V&A Director Dr Tristram Hunt on the importance of craft

Words by
Dr Tristram Hunt, Director V&A
Photography by
All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

6th January 2021

In this thought-provoking feature, Hunt explains how craft not only underpins almost all sectors of industry, but is an integral element of human happiness

What is craft and why does it matter? It’s a vocation, a tradition, a process, a skill, an ideology, a product, a necessity, a meditation. It’s a £3.4bn contribution to the UK economy. For potter Edmund de Waal, craft is about “the value of things, the values in things”. For writer Teleri Lloyd-Jones, it’s “a language of material, provenance and making”. For artist Grayson Perry, “craft and tradition are very firmly linked and that must not be denied”. There is an inexhaustible scope of what craft can be. Not only does craft have a place in everyday life, it also underpins industry in virtually every sector nationwide: from traditional material and skill to progressive artistic practice; from craft within the digital realm to the wider role of craft in industry. 

The story of craft at the V&A is no less broad. It is not owned by one department or discipline at the V&A, but evident right across our collections and throughout the fabric of our building. The V&A was built on the wonder of craft: education for the designer and manufacturer was at the heart of our founding mission; one of our most influential founding forces, the 1851 Great Exhibition, was an international celebration of making, both industrial and artisanal; one of craft’s great advocates, William Morris, was an important figure shaping the museum’s collections and interiors; and our collections brim with fine craft skill. 

From these early vantage points, the V&A has brought considerable influence on craft’s role. Seminal exhibitions have showcased the work of individual craftspeople and collaborations with organisations such as the Crafts Advisory Committee (today’s Crafts Council) expanded the range of perspectives on show. The Craftsman’s Art (1973) was one such example, surveying the British artist craftsman of the decade. Looking “from the past into the present”, read the exhibition catalogue, it aimed to show how tradition had been “enriched by new idea”. 

This is an important and recurring idea: craft as a mediator between past and present, integrating strong tradition with innovation. In the work of German-born British potter Hans Coper and fellow émigré Lucie Rie — two of the 20th century’s pre-eminent studio potters — we can find illustrations of how tradition met experimentation. But they also tell us of the inclusive craft tradition in Britain, which embraced the movement of people and ideas, a welcome place for women’s creativity and ethnic diversity.

Recent V&A exhibitions, jointly organised with the Crafts Council, have also demonstrated how craft is anchored as equally in tradition as in invention. Power of Making (2011–12) was perhaps the most influential, presenting a snapshot of craft in our times, from the skill-sets at risk of disappearing — the unerring tradition of dry-stone walling and saddlery — to the futuristic and revolutionary: a space suit, 3D printing and an electronic prosthetic arm. The exhibition became one of the V&A’s most successful free exhibitions ever.

Not only does craft have a place in everyday life, it also underpins industry in virtually every sector nationwide

These exhibitions exposed traces of our future interaction with craft: the rise of grassroots education projects, facilitating greater access and diversity; the holistic role of craft in enhancing wellbeing; as well as craft’s ability to become a powerful tool for positive social change. The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize in 2017 — a quest to find
the most innovative and exciting craft practitioner or designer-maker resident in the UK today — took this vision for the future further. 

Stafford-based clay artist Phoebe Cummings won the inaugural Prize. Her intricate and fragile Triumph of the Immaterial sculpture — a large fountain exploding with botanical forms — was made from raw clay, unfired and allowed to dry in the air. The work was a performance: for one minute every day, the fountain was turned on, the water slowly dissolving the piece over the course of the exhibition. 

V&A Director Dr Tristram Hunt on the importance of craft

Phoebe’s site-specific work, assembled and completed in situ, is representative of the contemporary move towards post-studio practice, but also of the absence of a traditionally recognised end product. 

There’s an increasingly digital nature to craft, too, but even so, most digital applications remain only a supplement
to handcraft. A great many crafts remain far removed from mechanisation. In the manifold possibilities of making, craft is an endless process of reinvention. Digital approaches have only enhanced this. And now, as the value of craft skill is returning to the agenda of our creative economy, contemporary craft is ready to be put to greater purpose than ever before. 

In the haptic power of skilfully crafted objects, there is great knowledge to be found. And with this intelligence comes extraordinary happiness and satisfaction. In these life-enriching qualities, craft will always be an essential part of being human and elemental to the purpose of the V&A. 

To make a donation to the V&A, visit vam.ac.uk/info/join-support 

Leading craft charity QEST (aka The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) is one of the official partners of Sphere's 2020 winter issue. qest.org.uk