Sep 4, 2013

A Crossroads of Artisanship
and Danish Design

Pascal Gautrand
Copenhagen A Crossroads of Artisanship and Danish Design

Designmuseum Danmark

In Copenhagen, design is everywhere: the Designmuseum Danmark, Denmark's National Museum of Decorative Arts, traces the historic evolution of Danish design, while Illums Bolighus, an historic department store dedicated to interior decoration dating from 1941, has itself become an institution ever since Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark appointed it as the official royal supplier in 2001. The streets of the city perfectly illustrate the cult status afforded to good design in Denmark, bursting with boutiques and concept stores whose windows showcase local producers as much as international designers.

If the icon of the designer has long been the figurehead of the industry that birthed it, a true cultural cross-pollination is now in effect between the worlds of design and craftsmanship, and a quick jaunt to Copenhagen is enough to register the impact of this phenomenon as it develops in Denmark (and elsewhere). From small series to full-stop one-off pieces, this country has not only rediscovered the pleasure of making things by hand but actively emphasizes the details of fabrication and offers ever-increasing visibility to craftsmen, their techniques and their studios.

For the past thirty years, the association Danske Kunsthåndværkere, a national federation of 470 artisans, organizes Kunsthåndværker Markedet – literally "the market of art artisans" – named Crafts Fair in English. From country to country and era to era, notions of art, artisanship and design are fluid and often are superimposed upon each other, compiled, left with indistinct borders. Furthermore, in English as well as many other languages, it is difficult to offer a translation that captures the diversity of the approaches of producers selected for this type of event; it is best described as a mix of artisans, designers and artists. WIth this variety of backgrounds comes a heterogenous pool of techniques: ceramic arts are particularly well-represented from terracotta to porcelain, but there is also metalwork, glassblowing, silversmithing, and sporadically textiles spanning knitwear, serigraphy and weaving. Only a visit to the some 130 stands would permit a real understanding and appreciation of the level of quality and originality presented at this fair.

Kunsthåndværker Markedet

Danske Kunsthåndværkere is also at the origin of the Artisan and Design Biennial, created almost twenty years ago and held for the first time in 2013 in the Rundetaarn, a 17th century tower at the heart of the city. Focused on the double-theme of knowledge and dialogue, 52 projects by designers, artists and artisans brought different approaches rooted in the vocabularies of the fashion, object design, architecture and textile worlds. The association, beyond its purely political and economic role in Denmark, also positions itself as a cultural actor, defending the social importance of creation and traditional craftsmanship. As its president Hanne Lange Houlberg said: "The artisan transmits more than just a knowledge or a craft, she or he also captures the interconnectedness of society and the human spirit, implicating all of us in a sort of responsibility within a collaborative chain of production."

Each new edition of the Biennalen offers a prize to projects distinguishing themselves by their originality, and this year Gitte Nygaard et Josephine Winther were recognized for their collaborative project Makers Move. The duo transformed a tricycle into a mobile jewelry studio, offering exchanges with the public about storytelling linked to fetish objects, brought into focus by medallions cast from molds made with personal keepsakes. Each medallion was cast twice, one of which was kept by the artists and exhibited on a website compiling these various stories and their corresponding medallion-objects.

Makers Move

Makers Move is an essentially experimental project, following the interest of two Danish artists in pushing to the forefront the material qualities of symbolic and social value found in the objects that surround us. They also place artisan fabrication at the core of this experience, recasting the artist's studio as an artisan's studio, proposing in this gesture an equivalence between the two and elevating craftsmanship to a level of artistic recognition.

This artisan renaissance also encourages the birth of new spaces which return the craftshop to noble status. A visit to the neighborhood of Vesterbro, in the west of the city, unfailingly speaks to this emerging point of view: embodying fabrication, transformation and repair, the notion of the atelier is omnipresent, assuming a hybrid form and accompanying objects even after they are ready to be sold, continuing to echo savoir-faire and tell the narrative of the object's creation.

Designer Zoo is probably the boldest example of this. Oriented around metalwork, woodwork, ceramics and glassblowing, this gallery-meets-boutique is not only a place presenting a selection of decorative objects, furniture and jewelry, but it also welcomes designers-in-residence. These ephemeral studios are visible to visitors from within the boutique space, setting up a backdrop that highlights craftsmanship and the stages of production. Designers here benefit from having a workspace as well as an original communication platform built on transparency and the valorization of their processes.

Designer Zoo

The primary space, whose windows attract attention from the street, houses thematic exhibitions: one-of-a-kind pieces, experiments and installations around the notion of material – whether glass, terracotta or ceramic – affirm the innovative position of this place for designers and artisans.

In the basement, the studio of Karsten Lauritsen, founder of Designer Zoo, is dedicated to the creation of beantables – iconic, low tables in the form of beans, typical of Danish design. Beyond the display pieces it is possible to order made-to-measure furnishings in a huge variety of materials and colors. Meanwhile, a looping video plays on a flatscreen showing the step-by-step fabrication and the adjacent designer's atelier is visible through a window cut directly into all of the tabletops.

A short distance away, Arttiles offers decorative tiles which are produced on-site. All the same size, the pieces are made in small batches integrating earthenware and printed canvas techniques. This versatile, hybrid production creates installations that can adapt to practically all surfaces and tastes. The selection is available directly from the exhibits on the walls or from the wooden trays that hold those tiles already produced. The salesfloor is in contact with the atelier though a door, and although not directly accessible, one can still peek at the manufacture, feel the heat of the kiln and smell the odor of dyes.

A bit father north in the neighborhood, several roads curve around Værnedamsvej, bringing together different bars and boutiques attracting a cool, connected clientele with a touch of hipster spirit. At 85 Gammel Kongevej, wanderers can find Redesign, a local project developed in collaboration with the Hello Army, who do not produce clothes but rather transform them. Aside from a selection of vintage items, this little boutique – which feels more like a corridor – offers a line of re-imagined clothes whose base materials are pulled from flea markets. At the very back of the store is the transformation studio, lit by courtyard-facing windows and organized around a huge cutting table.

Two streets over, no doubt busy sanding down some ceramic pieces, Pia Rasmussen has installed a work table in the center of the shop. Visible through the windows to passersby, the silhouette of her at work challenges old, dusty notions of the artisan locked deep in some little workshop. Her resolutely colorful, contemporary jewelry and decorative objects resonate with the taste of an international clientele.

In Copenhagen, passion for design and contemporary creation is fueling a rediscovery of the figure of the artisan and, as Hanne Lange Houlberg said, the city proves with great finesse that the language of the hand is universal: "Craftsmanship has the ability to transform the banal into the extraordinary before the eyes of all – thanks to its metaphoric potential, its myths, its signs, its symbols, its poetic function – it is today a means of exchange between different cultures and a veritable instrument of knowledge."

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Pascal Gautrand

Pascal Gautrand

Made in Mazamet. Made in Town founder, consultant and teacher, he is graduated from the Institut Français de la Mode and used to be a boarder in the fashion design division at the Villa Medici in Rome. He develops a reflexion, mainly in the fashion field, about the manufacturing culture. His approach, oriented towards the promotion of know-how, expresses through writing, video and fashion design. As a consultant, he especially collaborates with Première Vision for the organization of Maison d’Exceptions: a dedicated area about fabric know-how within the show and for the online magazine Maison d’Exceptions whose he is editor.

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