Digital technology and traditional craftsmanship – can we combine them?


Digital technology and traditional craftsmanship – can we combine them?

Digital technology, such as 3D printing or sculpting, generate a lot of opportunities. How do artists use new technologies in their work?

The development of technology makes possibilities of creation unlimited today. Printing, scanning, sculpting, and milling in 3D generate more and more innovative ideas. Fine art artists incorporate new technologies into their studio work, and computer graphic designers bring their projects to life in a physical form. They experiment and learn to navigate digital components, showing their real applications.

Lately, many sectors of the creative industry have evolved thanks to development of digital technologies

Since the industrial revolution, technologies have changed, and their products have amazed many. As a result, traditional methods of producing items were mechanised and subjected to mass production. Although they have often aroused the fear of new, they have always been the engine of progress. The current “[…] fear of new technologies is the cultural context of modernity. In the past, the steam engine was haunted, and today it is artificial intelligence”, says Ewa Klekot, anthropologist of art. In recent years, many sectors of the creative industry have evolved as a result of the dynamic development of digital technologies. Artists and designers are looking for alternative methods of creating new products and improving existing ones.

Digital technologies and man

Digital technology in craftsmanship is seen today as an extension of the craftsman's hand by combining traditional manufacturing methods with digitally produced materials.

Both manual and digital processes require experimentation and are perfected through experience, knowledge and skills. In the past, sweaters were knitted, or patterns were transferred onto paper, shoemakers made shoes, potters rolled vases and plates. Today, robots use an algorithm to incorporate complex structures from copper wire, and 3D printers construct furniture from recycled materials.

Even though times change, one thing remains constant – MAN is always at the heart of craftsmanship. Notwithstanding that innovation is essential, it is crucial to maintain traditional craftsmanship techniques. Without them, a designer or artist would not be able to develop in their specialised areas. Using new technology to enrich (but not replace) traditional techniques is part of what writer Lucy Johnston has described as “digital handicrafts”.

Can craftsmanship and technology work harmoniously?

As Ewa Klekot says, “The juxtaposition of craftsmanship and technology is an artificial construct that cannot be defended. Technology is part of the craft. But the artisanal method of production differs from the factory one. However, the distinction is not based on the presence or absence of technology. It's not that there are machines in the factory and not in the workshop. Machines are everywhere. Here and here, the knowledge of the body is needed […]”.

Even though handmade items are still respected, and artisans are appreciated for their talent and effort, in a technology-driven world, many manufacturers are abandoning traditional craftsmanship. It's a shame because a large part of the design language that interior designers and artisans are looking for still applies to conventional manufacturing techniques.

Technology and craftsmanship – opinions of design community

How does the design community compare these two sides of the spectrum in today's advancement, and is one more important than the other?

1. Leon Jakimic, CEO of Bespoke Glass Manufacturer Lasvit, comments:

Yet not being opposed to the use of technology but combining with technology. We like to utilise technology but in collaboration, or in communication with something kind of old fashioned, handmade and artistic. And this is for me, the future of the world of lighting and design.

2. Sarah Evans, Head of Channel Marketing at Hansgrohe, takes a similar view:

Craftsmanship and Technology absolutely have to be interlinked. Our beautifully crafted products are useless if they don’t work and for us it’s all about providing an experience. All the technology of our products is hidden behind the design of the piece. Because you can’t see it but it works so well, that creates the experience.

3. Martin Kellaway, the commercial director in Lincrusta, says:

With the arrival of 3D technology, or additive printing, we’re now of course able to make an emboss from the various resins that are available on the market. From our point of view the biggest gain is probably not so much on cost, but on time. Our objective is to be able to reduce the time of engraving from anywhere up to six months or more, down to maybe as little as a month.

Although the company Lincrusta uses the most beautiful steel rollers from the 1870s to create traditional wallpapers, it has decided to take a step towards technology, which does not detract from the fact that craftsmanship is still important to it, and the product still remains in the hands of artists. 

4. Shezad Dawood, an artist and filmmaker, talks about artistic techniques in Brinton's loom technology:

A lot of people have said that taking something from a painted medium, into this sort of high-tech technology, would be difficult. But in a sense, apart from being able to use 32 colours, the automation of the looms hasn’t changed in 200 years. That was quite fascinating, that you’re working in this way that feels entirely new and contemporary, but actually has a whole historical tradition to it.

Craftsmanship – the modern definition

Nowadays, as machines begin to replace manual labour, craftsmanship is becoming a moot point.

Modern designers talk about the need to update its definition. It is generally an approach based on tradition, material sensitivity and manual techniques. What results from it are objects that are characteristic,unique and aren’t mass produced despite their digital origin. In fact, the marriage of 3D printing and craftsmanship marks a return to pre-industrial values where creative intelligence and creative skills went hand in hand.

Printing in 3D, more accurately understood as additive manufacturing, creates objects by applying material layer by layer. Additive manufacturing, referred to as the third industrial revolution by technology authors like Paul Markillie, was first used as a tool for prototyping directly from computer-generated models. Especially in the case of furniture design, there is a radical departure from traditional thinking about the material, its formation and connection.

3D technology in the art of creating furniture

There is already a worldwide trend among furniture designers who make them softer to the touch and look. Natural materials such as leather, wool and wood are becoming common again. This trend involves abandoning plastics and metals that still fill our offices and commercial spaces.

