The Reach of Craft on West Coast Design

Fran Dawkins

Outside the studio and museum setting the broad term ‘craft’ is often interchanged with ‘making’; it can be both professional and amateur, can encompass textiles, glass, ceramics, jewelry, furniture; it can also include baking, web-design, fashion, even blogging. Craft, as described by ceramicist and writer, Edward de Waal is the ‘great otherness in culture’. Perhaps craft should not be constrained by definition but recognized as a passion, driven by individuals, to create something meaningful and deeply personal. The notion, by some, of craft and culture as interdependent must also acknowledge the significant contribution of ethnicity and identity on design. As a settler nation with a sizeable European influence, Canada is a distinct and diverse society. It’s dark colonial past and systemic mistreatment of its indigenous peoples accounts for a deep-seated mistrust. The Western imperialist lens has distorted the contribution of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada in influencing West Coast Design and ensuing reparation is necessary. It is vital that their voice is heard along with Indigenous peoples across the globe, subjected to the Empire’s reach.

Modern in the Making at the Vancouver Art Gallery – Photo by Ian Lefebvre

Following a recent visit to the exhibition Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia, at the Vancouver Art Gallery I realize my understanding of the scope of craft was previously limited as it relates to the tradition of a timeless skill. The Vancouver Art Gallery defines the term craft as “items made by hand or machine individually or in a series, where the maker controls the process from design to completed object”. William Morris the Arts and Crafts activist from the Nineteenth Century was believed to have said that ‘hand and machine’ were indeed complementary. This exhibition examines design for mass production as well as individually handmade objects.The demonstrable expertise of over 300 artists in this substantial and intellectual exhibition illustrates the importance of both craft and design in British Columbia where there was ‘an appreciation for modern things and cultural objects’ in the years following WW2 when creativity was invigorated in Canada by immigration, the prospect of economic growth and abundant natural resources. This new pace of life stimulated creativity, which was combined with the burgeoning use of machines as part of the manufacturing process and pandered to the rise in consumerism as a statement of modernity.

Indigenous First Nations culture was profoundly impacted by the settlers in Canada with the appropriation of cultural artefacts, which continued to undermine their legitimate impact on West Coast modernity and design. Influences on West Coast design were drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, Britain and America as people settled in urban British Columbia with a hope for greater opportunities and a better future following the dark period of wartime austerity. Craft and Design in British Columbia has a complex history and this exhibition is an ideal platform for dialogue and debate that should encourage the visitor to reject the Western colonial interpretations in favor of an alternative narrative.

Propokow,M., Modern in the Making: Post-war craft and design in British Columbia,VAG, 2020

Images: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery