Arts and Crafts and Engineering

By Frederic D. Schwarz

Invention & Technology, Summer 2000

In 1937 the mathematician Alan Turing laid the foundation for modern computer science by introducing the concept of a Turing machine. Such a device could do four things: make a mark on a strip of paper, erase a mark, and move the paper forward or backward. In theory, a digital computer program of any complexity can be broken down into equivalents of these four steps.

The concept has applications outside the world of computer science. The academic profession, for example, sometimes works like a gigantic Turing machine, with half its members penciling in boundaries between disciplines or ideas - science and technology, invention and discovery, high and low culture - while the other half just as busily erases them and both groups tug the debate in alternating directions. To outsiders this process of distinguishing between one field or area of inquiry and another may seem as important as deciding whether Certs is a candy mint or a breath mint.

Two museum exhibits in New York City this spring confronted the same type of border dispute in disciplines related to technology. At the American Craft Museum, "Defining Craft" (which recently closed) used artifacts and quotations to take a shot at resolving the lexicographic problem that formed the exhibit's title. In the end, to no one's surprise, craft turned out to mean different things to different people.

The objects on display were impressively diverse: glassware, textiles, ceramics, cutlery, furniture, and many others. In these surroundings, so redolent of the forge and the workbench, it was disconcerting to come across the artist Judy Chicago's pronouncement that "the use of the terms art and craft has been a pretext for discrimination between gender activities. If men did it, it was art. If women did it, it was craft." Several other participants in the show revealed the same craving to feel scorned, complaining that their work is not considered worthy of display at art museums. Considering what does tend to be displayed at art museums these days, it's probably just as well.

Perhaps the most telling comment in the exhibit was written in 1882 by William Morris, the English designer and poet: "Never forget the material you are working with.... the special limitations of the material should be a pleasure to you, not a hindrance." With this bit of advice Morris neatly sums up what crafts are about. No modern airplane designer (except one serving the antiquarian market) would build a plane of wood if titanium was more efficient. Nor would a designer of sewage systems honor his forebears in the profession by using hollowed-out logs as pipes. To a craftsman, by contrast, the value of an object often has little or nothing to do with how well it works. Some items in the show were purely decorative, without even a gesture toward functionality, while others took the form of a bowl or a chair but will never hold salad or be sat on. Farther uptown, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the first National Design Triennial is on view through August 6. The idea behind this exhibit is to create for modem design the same buzz that the Whitney Museum's Biennial creates for modern art, though one hopes without that institution's ever-more-futile attempts to shock New York's dwindling bourgeoisie. To make sense of a collection of items united only by the vague notion of "design," the Cooper-Hewitt's curators have organized the exhibit by concepts: "fluid," "physical," "minimal," "reclaimed," and so on.

Hard-core design fans will find these categories rewarding. The rest of us will simply be dazzled by the objects on display, from the practical (a bright yellow-and-red voltmeter by Fluke Corporation of Everett, Washington, that looks like something a toddler would play with in the bathtub) to the monumental (Jim Seay's Batman and Robin roller coaster for a New Jersey amusement park) to the virtual (a series of buildings, installations, and devices that exist only as computer renderings).

The most whimsical item in the show is a Pink Panther-pink bicycle designed by Robert Egger of Morgan Hill, California, that has flower-power decorations and a foldout compartment with a martini shaker and glasses. According to the label, the bicycle's "retro flavor draws from the Austin Powers movies." We all know Karl Marx's epigram that history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." But what if the first time around was already a farce? The current wave of campy 1960s nostalgia definitively answers that question.

Where, then, shall we draw the lines between craft, design, and engineering? At a certain level of abstraction, the goals of all three are the same: to produce something useful and aesthetically pleasing. In real life, however, it is not always possible to achieve both these things, and when compromises must be made, the boundaries become clear. Craft, above all else, must be authentic. For something to qualify as a craft object there must be an element of traditional practice in its creation, or at the very least it must be inspired by or based on tradition. (It also must actually exist; computer renderings are not craft.) This is why craft objects tend to be unique or produced in small lots. For design, the inescapable criterion is appearance: A well-designed object must look good. The method of its creation is irrelevant, which is why a talented industrial designer can go from cars to buildings to drink dispensers to book jackets, while craft workers tend to specialize in one thing. And while function should ideally be taken into account, it is often decidedly secondary, as anyone who has sat in a modernist armchair can attest. Indeed, some of the most familiar triumphs of industrial design, such as Raymond Loewy's locomotive bodies, are nothing more than decorations for the technology underneath.

As for engineering, the sine qua non is simple: It has to work. While a well-engineered bridge or automobile will usually be aesthetically pleasing, poorly engineered examples can look just as good. If they collapse or fail to start, however, no amount of art theory will remedy the situation. This is what sets engineering apart from the allied disciplines mentioned above - and why good engineering is best experienced not in a museum but in the ordinary course of our daily lives.