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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 1 (April 1948)

Rural Crafts In Retrospect

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Rural Crafts In Retrospect

“… shape … evolved from the purpose….”

“… shape … evolved from the purpose….”

The British Council's Exhibition of British Rural Crafts has gone from Wellington. We may now ponder on the impressions that remain and sift among them to try and discover the elements that made the exhibition so memorable.

It was appropriate that this first important exhibition of craft in New Zealand should deal with fundamentals. The collection represented, primarily, good workmanship and the unconscious beauty that results from the use of natural materials worked with sympathetic skill and understanding in the production of useful objects. We saw wood, metal, clay, wool and leather used in the making of agricultural implements, utensils, baskets, pottery, fabrics and harness—the works of such village craftsmen as the blacksmith, the potter and the weaver.

Variety in shape, size, thickness, colour, weight and texture evolved from the purpose of the objects, the materials used and the method of making. Design was almost wholly unconscious and variations resulted from conditions peculiar to the districts where the articles were made rather than from the creative impulses of individual designers.

It would be a fine thing if this exhibition could be followed later by one showing an equally worthy collection of the Decorative Crafts—stained glass, mosaic, printed fabrics, writing and illumination, typography, bookbinding, metal work and so on—crafts wherein the individuality of the designer is expressed. A book well bound in good leather and suitably titled is a thoroughly efficient piece of work in that it secures and protects the pages, is pleasant to handle, is readily recognised and will wear well. It loses nothing of efficiency, but gains in beauty if suitably enriched with perhaps inlaid leather and tooling in gold. The decorative crafts grow from the basic crafts, but they also merge into the fine arts when the practical purpose motive recedes and the work tends to become an end in itself—something created by the artist with materials and tools specially designed for the making of pictures, prints, sculpture, etc.

These basic crafts which lead to the fine arts on the one hand, are also the fundamentals of industrial design. The Exhibition of Rural Crafts demonstrated the fact that things made by hand developed, over the years, a traditional form that was entirely satisfying because it was efficient, natural and characteristic. To-day the designers have not yet developed a response to the potential quality of the machine-made goods that can compare with this sympathetic understanding of his materials and tools possessed by the craftsman.

William Morris made the mistake of ignoring the machine; now we are apt to speak of mastering the machine. Perhaps the solution lies rather in understanding the machine. Eric Gill, Paul Nash, Keith Murray, Douglas Cockerill, John Mason, Marion Dorn and other great modern designers have shown us what can be done, and perhaps an exhibition of their works for industry might prove as revealing as was the recent collection of British Rural Crafts.