Sunday, July 30, 2006

History of Craft: Toward a New Craft World Order

(This is the second in a series of draft essays on exploring the history of craft and the place of craft in the U.S. today. Click here to read the first. Feedback is welcome!)

In the years before Jae and I opened Greenjeans, we worked in the art world in galleries, museums, and art handling companies. Part of the appeal of opening a shop devoted to fine craft was that we'd be getting out of the art world and entering into what we thought to be the much more down-to-earth, plain-spoken, and generally friendly craft world. And by and large, that's how we've found the craft community to be.

What we didn't expect was to find a heated debate here about the terms "art," "craft," and "design," and whom they apply to. The debate, played out in craft magazines, craft forum message boards, speeches at craft fairs, and conversations with members of the craft community, encompasses questions about whether or not craft is art, whether design is craft, whether craftspeople are artisans or artists or designer-makers, and so on.

As much as this is an academic debate, it is also importantly an economics debate, driven by the craft world’s pursuit of a greater market share for aesthetic functional objects and sculpture. Representing the most extreme of desperate measures, there has even been a move in recent years to do away with the word "craft," as it's seen by some as "unmarketable."

It is notable, however, that the craft world seems more concerned about these delineations than the art or design worlds. I never once came across this debate during my tenures in art galleries and museums. The seemingly one-sidedness of this debate is likely due to the art and design worlds already holding down well-established markets that the craft world wants access to.

Many in the craft world go on the defensive in this debate, arguing that their work is just as good if not better than other items in the marketplace and should be given more attention. A blame-game often ensues, criticizing craft organizations for not drawing enough new buyers to their shows, or home and design magazines for not paying enough attention to artisan-made work. On the art side, some craft artisans complain of not receiving serious attention by art galleries and museums, much less the same high prices collectors will pay for art.

From my point of view, taking a defensive position in this debate is not raising the craft world to the kind of level it craves. What is needed for the craft world to really find its way is a new attitude. Rather than vie with the art and design worlds for entree into their exclusive clubs, why not focus attention on raising awareness about the option of craft for satisfying the consumer's aesthetic sweet tooth? If we can shift the image of craft as something open, fun, accessible, sexy, and desirable – all of which it is – the craft world economy would benefit enormously, and with it its stature in the cultural matrix.

At the same time, a more holistic and certainly more refreshing approach to the debate is to find fluidity among the categories of craft, art, and design. There will never be a consensus on how the lines should be drawn, so wouldn't we be better served to allow those lines a permeability and flexibility? Can't an object be art and craft and design all at the same time? (Aren't all objects all three to some extent, even if by virtue of their lack in one of these categories?) Then why all this debate about claiming an artist or an object for one camp only?

I propose a loosening of the grip on these three words: art, design, and craft. At the same time, I propose that we reclaim the word "craft" for the craft world, and stop trying to call it art and/or design. This isn't to say we should draw a circle around everything "craft" and claim it with, well, defensiveness. On the contrary. We should call craft "craft" if that's what we consider it to be and stop trying to be all politically correct about it.

To this point, I will register with no hesitation my firm disapproval of the former American Craft Museum in New York changing its name to the Museum of Art and Design. Expunging the word "craft" (perhaps because it failed to entice marketing focus groups) and replacing it with the trendier words "art" and "design" does a great disservice to the craft world, even as the museum itself seeks to broaden the parameters of what constitutes craft. It is too bad that as a brand name, "craft" is lacking in sex appeal, but the museum's new name is utterly meaningless by comparison.

It amazes me how many artisans deplore that very moniker, insisting instead on being referred to as an artist or a designer, or at least a craft artist. The word "artisan" is anathema to so many of them. Yet I find it to be the mot juste, bearing an intriguing yet professional connotation. It is alluring and serious at the same time. Personal. Creative. Careful. The word “craft” carries the same connotations.

I have read that one of the primary reasons for the aversion to the world craft is its associations with labor. “Artisan” has an earthier aspect than “artist,” and certainly than “designer.” A designer doesn't break a sweat; a craftsman or artisan definitely does. (Well, maybe not literally, but effort-ful work is always a factor.) What'swrong with sweat? Sweat is honesty. Sweat is real. Sweat is life and earth and work. Sweat is the exertion of our humanity.

