THE BLOG

Extending Craft's Horizons

08/05/2013 18:01 BST | Updated 08/07/2013 10:12 BST

The executive director of the Crafts Council on Design Days Dubai and how makers are tackling new technologies

On the surface, a high-end art fair held in Dubai and a digital conference in Bristol might not seem to have very much in common. But both act as important indicators of the Craft Council's direction, suggesting where contemporary making could go in the future, as well as where objects created in the UK might be sold.

Through research we've conducted in recent years, it has become clear that one of our primary goals should be developing new routes to market for makers. Historically we've done this in the UK with such events as the Chelsea Craft Fair, Origin and currently with COLLECT, soon to open at London's Saatchi Gallery, from 10-13 May. But in a global economy, it is vital that we explore the commercial possibilities for makers internationally.

After extensive studies, we have concluded that we should move beyond our former target markets in Northern Europe and the US to focus on the emerging markets in the Far and Middle East. As a result, and with vital support from UKTI and the British Council, we made an initial sortie to the second edition of Design Days Dubai, with four top-end galleries - Gallery Libby Sellers, Gallery S O, Vessel Gallery and Marsden Woo - chosen to represent a wide range of work that would resonate with collectors in UAE, and showing pieces from the likes of David Clarke, Liam Reeves, Simone ten Hompel and Simon Hasan. The fair ran from 18-21 March, featuring 29 exhibitors (including such UK names as Sarah Myerscough Fine Art, Based Upon, and Carpenters Workshop Gallery), making it a similar size to our own COLLECT.

However, the trip wasn't just concerned with short-term sales. It will take time to build an audience in these new commercial territories. We have to educate, explain the nuances, and also tell the tales behind British craft and design.

So alongside the galleries, we organised workshops by designer Max Lamb and a panel discussion, The Value of British Contemporary Craft, featuring director of art and design production company DZEK Brent Dzekciorius, Dr Jana Scholze, curator of contemporary furniture at the V&A, and Martin Smith, professor of ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. Away from the fair itself, glass artist Heather Gillespie also held workshops at the American University of Sharjah. Each was designed to imbue visitors with an added understanding of, and empathy with, our nation's makers.

Design Days is organised by the company behind Art Dubai, more or less coinciding with it. I came away from it with a real sense that the contemporary art world had gained an important foothold in the area. I believe it's a great opportunity - one that contemporary craft must seize.

Compared to the shiny new architecture and wide highways of Dubai, a cold spring day in Bristol may seem a less glamorous destination. But the Craft + Technology showcase, held on 28 March at Watershed, was no less important. In his latest book, The Invention of Craft, Glenn Adamson points out some limitations of digital craft objects, which in his words often look like 'insipid masses of fused powder or deposited resin, or else cartoon cut-out slabs of laser-cut metal or wood.'

It's a description that can't be applied to the three makers in the Watershed residencies, undertaken in partnership with the Crafts Council and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The trio worked on very different but equally intriguing projects, proving that new technologies and hand-skill are far from incompatible. Chloe Meineck, at 23 the youngest, has worked with day centres and care homes to find how those suffering from dementia can access important memories. Using a Raspberry Pi computer, RFID tags, music and a delicate wooden container, Music Memory Box helps preserve people's pasts. Place an object with an embedded tag in it, and it triggers a specially selected song, helping dementia suffers to recall things long-forgotten. It's a touchingly poignant project.

Meanwhile Patrick Laing's Flying Skirt Light Shade is fitted with a malleable fabric, which spins when the light is turned on, creating a delightful shape around the bulb. He hopes in time to create a networked version that responds to the movement of passersby. Finally maker Heidi Hinder has considered the role of money in the digital age. As the Euro crisis has helped to illustrate, the relationship between currency and national identity is intricate - traditionally bank notes and coins celebrate a country's heroes and successes after all. In Money No Object Hinder proposes a system of charitable donation where objects such as brooches and gloves use RFID technology to enable physical and emotional gestures. Her Hug & Pay brooches or Handshake Agreement gloves rely on human interaction to seal a deal or donate money to a good cause.

What both the Dubai fair and the Watershed residencies have in common is that they extend the horizons of craft and its economic possibilities - one geographically, the other technologically. Both push the possibilities of making and raise the aspirations of the makers themselves. They prove also that contemporary craft is constantly changing, to meet and enjoy new challenges. And it's why they are perfect projects for the Crafts Council.

For images from Design Days Dubai click here

To watch films on the Craft + Technology residencies click here

This blog post also appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Crafts Magazine