“There were so many differences in color, texture and finish even in the same small area,” said Ms. Sterk, who works together with Ms. van Ryswyck as Atelier NL. “Clay is such a rich, beautiful raw material, and we’d never known that, even though we’d been walking on it for years.”
They made bowls and plates from different types of clay, so that each vessel could be used to eat fruit and vegetables grown on the same patch of land. But the Atelier NL designers are not the only ones to be experimenting with rustic styles, techniques and traditions. Other designers are also drawing inspiration from rural life, which appeared again and again in this summer’s design graduation shows.
This is a radical departure for design, which has been steeped in urbanism since the Industrial Revolution. After two centuries of prizing industrial efficiency over the folksy idiosyncrasies of craftsmanship, why has design gone country?
If you rewind through design history there have been occasional glimpses of the countryside. During the 1930s, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed furniture to be made from silver birches in a nearby forest, and the work of the French designer Charlotte Perriand was inspired by Alpine peasant life. In 1950s Italy, Gio Ponti upholstered his spindly Superleggera chair in rustic straw, while Achille Castiglioni added a tractor seat to his Mezzadro stool.
But these were rare exceptions. Design, as we now know it, is a product of industrialization. For centuries, objects were conceived and made by the same artisans, but those processes were separated when production was mechanized during the Industrial Revolution. The new role of “designer” was invented for the people who then developed the concepts, such as John Flaxman, the British sculptor who designed ceramics for Wedgwood in the late 1700s.
A century later, industrial culture was demonized by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which condemned it as soulless and destructive. But by the early 1900s, the Modern Movement was celebrating the speed and convenience of the “machine age,” and dismissing craftsmanship as drearily archaic.
The balance is changing again. One reason is that the environmental damage caused by industrialization is so severe that it is impossible to ignore the consequences. Another is the backlash against globalization, which is making us critical of its blandness, and more amenable to the quirkiness, sensuality and frailties of craftsmanship. There is also our immersion in digital technology, which, according to the American sociologist Richard Sennett in his 2008 book, “The Craftsman,” encourages us to favor things that seem intuitive and personal, over chilly uniformity.
“The Craftsman” also called for the definition of craftsmanship to be broadened to include software design and computer programming as part of an intellectual reassessment of craft. This process had already started in industrial design, where Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey have experimented for over a decade with using craft motifs and techniques to “humanize” mass-manufacturing.
But design’s antipathy to rural culture is now being reassessed too. This is partly because, as the environmental crisis deepens, cities seem less appealing, and the country more so, at a time when digital technology is erasing many of the old constraints of living and working there. Li Edelkoort, the Dutch design theorist, has described the result as “a new romantic yet also realistic” vision of rural life.
By ALICE RAWSTHORN Published: July 25, 2010