Claim your sweat! Call yourself an artisan! Call your work craft! Say it with confidence and pride! Let's unite as the craft world, empowered and focused and real. Let’s focus on building and marketing a strong, appealing, relevant craft world and leave the other worlds be.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Greenjeans Recommends: Hear, Hear & Ethical Metalsmiths

Today I wanted to share with you some great websites and blogs I've come across lately. (They have nothing to do with this picture, which is of some afternoon sunlight playing across one of Buff Brown's gorgeous walnut cutting/serving boards and Mary Anne Davis' porcelain bowls in gold and black glaze. I just like the picture...)

Hear, Hear is a newly-launched, surprisingly hip blog offering "intelligence for small business." I say surprisingly hip because while it's geared toward the interests of small business owners, there's none of that dull here's-how-to-organize-your-sales-taxes stuff. Instead, Hear, Hear understands the younger urban readership offering interesting and relevant interviews, articles, and photos about "everything us business owners go through each day." Run by creatively-minded business partners Shawn Liu and Danny Wen of Iridesco, Hear, Hear is a great blog to visit while procrastinating things like, well, organizing your sales tax stuff.

Another great site to check out is Ethical Metalsmiths, "formed for the purpose of stimulating demand for responsibly sourced materials as an investment in the future." If you're a jeweler or metalsmith, it will help you find sustainably-sourced silver, gold, and copper. If you're someone who wants to have their jewelry and a healthy world too, it will teach you about where all that gold and silver comes from, helping to raise your consciousness about the highly polluting and exploitative metals industry and to educate you about what you can do.

I also wanted to mention SOFAsphere, a new online community by the people who bring you SOFA (which stands for Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) exhibitions in New York and Chicago each year. It's like MySpace for art and craft collectors, makers, dealers, and appreciators. I'm not entirely sure what we're all supposed to do once we're signed up. Maybe it's an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of thing. But it was interesteding to click on the profiles of other users and maybe we'll all start "meeting" each other soon. Check it out!

As for news from Greenjeans, it's been an easy and not too exciting week, allowing us to work on the website and get caught up on the backlog. A week from today we're off to Wisconsin for my dear old friend Sam's wedding and a few days good Midwestern R&R. And this Tuesday we have made a date to actually go to the beach! At last!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Day in Manhattan: The Cooper Hewitt & Good Food

Yesterday, Jae and I had the day off thanks to our new summer hours (we're closed Mondays and Tuesdays thru August), so we went for an adventure in Manhattan.

Our first stop was the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum to see the show "Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005." It was an impressive installation of forks, knives, and spoons of every description, along with specialty utensils like itty bitty cherry forks and silver chopsticks connected at one end by a fine chain by Tiffany & Co. My favorite was a set of 18th century English knives and forks with ivory handles stained the most lovely shade of kelly green. I also loved the fascinating video that ran in one gallery showing a craftsman making a spoon and then a fork out of a bar of silver using just a hammer, an anvil, and a file. Incredible. I highly recommend this exhibition.

Upstairs at the museum was another nice show called "Tourism and the American Landscape" featuring wonderful work by 19th century landscape painters Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, and Frederic Church. The works were grouped by Victorian vacation hotspot--the Catskills, the White Mountains, etc.--and included not only drawings and paintings of people hiking along waterfalls and lounging on porches, but also travel posters, guide books, guest registers, and a great group of stereoscope photos that could be viewed on a large projector. One thing I cannot wrap my head around is how ladies of those days managed to do things like go hiking in corsets and hoop skirts. Maybe they wore special sports corsets or something, I don't know. But it makes me want to faint just looking at illustrations of them!

After a stroll in the lovely garden and a troll through the very Moss-esque gift shop, we left the museum and walked over to Blue Tree, a fabulous boutique on 92nd and Madison that has a very chic and uncommon collection of women's and men's clothing, children's toys, vintage jewelry and decorations, and the like. To my delight, they are having a 50% off sale on men's clothing, so I scored a great button down shirt for Jae that he'd admired there last time we visited. I totally fell for this 3" lucite cube with a whole, real dandelion suspended inside from the 1970s (or was it the 40s?) but passed on it. If I had more money to spend on clothes and stuff, that would be my secret source for fabulous threads. But since I don't, I'm happy to share the secret here!

After that we decided to splurge on the one thing we can always seem to justify: food! (With today being Jae's birthday, even more so.) So we headed to the beautiful art nouveau zinc bar at Orsay for early evening martinis and oysters (though I have to say, despite the delightful atmosphere, the martini was not as good as it should have been).

