Lessons of Architectural Craft from Artistic Crafts

Lessons of Architectural Craft from Artistic Crafts

Architects commonly refer to their field as the “Craft” of architecture. Craft as defined by Marion Webster is “an occupation, trade, or activity requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.” Craft grows and becomes better through practice, routine, and dedication. Architecture as a community harnesses the idea of “Craft” but I began to wonder how the mentality shows up in my own life. Instead of researching traditional processes, I decided to focus on simpler forms of “Craft” to identify patterns and practices that are indicative of the definitions. Luckily, in Seattle there is the Pratt Fine Arts Center, where community members can take a myriad of arts and craft classes. Throughout the previous year, I experimented with watercolor, drawing, printing, jewelry wire wrapping, broom making, and woodworking to see what insights I could learn to help me answer the questions: What is “Craft” and how can architecture learn from the simple processes in artistic crafting?

My first course was “Color Theory through Watercolor,” a beginners introduction to watercolor at 9am on a Saturday. The class showed up, bleary eyed and clutching hot cups of coffee. After introductions, we began to experiment. The instructor had us analysis our palettes, starting with the initial colors, and tonal studies from light to dark. Then we studied values of warm and cool tones, beginning to lean into the mixing and comparisons of small adjustments to color. After two hours, everyone began to see how certain mixes correlated well, while others were far from the intended affect. What began as an artistic exercise quickly became a detailed, almost chemistry-like, study of pigment and emotion. This exercise compares to the material selection process in architecture. I began to appreciate how simple changes in tone and hue could really affect a painting, not to mention a whole room or environment. Could the concept of “Craft” hinge on perfecting this skill?

The drawing course went more smoothly than the watercolor course. We studied shading, composition, line work, and perspective in a traditional setting similar to what I experience in College. What really stood out to me was the shadow studies and the powerful impacts dark swatches of charcoal can have when accented by strategically placed highlights. A whole room becomes abstract shapes or a human emotion expressed in singular strokes. Complex intent and experience emerges in seconds. I began to wonder if this simplicity was a piece of the “Craft” puzzle.

When I took the printing and woodworking classes, I could not imagine what lessons I might learn that applied to design. The printing course explored the Japanese wood block technique, while the woodworking taught spoon carving. In both courses, the instructor introduced basic principles of working with the materials, envisioning a final product, and then left to our own devices on how to accomplish it. Through trial and error, and a few painful nicks and cuts, all the students were able to accomplish something close to their intended ideas. While we all could accomplish the task some of us were better at working the material, others were faster at final changes, while others created objects more abstract and emotional that evoked strong reactions from the whole group. These realizations showed me that “Craft” might rely on the mastery of all these elements through constant experimentation.

The final two courses were broom making and jewelry wire wrapping. Unexpectedly, these became the two most impactful experiences. Both were heavily reliant on repetitious processes that after a time create a cohesive product.  The brooms were compositions of grass, twine, and intense physical focus. What initially seemed to be a random collection of items actually followed a preordained, almost mathematical alignment, not dissimilar to a sculpture or building façade composition. Wire wrapping follows a preordained set of repeatable motions, linking small elements together to create a final composition. I harkened this back to the idea of repeatable patterns in architecture to create a composed façade, pattern, or program. These patterns give reason and rational to a person’s experience. Once you learn even the basics to read that composition, small discordant elements starkly stand out. Could “Craft” rely on a person’s ability to create and stand by these composed patterns, to be rigorous in their continuation for the benefit of the whole design?

After a year of taking these courses, I am not sure if I have a complete understanding of the elements that define our understanding of “Craft”. However, I can point to a few elements that anyone can apply to their design process:

  1. Hue, tone, and color render emotional intent.
  2. Abstracted shape emerges from form, light, and shadow.
  3. Knowledge of material use is essential and should be extensively experimented to develop deep knowledge.
  4. The final product must have set rational and repeating patterns.

I believe that these small insights can help anyone discover their own sense of “Craft”. Using my own hands to just experiment, I found a greater appreciation for all types of “Craft”. I also believe that “Craft” is something defined through experience, deep recollection, and rigorous application throughout life. These insights emerge in a myriad of places, but I am grateful to find them in my community.