More than just making stuff

By Niklavs Rubenis

I teach into the field of studio-based craft and design (SBCD). When it comes to teaching SBCD there are some particular challenges.

The small class sizes, intensive teaching models and extensive infrastructure that are required to teach SBCD means that it doesn’t fit well with funding metrics. Being a vocation that takes time to acquire proficiency in manual skills, the condensed face-to-face contact and shrinking semesters don’t fare well in this scenario either.

Perhaps this is the reason that many educational programs that have supported SBCD across Australia have been discontinued or amalgamated into larger homogenous programs. Combined with cultural organisations that over last decade or so have moved to drop “craft” from their titles and that there appears to be a decline of professional craftspeople (Throsby & Zednik 2010, NCI 2014), is SBCD soon to be extinct? Is it irrelevant?

SBCD has a similar preoccupation with the making of “stuff.” But why make more stuff when we know that we have reached a point where the world is inundated with it? Stuff is everywhere – it is in our houses, our offices, on our streets and littering our environments. Stuff is a problem.

I’d like to think not. SBCD does have something unique to offer.

SBCD is not tied to the pressures, time constraints or economic imperatives of industry. In this way, unlike industrial design, it gives a single practitioner agency and an ability to disrupt and counter industrial production and consumption through operating in an independent and free space – the studio. Craft, the studio – and let’s not forget trades – have been well noted as important to the innovation system (Cutler 2008, Nicol 2017) albeit neglected through inadequate policies and lack of acknowledgement in the wider policy setting.

While distinct from industrial design, SBCD has a similar preoccupation with the making of “stuff.” But why make more stuff when we know that we have reached a point where the world is inundated with it?  Stuff is everywhere – it is in our houses, our offices, on our streets and littering our environments.

Stuff is a problem. Design can be a problem.

SBCD exercises a capacity to influence social, cultural and political agendas. Historically well-documented predecessors like the Arts & Crafts Movement were, in part, a reaction against the de-humanisation of the industrial revolution. This suggests SBCD retains a propensity to operate at the opposite end of the spectrum through a critical engagement with issues that emanate from beyond just the making of stuff.

When these components are combined in a university setting that also provides foundations of technical, material, problem-solving and critical skills through kinaesthetic learning, the outcomes are pragmatic transferable skills applicable to a whole range of different vocations and problem-based settings.

. . . teaching and practicing SBCD requires a broader perspective in that this is about how we construct, alter and interact with our physical world. This requires a decoupling from previous models such as a fixation only on rote discipline specifics

However, teaching and practicing SBCD requires a broader perspective in that this is about how we construct, alter and interact with our physical world. This requires a decoupling from previous models such as a fixation only on rote discipline specifics.

Redirecting SBCD’s current offering is the test, and one that requires pedagogical innovation by locating it within an ecology of practice of cause and effect. And perhaps above economic imperatives, it is the recognition that through the mechanics of design is how we will shape the sustainment of our world from here on out. Arguably this is the greatest challenge we all face.


Niklavs Rubenis is a designer, maker and curator with a diverse research and studio practice. He has been involved with projects spanning community, non-profit, commercial and cultural institutions, and has had work exhibited and presented nationally and internationally. For over a decade he worked in the manufacturing and design industries and has taught at community, trade and university levels. Currently he divides his time between studio practice, lecturing at the School of Art & Design, Australian National University, and casual teaching into the cabinet-making apprenticeship program at the Canberra Institute of Technology.


The author would like to thank Jenny Wilson for her much valued feedback in writing this article.

References

Throsby, David Dr, Dr Anita Zednik. 2010. “Do you really expect to get paid?” Australia Council for the Arts. Last accessed 5 November 2017.
http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/research/do_you_really_expect_to_get_pa-54325a3748d81.pdf

National Craft Initiative. 2014. “Mapping the Australian Craft Sector.” Last accessed 5 November 2017.
https://gallery.mailchimp.com/198e0c90d7ed9366663b46f99/files/dc45d865-3d38-4762-8b18-ee254ced679e.pdf

Cutler, Terry Dr. 2008. “Creativity, the arts and innovation.” A Currency House Conversation, Sydney Opera House, 19 August 2008. Last accessed 5 November 2017.
http://mikemullins.com.au/doc-man/australian-performing-arts/748-dr-cutler-the-arts-and-innovation-currency-house-19aug08-1/file

Nicol, Rohan Dr. 2017. “What is the value of craft?” ANU Reporter, Australian National University. Last accessed 5 November 2017.
https://reporter.anu.edu.au/what-value-craft