Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Handmade Nation: Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, & Design (Princeton Architectural Press)


Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design by Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl
Princeton Architectural Press, New York © 2008

Based on a documentary by Faythe Levine to be released this year, Handmade Nation is organised, like a road trip around the United States, geographically. Penned by Levine, the preface paints America’s indie craft community as a free spirited network of entrepreneurs. Each of the five regional subsections includes the profiles of four or five individuals or groups accompanied by a critical essay. These begin with the editor of American Craft magazine, Andrew Wagner’s observation that “craft is a big, unwieldy beast of a phenomenon not so easily wrestled into its Sunday best.” Further reading proves that Wagner’s warning is worth heeding.

Wagner’s entry is followed by Garth Johnson’s discussion of the Internet as an empowering network for makers, Callie Janoff’s recollections on the Church of Craft’s beginnings, Betsy Greer’s observations on craft and activism and finally Susan Beal’s overview of the re-emergence of craft fairs in the United States over the past decade. A brief first person text accompanies each maker’s entry, based on undated interviews conducted around the country presumably by Levine and Heimerl. These passages tend to reveal personal fears and aspirations and on a number of occasions recount how unemployment or unfulfilling jobs led individuals to start their own businesses selling objects they had previously made for pleasure. In light of the current economic climate, the lesson that we can all take charge of own destinies may be more timely than Levine could have anticipated when researching the book.

Curiously, where the book falls down is in its documentation of just what is being made.  Each entry tends to focus on how they got to where they are today, often with sketchy mention of what is made. This is further compounded by the absence of captions for the book’s images. The inclusion of studio shots (a direction also used by the international exhibition Spectacular Craft held at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London in late 2007 and early 2008) confirms the tenacity of the indie craft scene. Studios are often carved out of domestic spaces rather than purpose built (as Spectacular Craft recorded) and scattered across the country, rather than sited in the cultural hubs of major cities.

Curiously, the book’s design often feels as though it is downplaying the seriousness of this research through the use of handwritten fonts. For example, three spreads early on are devoted to a “new wave craft” timeline, charting from 1994 to 2007 the fairs, websites, galleries, shops and publications that have sprung up around indie craft. This information represents a significant and important record of this movement, but is not particularly easy to read. “Irreverence” is mentioned on a number of occasions, a spirit I suspect firmly belongs to the indie scene. The book’s design arguably echoes this sensibility, shaking off associations with craft that is narrowly traditional or highly conceptual (two of the current extremes) with an image of craft as young and empowered.

Handmade Nation follows in the footsteps of By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art (2006) edited by Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro also published by Princeton Architectural Press (reviewed in SDJ winter 2008). Curiously, on the publisher’s website Handmade Nation is listed under their popular culture titles, while By Hand is listed under Art/Photography. These decisions are telling because in both cases craft, while central in my mind to each book, seems not to have been the editor or publisher’s priority. This may explain why both publications include work of variable quality; the objects, in a strange way, aren’t the point.

Handmade Nation celebrates community, networks and the entrepreneurial spirit. Interestingly, Levine writes in her preface that she wanted to “document the indie craft community” because of her concern that “things would change too fast and all of the accomplishments of our community would never be accounted for”. Let us hope that one benefit of the otherwise grim economic outlook is that this book serves as a document of the energy and enthusiasm of makers with the solidarity and creativity to ride out the current economic storm.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2009: 66-67)