Craft Council UK – Make:Shift conference, Manchester, 10-11 Nov, 2016

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Craft Council UK’s biennial Make:Shift conference in Manchester, as part of my work with the Australian Design Centre.

The focus, as Creative Director Annie Warburton noted, was to “showcase an extraordinary array of disruptive innovation taking place throughout craft but also interrogating, to what end?”


The keynote addresses, panel discussions, presentations and conversations were focused around the impact of craft innovation in three spheres: social innovation, environmental sustainability and wellbeing. They joined makers and designers with scientists, technologists and academics because, as Warbuton noted in her opening address, “community, connection and collaboration is what brings breakthrough” and it is vital to locate craft practice within 21st century innovations. “Traditional skills are just a different kind of technology and as important as high-end technology. Makers have always worked with new materials, transforming production processes along the way.”

Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, gave the opening keynote address. It was a lively and fascinating discussion of materials in relation to the culture of making. He noted the creative tension and slight distrust between art and science, which he argued can be useful in helping to identify different views, outcomes and processes and cited his hilarious experience on the BBC4 show Chef v. Science as an example of this conflict. In the words of chef Marcus Wearing, “At the end of the day [making anything] is about love, care and understanding.” It’s not about scientifically recreating mashed potato just because you can.

Miodownik also unpacked some of our easy assumptions about new technology being better technology – citing the fact that despite its increasing prevalence, carbon is not a recyclable material and that solar cells, while allowing us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, have nevertheless been designed with little care – they are objects stuck on roofs and not integrated into our lives. Miodownik argued that animate materials are in fact the future and cited the example of self-healing concrete roads, which was a provocative and exciting thought. Miodownik concluded by saying that, “the act of making is about growing our humanity” and that social consciousness through making will enable us to solve some of the problems facing us today.

In the afternoon, there was an engaging discussion on the use of digital technologies in craft education with Drummond Masterton, Head of Sustainable Product Design at Falmouth University and jeweller Sarah O’Hana.

O’Hana works with titanium and steel and was invited to undertake a PhD at Manchester University as part of the engineering department, exploring the use of lasers and titanium.

The experience led to a new body of work that sought to explain new research to new audiences through wearable objects. O’Hana talked about the creative disruption her presence brought to the engineering department and cited a failed experiment that left the engineer despondent and O’Hana excited, because its effect on the titanium offered new aesthetic and creative possibilities.

Masterton talked about the importance of language, particularly in a learning environment, and its ability empower or inhibit. For instance, an engineer does things precisely, using materials in the ways they are intended, but if you call them a craftsperson they suddenly have permission to take more risks, experiment with technology and uncover news ways of using machines and applying knowledge. He noted than even when teaching students today about 3D printing and other available technologies, there remains a persistent desire to still learn and understand ‘traditional’ ways of making. He argued that when it comes to technology (as both a tool and an industry) there needs to be a model with the use of technology that enables risk-taking and that this isn’t currently the case. His point – “technology won’t solve problems, people will.”

In discussing the crisis in craft education in the UK (and arguably everywhere) O’Hana reitered Masterton’s point, and argued that while it was important to have specialisms, the craft education sector must invite other cultures, such as architecture and IT communication, into our own culture to help understand and communicate need and value. Craft, she said, is bad at articulating its value to other sectors.

Highlights of the second day include the conversation between Daniel Charny, founder of creative cultural consultancy From Now Own and curator of the 2011 V&A exhibition The Power of Making and Hannah Fox, Silk Mill Project Director at Derby Museums.

The conversation was centred around the research Charny had undertaken for his report on the cultural role of maker spaces, which set out to articulate the differences between engagement with or engagement through making and what these means in terms of local communities but also crafts-based skills development. Makerspaces were discussed in the context of other making spaces – residencies, project labs and museums, and while the conversation made no fast conclusions about the future of maker spaces, there was a general agreement that the popularity of makerspaces was a reflection on a perceived lack of other spaces in which to informally make and learn and that, in the context of the work undertaken at the Silk Mill in Derby, it is vital that museums expand their perspective around what they can be and what they do.