In the West, craft is seen as being separate from design, two distinct categories, with craft often being derided for being too cottagey, or folksy in appearance and passed over in favour of the more glamorous design. As such it can be easy to forget that craft is at the heart of many western luxury brands from fashion to automotive engineering. In recent years, however, craft has moved closer to the centre stage and is increasingly being given it’s due, resulting in a greater appreciation for what is made by hand and recognising the importance and value of craft in design.
In Africa, and indeed much of the global south, craft and design are seen as being inextricably linked, as in you cannot have one without the other. The last two decades or so has seen a rejuvenation in African creativity that has resulted in amongst other things the emergence of a contemporary design industry, of which craft is the backbone. This is largely due to the low levels of industrial machine-led capacity and availability. And therefore without these artisanal skills, the continent’s design industry would probably not be experiencing the levels of development and growth that we are witnessing today.
“You can teach a crafter design, but it is much harder to teach a designer craft”. -Aboubakar Fofana, Contemporary Design Africa
When we talk of craft in this instance, we are not talking solely about ancient traditions, but rather skills, techniques and a culture of making things by hand. Working together with artisans the continent’s designers are channelling generational know-how to create modern sophisticated products for contemporary life. And by doing so these designers and artisans are helping to revive disappearing skills, adapt existing ones and create new ones.
The importance of craft in African design is such that some of Africa’s leading designers despite achieving commercial success are deliberately shunning industrial manufacturing processes in favour of maintaining craft-led production for the authenticity it brings to their designs, and creating an emotional connection to the products created. Craft carries within it stories. It softens the hard, cold edges of the industrial, making us want to reach out to touch and surround ourselves with it. The perfectly imperfect nature of handcraft gives contemporary African design its distinctive look and feel, an aesthetic that sets it apart from Western design, which is characterised by machine-led production and the pursuit of a flawless finish.
The craft-led aesthetic, however, gives rise to misconceptions that African design is not design in the true sense. There are many reasons for the misconceptions including that of Western art history classifying elements of traditional African design as art. So despite showing high levels of innovation and challenging global perceptions of what constitutes design, Africa’s contemporary designers and makers still find themselves battling the stereotypes to achieve mainstream acceptance.
And their efforts are paying off.
[Image credits: The images shown belongs to Couth. If downloaded and used elsewhere please credit accordingly.]