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Crafting Capital

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The nitty-gritty policy work that the Crafts Council does on behalf of the craft sector is not perhaps as glamorous as high profile exhibitions like the recent Power of Making at the V&A (their second most popular exhibition in the last ten years) or the international fair COLLECT held at the Saatchi Gallery each year.

However - it plays a vital role in how craft is perceived across government.

The recent report Crafting Capital: New Technologies, New Economies (Crafts Council 2011) investigates ways that craft can collaborate with other disciplines - such as engineering, technology or medicine - to produce new products and services that add genuine value to the economy.

The obvious question is how? Well, the report summarises the benefits of working with makers in three ways. Firstly though we're keen to avoid generalisations, our examples make it clear that makers can bring a different intellectual perspective to a project, to complement the more linear approach of science. Second, makers, often used to selling their work directly to the end-user, can help engage the public in scientific or technological developments which may otherwise seem rather abstract - in other words they can humanise new ideas. And finally, with their high levels of manual dexterity, makers have tacit knowledge that can benefit scientific or technological processes. They have experience with, and often profound understanding of, materials: they know how far sheet glass can be slumped without warping or how frequently ceramic can be pierced by a laser cutter without cracking.

All of which shows something that neither the arts nor sciences exist in a vacuum, and that skills learned in one arena have the potential to benefit another.

Examples are numerous. Glass-maker Matt Durran has been working with the Royal Free Hospital developing the glass moulds that new organs can grow around. And one of the most fascinating aspects of the Bodging Milano project, has been the development of William Warren's Sunray chair, initially a one-off piece made in the woods without electricity but now a mass-manufactured product by Case Furniture.

Meanwhile, for several years textile maker Ptolemy Mann has been working with architects like Stanton Williams and Swanke Hayden Connell on such projects as Kings Mill Hospital. I was intrigued by architect Alan Stanton's short piece, written for Mann's Ruthin exhibition catalogue, in which he wrote: 'Ptolemy takes the craft of weaving and, with great intelligence, applies its processes to the design and expression of architecture... The quality of her intuitive choices and the range of her thinking from the small to the large are impressive.'

Our report proposes a number of measures to be undertaken if we are to encourage more such collaborations, including opportunities for makers to engage with other disciplines and greater links with Higher Education across different areas. One I would like to highlight is the need for cross-curricular learning in schools. At a time when the government is promoting the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at the expense of school workshops, it's vital we demonstrate the importance of thinking with your hands for an up-and-coming generation of makers and indeed engineers, designers, surgeons and others.

Our policy makers need to understand that, yes, craft is about creating exquisite vessels and textiles - but it also has a wider role to play. As the co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group Barry Sheerman MP said at the launch of the document, it may be that craft could provide an 'answer to the dreary economic prospects'.

This blog post is also in the January/February 2012 issue of Crafts Magazine