The Indicator: Craft in the Digital Age

A few weeks ago there was a flurry of debate about one of Zaha Hadid’s designs being copied, or at least copied in terms of its outer form. Very soon after this I discovered an interesting article in the most recent issue of MIT’s Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.The article, "Hybrid Reassemblage: An Exploration of Craft, Digital Fabrication and Artifact Uniqueness” by Amit Zoran and Leah Buechley, raises some interesting points about the nature of originality, the subjective experience of making original things, and the potential for digital technology to impute this subjectivity to new and repeatable objects. In essence, the authors are discussing the position of craft, the hand-made, the personal, subjective act of making something that is singular and based on a personal process, the negotiation of decisions and risks with tools, materials, and design intentions.

Polyfold Partition by Synthesis Design + Architecture. Image, SDA

Though the authors were discussing this in relation to rare objects this got me wondering about similar arguments concerning architecture, rare objects of a different sort. Is architecture craft? What happens when it is 3D-printed or digitally-fabricated? The hand is still present but reduced. Additionally, with architecture it is not the hand of the architect but of the builder or construction workers. It is the craft of multiplicities, not necessarily individual craft. Or, is it no longer craft at all at this stage? 

Industrial prototype by Guy Martin Design. Image, GMD

And does the status of craft matter at all in the digital age? Does it matter in relation to architecture specifically? This is the larger context of the problem. 

Perhaps craft matters only for certain things. It might matter for your salad bowl or your wooden sailboat, or a fine and rare dwelling or an experimental installation described by the hand of a singular architect. But is it true that it matters only for rare, singular, special objects? Steve Jobs didn’t think so. For him, craft encompassed every Apple product that rolled off an assembly line. The design and the feel of the object mattered because of how it plugged into the subjectivity of the end-user downstream. So, in a sense, the user defines craft as much as maker or process. 

Chelsea Workspace by Synthesis Design + Architecture. Photo, Peter Guenzel

Craft must be determined by the outcome as much as the subjectivity of process that determined it. Outcomes are subjective, too. So can craft reside in the end work regardless of process? Can a pre-determined pathway or tooling guided by software still result in craft? Or is it merely the appearance of craft? 

Paris Landing objects by Guy Martin Design with Philippe Starck. Image GMD

It depends on how the tools are being used. The digital craftsman—the term is not necessarily an oxymoron—can impute him/herself into the chain of decisions and events to reveal a subjective position. But is this a false artifice, a calculated supplement of “craftiness’ applied to the machine-produced? 

A digitally restored broken vase, glazed ceramic, SLS nylon element, epoxy glue and black spray paint, 2010. (© Amit Zoran)

Much of craft’s subjectivity comes from the singular nature of objects and a sequence of decisions that is different from another sequence on a different day, with distinct weather, moods, and expectations. The digital craftsman can also have different sequences on different days. His status as maker comes through a different matrix of tools, but he/she can nonetheless be present in the work. Is this why craft is valued, because of the implied connection to a maker? 

Three vases—the digitally restored vases (left and middle) and a complete one (right), 2010. Glazed ceramic, SLS nylon element, epoxy glue and black spray paint. (© Amit Zoran)

This may derive from a longing within our assembly-line culture for original works, or near original works. Do we seek out craft or the belief in craft because of its very loss on a mass scale? And to counteract this emptiness, this loss, we valorize those instances of the hand-made or near hand-made. First edition books, limited-edition vinyl pressings from the avant-garde edges of music, “Made in USA” bicycles from a small town shop, tactile metalwork from a fabricator-craftsman, locally made objects, craft beers. 

(left) Two negative parts of the vases’ plaster mold, based on the positive MDF-milled mold. (right) The evolution of the design of the restorative elements using CAD software. (© Amit Zoran)

So is the urgency to invoke the notion of craft in the digital age expressive of nostalgia for a more connected relationship between maker and user? It may be, but there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking closer human connections in the context of making things. 

Paris Landing pacifier by Guy Martin Design with Philippe Starck. Image GMD

Craft has entered the discussion—has it every really disappeared?—because the digital tools are starting to increasingly proliferate in schools, shops, and garages. The human interface aspect of using such tools in increasingly investigative ways, pushing their potentials, also gives rise to the notion of craft. Someone relying on computers and robots, say, or a combination of tools, is a digital craftsman when he/she is employing the tools to achieve a desired “craft”. A slave to the tool is not a craftsman.  So there is a distinction to be made between digital operators and digital craftsman. 

In this sense architecture may perform and function as craft. The performance of relationships between people as they carry architecture from idea to building retains the culture of craft by connecting maker and user. 

Multi-axis robot at Guy Martin Design. Image, GMD

When I think of craft in the realm of architecture my mind immediately goes to the careful hand of Peter Zumthor. But it equally goes to OMA with its off-the-shelf, novel assembly of the readymade. In Zumthor, especially at the domestic scale, we can see the craft in the details that demand the work of hand and eye, of a craftsman’s subjectivity to be materialized. But if at first OMA does not seem to present craft to the world it is only because it is craft defined more as a multiplicity, or a series of outcomes that result in a more complicated whole. Is CCTV craft? It may depend on how far away you are from it or what your expectations for craft are. Up close it may dissolve into the workings of factories and mass product labels. But then there is the structure, the shapes put together by clamoring construction workers guided by drawings and engineering but also imputing small measures of physical improvisation as they went. And there is OMAs’ attention to the process, the choreography of intent, drawing, and possible outcomes, the risk they navigated to achieve some semblance of what they originally designed. 

So, regardless of process or variance in tools, craft is defined by intention and attention, by caring about the outcome and in relation, caring about the end-user. This is why craft matters, why the notion of digital craft has emerged. It is the potential for humanism to reassert itself at the far reaches of mass culture. The user feels cared for by the maker. It is no longer just a cold, distant, profit-generating process of production and consumption. 

About this author
Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: Craft in the Digital Age" 18 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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