The art of craft: Trustworthy trend endures in digital age

Elaine Markoutsas
Universal Uclick

Even if you don't know what a dovetail is, you can appreciate this technique of hand-crafting that enables wood joints to fit together elegantly, without nails.

Crafted is a new artisanal dinnerware brand designed by artist Michael Wainwright for Lenox. The Pompeii collection inspires playful layering textures and mixing patterns for a casually elegant table. Crafted of durable stoneware, the dinnerware is dishwasher- and microwave-safe for every day. The charming blue-on-white patterns have gold accents.

Whether it's the silky satin luster of a piece of walnut, an uber-smooth waxed frescoed surface, the hug of quality hand-loomed wool or the uneven edge of a rustic earthenware plate from a potter's wheel, the touch seduces. Like the John Legend lyric in "All of Me," we especially love the "perfect imperfections."

Top marketing buzzwords in home design today? Craft. Bespoke. One of a kind. Artisanal -- a word that has found its way to farmer's markets and supermarkets, with everything from bread to jam, just as "craft" now can describe a beer or whiskey. And if "eco-friendly" and "sustainable" are part of the package, all the better.

"The current interest in craft and hand- made things is a direct reaction to the digital age," says New York-based designer Michele Varian, known for her jewelry, fabrics, wallcoverings, furniture and lighting, as well as her Soho shop that showcases about 100 other designers. "The less we have natural and physical things in our day-to-day life, the more we crave it."

There is historical precedent. The Arts and Crafts movement in the late-19th century was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-18th century. But when technology really began to explode, John Naisbitt, in his 1982 best-seller "Megatrends," called attention to what he coined "high tech, high touch" -- a reminder that human connectivity cannot be ignored. And that was before we were tethered to our smart phones. 

Still, there's sometimes a desire to unplug and soak in nature and art. Besides a current craving for the look and feel of craft, it's all about personalization.

"The time is now," says Bruce Andrews, whose eponymous design company based in Evans, Georgia, prides itself on good old-fashioned craftsmanship with heirloom potential -- signed bespoke pieces that are made in America. 

"People are tired of commercialization of luxury," says Andrews. "Millennials are looking for one-of-a-kind in contemporary surroundings. But I feel there's a little more to it than that. It's about quality." 

And a growing number of consumers are calmer about waiting for it, not just four to six weeks, but sometimes several months. 

Customization also has become a part of branding, and it's a marketing tool for furniture makers and retailers now offering more options for "making it your own," with leg and arm choices on sofas, hardware options on cabinets and, of course, fabric for upholstery. 

Documenting the efforts through Pinterest and Instagram also has boosted the idea. And then there's the "Maker's movement," which has an ever-expanding DIY base looking for a personal hands-on adventure or one for profit, perhaps selling the wares they make on Etsy. 

Not all applaud the effort, especially things like 3-D generated products. 

"The Maker's movement was triggered by the digital age," says Varian. "Being able to procure things with the click of a button separates us from the value and care of what it takes to create that thing. Thoughtful people want to reverse this reality and see value in preserving the skills necessary to make objects that we desire."

The convergence of tech and art can be really exciting, though. An example might be when an artist like Helen Wilson of Witch and Watchman hand-paints modern chinoiserie or whimsical dark romantic flora and fauna, and then digitally translates it to fabric, wallcovering or a fetching apron.

Artists are becoming more accessible in the design mainstream at furniture markets like High Point, North Carolina, or shows like WantedDesign NYC, Made London and ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair). Crafts have a more global reach, with venues like Showcase Ireland in Dublin and Heimtextil at Messe Frankfurt, where textile creators as well as larger brands, get noticed. 

In one small booth at Heimtextil, graphic fabrics in cinnamon, black and white caught the eye. Mid-century? African? Southwest? Not at all, it turned out. Alexandra Petrache of HALFDROP proudly brought to life her interpretation of Romanian folklore as well as handicraft.

"More and more people are looking at items like clothing and furniture in the way they have been looking at food for some time," says Hillary Petrie, a principal of Egg Collective. "Knowing the provenance of what we put into our bodies is translating to the items we live with on a daily basis. Consumers want more and more to know where specifically their money is going -- to what maker and to what story -- as this provides a meaningful and honest connection to the item."

When we have an opportunity to meet the maker, we're more charmed with what's behind the design.

Aoife Mullane, a young Irish designer, rhapsodizes about her inspiration -- the sea near her home. Organic patterns may come from pebbles on the beach.

"I consider my fabrics as artworks that are translated into textiles for interiors," she says. Her collections combine traditional textile techniques of hand-painting with the high-end effects of foiling. She screen-prints and hand-dyes, which give her fabrics an authentic look, clearly are not mass-produced. Mullane's pillows, wallcoverings and lampshades have metallic touches of aluminum and copper.

Websites often give a glimpse into the backstories, the artistry, the inspiration and the process, all of which really makes us fall in love with the product.

At Egg Collective Designs in New York, Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis and Hillary Petrie bring architecture, art and woodworking backgrounds together, with their beautifully crafted wood, leather, stone and metal pieces.

John Strauss, an artist and sculptor with a master of fine arts degree, brings others into furniture collaborations. Tracy Hiner of Black Crow Studios painted a graphic blue-and-white watercolor that underwent digital manipulation to create larger, more varied colors, says Strauss. It's the face of a console painted in navy blue lacquer. 

Besides beauty and quality, sustainability is a concern. Fashion designer Eileen Fisher started a zero-waste initiative called DesignWork, which creates beautiful fabrics, pillows and artwork out of recycled clothing.

"You can return (a garment) to an Eileen Fisher store," says Jan Rothschild, a spokesman for the company. "It doesn't matter if it's torn or stained. You get a $5 credit, and scraps from old garments are recycled into design. Every piece is different because we're working with raw material. We can control color ... and we're learning about controlling pattern now. Not one thing will look like another." 

Fisher hopes others will be inspired (Patagonia is another leader) in an industry where roughly 85 percent of its product becomes waste in a landfill.

The most positive takeaway from embracing craftsmanship is that it makes us appreciate the beauty, the skill set, the passion and the time that went into a piece. That also makes it less disposable. You keep it because you love it and may want to pass it on. And that's a win-win for all.