Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters

Why Craft Matters

We are surrounded by the word craft today – whether on food packaging in supermarkets or luxury brands, galleries to gift shops to hobbies at home. What is craft and why does it matters to us today: is it a product or a process? Is it always something handmade? Is it just a marketing buzzword?

The exhibition Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters, aims to challenge preconceptions, spark interest and inspire debate about the role craft can play in culture, identity and society.

Curator, Hugo Macdonald, introduces the first Harewood Biennial.

‘Have nothing in your house
that you do not know to be useful
or believe to be beautiful.’

William Morris

Hugo Macdonald

Craft is a powerful word. Since around 800AD its meaning has evolved to describe the following: strength, skill, force, cunning, magic, deceit, knowledge, science, trades, professions, boats, decorative arts, expression and domestic hobbies. Today, we see historic craft in museums and contemporary craft in galleries. Brands talk about craft in fashion, food and even technology. Craft is used to describe architecture, beer and sausage rolls. It is quite possible that we are surrounded by the word craft today more than ever. The objective of The Harewood Biennial is to explore why.

For the inaugural exhibition, we have brought together 26 individuals, workshops and brands that practise a craft. They are exhibited in different rooms on the State Floor and Below Stairs, each relating in some way to their particular location: paper in the Main Library, pans in the Old Kitchens and garden tools in the Garden Room. Some techniques, like book-binding, basket and textile-weaving, have hardly changed for millennia. Some have evolved, incorporating technology to explore new possibilities of process, form and function. From jeans to pocket knives to reclaimed furniture to glass sculptures, every exhibitor has a story to tell. This is why we have asked each craftsperson to respond to the statement: why craft matters, to them and today.

What you will quickly understand from reading their responses is that craft has a vital role in life. The work on show is diverse, but there is a common set of principles that motivates these people. Craft describes their approach rather than the physical object they create. To craft something means to understand a material and how to use it efficiently and effectively for a particular purpose. It means learning, practising and passing on knowledge of the mind, hand and heart. We feel the time, care and skill that went into these pieces and they feel valuable as a result, whether they are useful or beautiful or both. Craft can teach us important lessons for contemporary life: resourcefulness, repair, respect, resilience.

The title of the exhibition is derived from the quote by William Morris, pioneer of the 19th century Arts & Crafts movement. Morris believed social values were under threat from the industrialisation of life. Just over a century later, we are entering the age of automation and artificial intelligence. In these times of great change craft is not only something to rescue from the past, it is a powerful human process that can help us shape our future, too.

Hugo Macdonald, curator