Artisanry: Past, Present & Future

The New York Times Center was the site of a stimulating panel discussion last week called “Artisanry: Past, Present & Future,” which examined the current state of craftsmanship. It was held in conjunction with the aforementioned exhibit on The Art of Craftsmanship Revisited: New York.

Renaud Dutreil, Chairman of LVMH in North America, started the evening off by simply saying that “most of the 60 LVMH brands were born from the labor and love of artisans…It’s a subject close to Bernard Arnault’s heart – and to my heart.” (Arnault, of course, is the company’s chairman and CEO.)

The goal of this initiative between LVMH and Parsons The New School for Design was “to promote the oftentimes overlooked work of the skilled craftsperson and to ensure that their unique knowledge is understood and carried forth by a new generation.”

Students from Parsons had six weeks to interview local New York-area artisans and do their research before translating that experience into design work of their own; some of them were featured in a short documentary film produced by @radical.media, which had some noteworthy sound bites.

Unlike in the old days when people in small towns had a proximity and ready access and exposure to craftsmen, metalwork artisan Jean Wiart commented in the film that today “we are extremely remote from the production aspect – what we wear, what we use.” One student noted that “the genesis of luxury is craft.” Renaud Dutreil added that “the school of artisanry is really a school of respect. We have to respect artisans.”

Moderator Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio program Studio 360, accurately portrayed artisanry as “a religious calling.” And he characterized artisans as individuals who are “doing something with that sense of passion…you would do it whether you were being paid or not.” The flip side, he observed, is that “nowadays, everything is artisanal – the butcher is artisanal….it’s the adjective du jour.”

Andersen added that “there’s a great overlap between luxury and artisanry… but they aren’t the same things.” Panelist Ulrich Wohn, president and CEO of Tag Heuer North America maintained the “you can never sell luxury…it’s really in the eye of the beholder.”

Andersen asked if “the fraught relationship between art and craft” is changing. Panelist Holly Hotchner, director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, was of the opinion that it had changed, but “there was a reticence on the part of young artists to look at tradition.” Indeed the decorative arts were not valued by people for many years, and Hotchner bemoaned the fact that unlike Europe, “America is extraordinarily behind” in giving economic support to artisans, craftsmen and artists.

Panelist Simon Collins, the dean of the School of  Fashion at Parsons, asserted that even though his graduates would be using computers to design, “we don’t train computer technicians; we train designers… there has to be the raw hands-on experience.”

Panelist Lev Glazman, CEO and co-founder of Fresh, observed that artisan-made goods create an emotional connection with the consumer. Andersen said that “in an age when so much is virtual, people, have a desire for something that is a tactile, sensual experience.” Ulrich Wohn of Tag Heuer said that the economic downturn has precipitated “a reordering of priorities. People are looking for that authentic experience…for that legitimacy.” Hence, “the whole realm of heritage is more important today.”

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