The rise and rise of craft business – the craft takeover?

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By Dr Scott Taylor, Reader in Leadership & Organization Studies
Department of Management, University of Birmingham

Image courtesy of Rob Evans/With Love project

that’s the future of craft – the people yet to come, who will maintain the making skills, whether the object is called ‘craft’ or not.

Craft beer, craft coffee, craft bicycles, craft soap, craft burgers, craft furniture – the idea of craft has spread along the high street in the last five years, affecting what we drink, eat, wear, and sit on. But what does ‘craft’ mean? Can anyone do craft, or call their products crafted? And is it just a trend, something that’ll disappear again as quickly as it appeared?

The contemporary craft story starts with beer. Brewers in the US have been labelling their drinks as craft beer as far back as the late 1970s. Two companies, Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Co, have led the way, steadily growing and expanding around the world. The rise of the term in the UK is much more recent; we can date it to around ten years ago, when companies like BrewDog and Camden Town Brewery began to set up their tanks, signalling the outset of the craft beer explosion.

But there’s more to today’s craft than elegantly branded bottles of beer. You know something’s fashionable and providing a return when IKEA gets involved, as they have with their collaboration in Thailand with the Doi Tung Development Project to bring socially responsible artisanal textiles, pottery and paper into the big yellow and blue out-of-town shops.

So can anyone use the term craft? In a way, yes – it’s not a protected term in the UK, so any product or service can be described as ‘craft’ (‘handmade’ is different, especially in the food sector). The challenge comes when consumers ask how and why a product is craft – then there has to be a justification. In the US brewing industry, there’s a form definition based on production volume, but that’s very unusual.

Then we come to the question of what consumers expect. Research underway at Birmingham Business School, in collaboration with colleagues from the Open University, provides a qualitative definition of craft: something made by hand, with a high degree of learned skill, often using rule-of-thumb and judgements by eye, with a clear use and purpose. Something made with love, even.

What’s also interesting is what that rules out – all of the mass produced, industrial, standardised things we see in our shops. Most of what we buy, in other words – the craft sector may be highly visible but it’s a small scale activity compared to what the multinationals provide for us every day.

Birmingham’s global craft centre – making jewellery and maintaining skills

Jewellery accrues stories through its use and wear, whether those of love, commitment, family and friendship. Customers often desire stories woven around craft products – with jewellery this means that they are provided with a narrative of craft production as part of sales process, even if the level of craft – in terms of skilled hand making – involved in its construction is different from their expectations. One area of production where hand skills predominate is during finishing; the high degree of finish required in jewellery products means that resources are focused on the final stages when setting gemstones or polishing. This concentration of craft resources has enabled the adoption of new technologies, such as 3D printing and a range of laser technologies at earlier stages of production. Problems that arise during the manufacturing process can be ironed out by hand and eye at the final stages.

Most people in the West Midlands know about Birmingham’s long-established Jewellery Quarter, home to the UK’s, sometimes the world’s, most skilled craftspeople in a range of fields. Birmingham Business School’s research in this field has naturally led to collaboration with the Quarter’s School of Jewellery, which seeks to engage in critical dialogue around what is defined as craft. The Tech Hub within the School makes advanced technologies available to local business, facilitates innovation and challenges practice expectations around hand making and the idea of craft. The production of digital models through Computer Aided Design (rather than making physical models in wax or base metal) requires exactly the same high degree of skill and holistic knowledge of materials and process. Jack Row is one of the people trained in this way: a luxury manufacturer of fountain pens, based in the Quarter, his pens are produced using a combination of traditional and digital technologies, and meticulously finished. This is a luxury product, with Harrods amongst the stockists, and a perfect example of contemporary craft. A more widely accessible, but equally crafted, product made by Becky Wilkes exploits cheap material – nylon – imbuing value through technical innovation and the capacity to engage the customer in the making and design process. Becky’s extraordinary floral jewellery demonstrates how far a skilled craftsperson can integrate contemporary technology, hand and eye judgement and an understanding of the market.

The future of craft

While we’re clear as to the profile and significance of craft at the moment, we’re less clear about the future of craft. It’s already being criticised and contested as a movement – the latest McDonald’s advert for simple uncomplicated coffee seeks to capitalise on this. It presents a series of customers in craft coffee shops, being patronised by prima donna baristas, overcharged, and served their drinks in baffling thimbles or what looks like lab equipment. Whether there is a turn in public feeling, or whether this is a case of McDonalds calculatedly seeking to perpetuate one because the rise of independents is affecting their bottom line, is a matter for debate.

Either way, this move by McDonald’s shouldn’t make much difference to independent coffee shops financially, but it could signal the risk of some sort of ‘craft fatigue’. Our research is currently exploring the key issue of whether craft practices can scale – in other words, whether small businesses can grow in volume or reach, while maintaining the practices and ideals that made them successful in the first place. A second key issue relates to identity – if someone wants to claim to be craft, the claim has to be credible and based on what actually happens in the production process. Consumers are smart – they can spot a marketing scam very quickly, especially when being asked to pay a premium for products like chocolate or services like a haircut.

But we’re also optimistic about this ‘making movement’, especially if we detach it from the term craft and its use in marketing. The founders of the ‘With Love’ project make this point well – a photographer and a writer have been collecting stories and images for the last few years to document where, how, and why people in the UK make beautiful, functional, long-lasting objects like tweed cloth, leather belts, glass, even trainers. All are highly skilled craftspeople; they all make things they want people to use and care for; and they are making things for very competitive markets. You also get the sense that they are all survivors who will pass on their skills and businesses when they decide to. For us, that’s the future of craft – the people yet to come, who will maintain the making skills, whether the object is called ‘craft’ or not. If it means that major stores and supermarkets are more inclined than in the past to stock a broader range of products and support small enterprises and skilled artisans, then this must surely be a good thing.

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