like knitting seems to be part of this Zeitgeist moment. But is it doing any good to craft or, on the contrary, is it a caricature of what people think it is? Can everybody become a craftsperson?

Dr Jo Turney’s article “Fashion victim” was talking about examining why knitting has become fashionable and suggesting that it is a fleeting thing that will fade because “real” craft is tricky and it takes time (10,000 hours according to Sennett) and skills, whereas those knitting groups are mainly media things. We published it in the magazine because it is an interesting point of view and what we are trying to do is have an essay or an opinion piece in each issue. If something is going on which is craft related which has gone out, left the sector and is out there floating about and has become popular for whatever reason, then I think the magazine has an obligation to examine it, which is what it is about.
Anyway the notion of people being more interested in “how to make” and “why to make” is something that should be encouraged because the way you are arguing it seems to me that the craft puts up this wall and you can’t be a craftsperson until you have studied hard or spent your 10,000 hours… The Bike guy for example is a consumer, he is a buyer. He wants to buy a bike and he wants to buy a bike made by the best people in the world, and I think we should be encouraging that because if he thinks about a bike, he might then think about something else that is hand made and belonging to “the craft world” by your definition. So, I think it is important that the magazine tries to drag as many people in and popularize the subject.

So, is everything related to "making" benefiting the crafts world?

The notion of people reconnecting with "making", how things around us are put together and made is very important. We can take that into food, there are parallels with campaigns by Jamie Oliver to encourage people buying food from a cellophane package and to understand what it is and what they have in their plate. I think this notion of increasing the knowledge and understanding of the things around us and how they get into our house or into our workplace is a good thing and will benefit the applied artists, as you call them, in the long run.
It is a long-term view  but not very original as Sennett earlier broke the ground with his book. I took the job when it was published and I was intrigued by the level of debate but slightly wary of the fact that it was quite internalized: people from inside the sector talking to each other and not looking out. Yes, to my mind this notion of looking outward can only benefit the sector. The craft sector needs to reach out.

Is it a direction where you want to push the magazine?

One has to be careful with that because people are in the main buying the magazine because they want to look at beautifully made objects. It is a subtle question of balance: you try to introduce this notion of where craft is at the moment in a slightly different way, but you don’t turn the magazine into that entirely because it is not what people want to read. As a magazine editor, you need to give the readers not only what they want but to push them along with you into thinking about other things.

Mike Press in 1997 advocated a challenge of craft education and describes the craft graduate as a creative and critical thinker who researches and reflects using hands and brain in tandem. Don’t you think this reflection in action is underestimated in our society?

It is why the Sennett book is so important for a wider understanding of how the "thinking through your hands" can influence the way we work, and Matthew Crawford makes a similar point in his book as well. It seems to me that this notion of provenance of hand making is really important (and I don’t see it as a Zeitgeist moment, as a Zeitgeist moment will move on), and I tend to feel that more and more people will become more and more interested in where things are made, how they were made, and this presents craft with quite a big opportunity. Even global brands, such as Coca Cola, jumped in the bandwagon and in their advert last Christmas were showing people working in the factory, making the drink. This is no coincidence because they are witnessing the way consumers begin to think, and they want to get in on that. The important thing for craftspeople is that their voice gets heard, so it is not just global brands like coca Cola or Levis leaping on that trend. The craft world must seize that moment.

Don’t you think we are losing time and energy trying to define the concepts of art, design or craft? Don’t you think that perhaps objects speak for themselves?

It seems to me that categories are created up to a point by medias because they need definitions, but also by auction houses because works dubbed as "fine arts" can add a few zeros to a price tag. In all the magazines I have done I have never tried to spend a lot of time defining categories (in Blueprint we did everything from interiors to architecture, photography and films). Some people will always categorize things and some won’t. In Glenn Adamson’s book “The Craft Reader” there is an interesting section devoted to that argument but I feel that this debate has run as far as it can go and from a personal perspective, I don’t really think we must spend a lot of time on it in the magazine. The boundaries are dissolving but I think there is still some way to go.

What are the next directions for CRAFTS magazine?

It is less about subject matters and more about how one reaches people. I am reasonably comfortable with what we cover and the way we cover it, and we are quite fortunate to have some very good writers in the craft sector. If one looks at the art or design world, there is a lot of debate about the quality of criticism, so we are lucky to have some very good critics for this magazine and it’s a pleasure to publish.
In my mind the next challenge is trying to get the word out to as many possible people as one can. How to encourage more and more people to subscribe to the magazine but also to think about craft in the making.

How is the magazine doing in this recession climate?

We are doing OK. In the middle of the recession, it has been a tricky time for magazines across the board but we have done all right, which I think shows that there is more and more interest in the subject.
I was slightly nervous when I made my first editorial 3 years ago, and I made it quite clear I wasn’t Glenn Adamson or Tanya Harrod. I have been writing about design and architecture and there is a bit of crossover, but what really struck me about the craft world is that people are very welcoming and seem to really enjoy having somebody from the outside coming in. They are happy to absorb external influences and that can only be to its benefit. It has been a genuine joy to edit CRATS magazine.

Last issue of CRAFTS magazine

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