And then we trained it downtown for dinner at Soba-ya. I don't know what it is about Soba-ya, but they nail it perfectly every time! It's not just because they handmake their noodles from buckwheat imported from Japan, but that helps. The service is also great, and whatever they're doing in the kitchen it's consistently outstanding. It's definitely one of our very favorite spots. I had cold soba noodles with vegetables and Jae had hot soba soup with wild edible plants mixed in. We also shared some deeelicious saki and Jae had a whole little shark-like fish that was somehow cooked and crispy. The fish wasn't to my taste, but when Jae was done the plate was clean, head and tail and all.

Back here at Greenjeans, I've been busy doing back-end stuff today: inventory, jewelry polishing, and the like. Austin-based metalsmith jeweler Lisa Crowder is meant to stop by later today for a visit while she's in town. We've had a few folks come in for a browse, but things are generally quite slow these days with hot weather and vacationing trumping local shopping. I don't mind, though. It gives us time to catch up on stuff and get ourselves ready for the Fall when we anticipate brisk business to return (knock on wood!).

Until then, I'll enjoy my unsweetened iced tea, blessed air conditioning, and my new favorite online radio station, Radio Deliro, from France. A demain!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Unpacking the Boxes: First Look at What's New

Here's a first look at some of what was inside all those many many boxes that arrived earlier this week from the north country. We sold a few pieces before I could even snap a picture of them -- there are some serious pottery collectors out there who like to get first dibs. But what you see here is available now. And it's really strong, beautiful work. Enjoy the snapshots!

I also wanted to mention again that Greenjeans has taken on summer hours -- we're open Wed-Sun 12-7, and are closed Mondays and Tuesdays now through August. (Oooh, beach, here I come!!)

Sculptural, functional teapots made in NH by Jeff Brown
Another teapot and mugs by Jeff Brown
Wonderful new large orb by Jane Kaufmann
Some of the gorgeous new bowls by Kit CornellWe're restocked with ever-popular teabowls and big mugs by Kit Cornell
This Doat vase by Kit Cornell is like something right out of an Art Nouveau studio
And we're flush with toys again!! We've got almost everything back in stock, along with some new ones.
Hooray for toys!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Report from BMAC & Cheap Train to Philly

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia -- home to an amazing collection of gigantic public murals, one of my favorite art forms -- to attend the Buyer's Market of American Craft, a massive craft fair (the biggest?) just for retailers organized by the craft-friendly (er, "craft art"-friendly) Rosen Group. The fair is held twice a year, and Jae and I went in February to scout new talent for the shop. This time I went alone not to buy but because we had been nominated for the Best New Store award from NICHE magazine and I wanted to attend the award ceremony in the (extremely unlikely) case that we would have won. It was also a good opportunity to visit with some of the artisans we work with and see their new work. I got to see a number of the jewelers we work with including Chelle Kraus, Alison Mackey, Lisa Crowder, Kristina Kada-Madden, and Melle Finelli, as well as woodworkers Buff & Sharon Brown.

Well, we didn't win the award, but I learned a lot about what to do to strengthen our application next year if we get nominated again. I met some nice new people. And I gleaned some good marketing and display ideas from the winners. More that that, it was really wonderful to be in that big room full of all these well-established craft gallery and shop owners from around the country and feel their camaraderie and good spirit. Many of these folks have been in business for 30 years, and one for 39 years! I want to be able to say that Greenjeans has been in business for 30 years one day (well, any time during 2035, if we're lucky...).

Also, I wanted to mention a way to get between NYC and Philly by train that's a lot cheaper than Amtrak. You might know this already, but if not, it'll save you a bundle (it's $33 round trip off-peak), even though it takes an hour longer.

From Penn Station in Manhattan (7th Ave & 32nd St), take NJ Transit to Trenton. Change to the Philadelphia-bound SEPTA train (the R7) in Trenton. It will most likely be across the platform and timed to leave right after the NJ train arrives. You can get out at the beautiful 30th St. Station, or if you're heading to the convention center for a craft fair or something, wait until Market East Station, which is in the lower level of the center. Easy as pie!

Back at the shop, things are a little overwhelming as we are still not done unpacking new orders, rearranging the shop, polishing jewelry, and entering inventory data, but I really cannot complain. In fact, I'm happy, because to borrow a line from a store owner receiving his award last night, "I love this business!"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tea Bowls & Carved Spoons & Chairs, Oh My!