In the production of furniture, a process of drawing an object is of great importance, in which the 2D technology is being replaced with additive manufacturing. The 3D printing process typically produces a rough, uneven, or ridged surface finish that is generally sanded. To take advantage of additive manufacturing to create forms with subtle irregularities, some designers, such as Australian Berto Pandolfo, chose not to do so, giving their furniture characteristics the imperfections associated with handmade items. In the same way, he chose the form of a river stone in place of the traditionally turned wooden legs of the table. Rather than regard these surface "imperfections" as accidental or mismatched, he used them as an opportunity.

British furniture designers John Makepeace and Gareth Neal met at COLLECT 2019, a modern craftsmanship fair, to talk about its current character in the context of technological innovation. They both agree that it is the craftsman's understanding of the material and the design vision that defines the build quality. The master craftsman's intuitive skills still derive from a deep understanding of the material. If the crafting process and tools are less decisive, the use of digital technology does not compromise the workmanship  itself.

Does digital production carry an element of craftsmanship?

Gareth Neal has specialised in the production of wooden furniture since the late 1990s. From the beginning, he was fascinated by how digital technology can be used in both the design and the manufacture of furniture. He thinks that the use of digital technology offers the possibility of more excellent connectivity between industries and disciplines. In his work, he wanted to use the best properties of wood.

One of his latest designs is the Trine Chair series, which uses the basic structure of the chair and its anthropomorphic properties to provide excellent support for the spine. Thanks to the materials engineering, the chair's robust construction perfectly combines the beauty of the English oak with light, sculptural forms. In another chair design, Gareth used a Krüger 6-axis robotic arm programmed to chop and carve a block of green oak. As a result of the cracking, the grain of the wood remained visible, and hand-carved elements added “imperfections”. As a result, the chair looks neither digital nor handcrafted.

According to Gareth, modern crafts using digital technology should be accepted and valued as such. We need to think differently about machine-made objects and how amazing they are as an extension of the hand Makepeace adds: The benefit of digital technology is that it allows us to understand the material more fully

3D technology in the creation of textile

When the word craftsmanship is used in textile design, most people think of traditional woven rugs, hand-embroidered flowers and repeating patterns. All these associations represent craftsmanship. What can happen when craftsmanship, textile design and technology collide?

Anna Neklesa is one of the textile designers learning to use technology to create innovative fabrics. She believes there is plenty of room in this field to rediscover them. Her Living Cotton is a non-woven fabric produced by modifying the molecular structure of pure cotton. It is interactive and reacts to human skin and moisture by changing its shape.

Another designer and engineer who innovatively transformed craft techniques is Ryan Mario Yasin. In the Petit Pli design, Yasin used the traditional pleating technique to cope with the development of young children. The pleats allow the fabric to stretch up to seven times its original size. A light and waterproof material enable little ones to move freely.

Gravity Sketch is an intuitive computer-aided design tool that allows to create 3D models in virtual reality

Design engineer Oluwaseyi Sosanya, on the other hand, drew on experiences and ideas from various fields of art to challenge the traditional view of weaving. He created Gravity Sketch –  an intuitive computer-aided design tool that allows you to create 3D models in virtual reality. Using his engineering knowledge, he constructed the 3D Weaver, a loom that can create various woven patterns. “Different fabrics can be used at different stages of the weave, and the density and pattern can be altered throughout”, says Sosanya. He is currently researching how to apply this weaving method practically. Tailored shoes are one of the first potential uses.

“With this [weaving system] you can pre-programme the density. At the ball of your foot, you may want a denser material. Right at the arch of your foot, you might want a softer material. At the heel, you might want a denser material. You can have that in one go […] There is an intersection between these two technologies to achieve something which weaving has never done before.” 

How to price a digitally manufactured item?

British sculptor Sarah Myerscough asked two designers, Gareth and Makepeace, how technology has influenced the perceived value of an object.

According to Gareth, the use of digital technology is often viewed in a negative light, but he adds. “The time and cost of digital manufacturing is expensive and consequently makes the object more expensive.”

And Makepeace says: “The value of an object is determined by the intimacy with the material, the process and the concept. This will not change, regardless of time and progress. Indeed, it will remain the cultural foundation of all crafts”. And next: “In order to be successful in the industry, we need to be progressive, and we need to embrace the technology that is available to us. [...] New technology is not only available to us, but it presents endless possibilities to set ambitious goals and new standards. There should not be a competition between hand-made and machine-made, rather both should be solely seen as a celebration of the tools and the craftsman’s achievement”, adds Gareth.

There is no craft without technology

As Dr Ewa Klekot says: “A craftsman creates with his body. He uses the full potential of his movements and senses, interacts with materials, tools and devices to achieve the desired result. […] A basketball player who weaves wicker baskets has his own technology. A potter who makes clay pots, too. The man who split flint had his own technology, which was very complicated, requiring sculptural spatial thinking, now reserved for a narrow group of people. It is no different with a designer-craftsman when he teaches a robotic arm to knit copper wire [...].”

We have gathered centuries of knowledge about traditional crafting and craft techniques and are now lucky to have a whole range of digital tools to help artists make their ideas a reality.

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