Manufractured by Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov introduces injection molded plastic packaging into the arts and crafts debate that William Morris and John Ruskin championed over a century ago. The industrial revolution passed long ago, but the debate about whether mass produced products or handcrafted one-offs were better for society continues. Personally, I'll take my food containers without phthalates, thank you very much. I suspect the authors would agree, but the world is still littered with PVC and polystyrene parts, and that's what Manufractured addresses. Kirill Shelayev shot and covered the Manufractured exhibit for Core77 at the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft in Oregon where it will be showing until January 9, 2009, but for those of us who don't feel like making the trek to the Pacific Northwest in January, the Skov Holt's (apologies, but I'll use "Skov Holt" rather than "Skov Holt and Holt Skov" throughout the review for simplicity) book Manufractured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects can stand in for the exhibit with thoughtful text and plenty of photographs.
In their introduction, the authors note that the end of the 20th Century seemed to toll the death knell for the Craft movement as even the Museum of American Craft became the Museum of Arts & Design in 2002, but that aside from changes in nomenclature the Craft movement remains alive and well in the post-Industrial age. Prior book reviews such as Desire and Process have echoed this claim: As mass production makes pristine industrially produced products affordable to the general public, subsets of society will run counter to this trend, seeking legitimacy and uniqueness in hand crafted goods, complete with flaws. After an introduction spanning from Ruskin through Marcel Duchamp and on to the Droog collective, the Skov Holt's highlight eleven designers/artists/craftspeople who've begun to use previously manufactured objects as their raw materials. Although my personal aesthetic favorite, Brian Jungen's installation Cetology, an apparent full scale whale skeleton made of hundreds of plastic lawnchairs rather than bone, was included in the introduction rather than the Manufractured exhibit itself, the subjects of the exhibition, from Cat Chow's dresses made of only fasteners to Devorah Sperber's Pantone cap pixilated art do not disappoint in their visual appeal.
The body of the book focuses on the eleven subjects of the Manufractured exhibit, with a chapter devoted to each artist/designer. Of course, since the book focuses on craft, most of the works profiled are more artisanal than industrial, with mind-boggling amounts of labor evident in their production. For example, Laura Splan's Trousseau (Negligee #1) lists cosmetics facial peel and machine embroidery as its ingredients. Despite the mention of machine embroidery, her process is far from industrial. Instead, she used the facial peel by applying it over the course of weeks and peeling it off of her skin to create a new kind of fabric, which she fashioned into an embroidered nightgown. Since the purpose of a facial peel is to exfoliate, a third ingredient remains unmentioned: sloughed human skin. This is nothing new to Splan, since her other work includes Victorian style wallpaper apparently screenprinted or stenciled in her own blood. Clearly, there's something about using human detritus that's uniquely resistant to industrialization, and work like Splan's seems more suited to the Guggenheim than to the Cooper-Hewitt, but it still provides a valuable commentary on human society (e.g. Why does a skin negligee seem utterly unmanufacturable, when we've already done such a marvelous job industrializing the skinning of cows, lizards and some small furry mammals?).
Not all of the work is quite as dark as Splan's. Jason Rogenes manages to turn castoff polystyrene into totemic light sculptures and Livia Martin manages to turn crumpled drinking cups into a society of interesting forms. Devorah Sperber closes the book with her synthesis of Warhol and Vermeer (and even the already pixilated art of Chuck Close) into pointillist renderings made of colored yarn. Sperber's work manages to be lovely, fascinating and compelling all at the same time, but it is quite clearly and consciously, art more than craft.
The reader is left to wonder, then, to what end? In Constantine and Laurene Leon Boym's Searstyle project, parts and pieces of ugly Naugahyde and vinyl furniture are disassembled and reformed into composite ugly Naugahyde furniture, and their Recycle project glues perfectly usable ceramic dishes into centerpieces less capable of serving food than their constituent parts. In many of these projects, including my beloved lawnchair whale, the origins of these "found" materials remained unclear. Perhaps there was a stockpile of castoff lawnchairs waiting to be cut into bone shaped segments and reassembled, but I would guess instead, that in many of my favorite works, perfectly new products were bought, destroyed and assembled into something lovely, but functionless. While almost every piece in the exhibit is interesting and thought provoking, the only artist that seemed to create a model for a workable and eco-friendly craft future was Harriete Estel Berman, who painstakingly bent hundreds of recycled (and often clashing) printed metal containers into triangles and polygons she used as building materials for boxes, scales, and one piece of particularly lovely though totally busy faux Victorian furniture. It seems then that Manufractured, both as an exhibit and as a book, provides a fascinating window into consumerism, but does not reveal a clear mechanism for a comfortable fusion between craft, industry and recycling. Perhaps then, the divide between craft and mass production observed by Ruskin over a hundred years ago hasn't healed, but it may have a new dimension when we factor in product lifecycle and our needs to recycle. After reading Manufractured, I can assure you that the solution won't necessarily be pretty, but the debate will certainly be stimulating.