Artisan Designer

June 17, 2023

In 2003 when I began developing a design school for artisans, people inevitably asked:

“Oh, so you are teaching them craft?”
No, all students are traditional artisans.
“Oh, so you are giving them designs?”

The 2 questions circumscribe perceived limitations of artisans; few people can comprehend that artisans can design.

“Design” is an industrial concept. There is no Indian word for design as separate from creating. Word and concept were introduced with industrialization and established a hierarchy: concepts as more valuable than skills.

I developed design education for artisans to return agency to craft traditions, and to raise the value of artisans by emphasizing the cognitive aspect of craft. I called my approach therapeutic- encouraging students to know what they know. There was more, of course, a year of hard work and joy.

I envisioned graduates as the artisans of generations past, and the studio artisans of my western upbringing. I coined the term Artisan Designer to mean an artisan who graduated from a year-long program in design, to distinguish graduates from artisans producing professional designers’ work. It resonated perfectly and graduates ran with it.

But there was a powerful counterforce: the issue of scale. In contemporary India, craft is largely understood as manufacturing, and artisans are pressured to scale up. Years ago, I asked Artisan Design graduates about scale. Junedbhai said scale had enabled his success. Azizbhai said an artisan must choose between quality and scale. Dayabhai said when there is scale, it is no longer craft.

How does the Artisan Designer then balance creation and scale to establish a viable livelihood? Dayabhai has since hired artisans to weave for him. But, he emphasizes, he prioritizes them over product. Without artisans there is no craft, he says. The late Hariyaben Bhanani hired patchwork artisans but didn’t give them designs to copy; she gave them concepts, so each piece was artisan designed.

The term “Artisan Designer” has proliferated, and inevitably its meaning is diluted. Maintaining value for artisans conceiving and creating their own work is an ongoing challenge.