Jae and I rolled bleary-eyed into Park Slope at 1am this morning after a three-day trip to NH. We were there to visit studios and bring back lots of fresh new work (filling these many boxes), including:

:: Stunning new bowls and tea bowls by Kit Cornell

:: Dozens of best-selling mugs by John Zentner

:: Sponge-painted bowls & new tea pots by Jeff Brown

:: New orbs, fingerpuppets, and wall pieces by Jane Kaufmann, including ones with poppies

:: More mesmerizing wooden spoons and a few magic wands by Dan Dustin

:: A gorgeous Canterbury 4-slat rocking chair in tiger maple and Enfield side chair in cherry by Brian Braskie

We've been buying for Greenjeans for over a year now, and think we're starting to get the hang of it. Instead of buying just everything we like or think is really good, we're checking our impulses against what our customers seem to like. It takes a while to develop a sense of what does and does not appeal to customers, and it differs from region to region. Wood-fired pottery that comes out especially rust red, for instance, doesn't play well here, though in NH that's a desirable look. And for some reason, no matter how lovely they are, our customers don't seem terribly interested in stoneware or porcelain tumblers, although there is great demand for pottery mugs and tea bowls. It's all very curious.

In other news, we've received new shipments of toys by Frank Ridley over the past few days, so we're flush with classic wooden toys again!

I'll post pix of what's inside all these boxes tomorrow. But I'll have to make a few more trips to Parco for espressos if I'm ever to get even half of this unpacked today! If only I could remember which box contains those magic wands...

Here are a couple pictures from our trip.

Jae goofing around at Brian Braskie's

Many of the artisans we visit live down dirt roads like this one. This is the road Brian lives on. It's easy to love these trips!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Celebrate Brooklyn & Manhattanhenge

Today friend and bookmaker Dennis Yuen sent me a scan of a very nice mention we received in Encore Magazine's Celebrate Brooklyn playbill this summer. He'd told us he'd seen the write-up of Greenjeans in the mag a couple weeks ago, but we hadn't actually seen a copy yet. Now it's up in the window! Thanks to Lisa LeeKing for interviewing us and including us in her piece, "Shopping with a Conscience," along with the image of our wine barrel folding chair. The text is below.

Also, I read this week in New York Magazine that TONIGHT us New Yorkers will be able to witness the last night of "Manhattanhenge," the perfect aligning of the sunset down the dead center of each Manhattan street. It happens every year from the end of May until around now, and the best place to view this phenomenon is probably right in Manhattan. I'd never heard of it before, but I love these sorts of ocurrances, and may have to venture over the river after work to see this for myself...

So in case there are any druids living in NYC who happen to be reading this blog, Happy Manhattanhenge Day!

Shopping with a Conscience, by Lisa LeeKing
Encore Magazine, July 2006

"Environmental consciousness is everywhere. The city has 24 hybrid taxis and several electric busses. Al Gore is enjoying a political comeback, thanks to the new global warming movie An Inconvenient Truth. Remember, we can stay green and have fun doing it—by shopping! Saving the earth can be as simple as purchasing items constructed from durable materials, like 100% cotton, and supporting local artisans.

“In Park Slope, husband and wife team Jae Kim and Amy Shaw showcase items by people they know. Greenjeans… pays homage to Amy’s mother; it’s named after her favorite [kid’s TV show] character [Mr. Greenjeans from Captain Kangaroo]. Handmade toys, furniture, hand-bound books, stuffed animals and pottery line the shelves and floor. Every product comes with a story. If you purchase a cute, stuffed bear, you’ll learn about Kentucky artisan Judy Geagley, who constructed it from a recycled sweater. Perhaps you’d prefer an adjustable chair, built from the staves of a wine barrel. It’s not only extremely comfortable, but versatile. It can be converted into an easel or as a firewood holder. While checking out the chair’s comfort factor, read [Whit] McLeod’s bio. A former biologist turned furniture maker, his one-of-a-kind chairs, complete with wine stains, are a great gift or conversation piece ($160 delivered). Such distinct items, as well as beautifully crafted toys constructed from unfinished wood, make shopping fun and memorable. It’s the perfect store for wedding or baby shower gifts, or for anyone who favors customized furniture and table settings.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ladies in (Up-and-coming) Business

Tonight Rena of Rare Device hosted a Ladies in Business cocktail at her neat little Boerum Hill apartment. Her idea was to bring together a group of women running their own up-and-coming businesses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, add some wine, snacks from the Middle Eastern shop downstairs, and devilish cupcakes, and let the rest take care of itself.

The result: a marvelous evening getting to meet some of the people behind the boutiques, design lines, and blogs and share stories and good energy with them. Everyone was so pleasant and enjoyable to talk with, and I came away feeling excited to be part of this wonderful community of smart, savvy women.

I’m so happy to have met these lovely, entrepreneurial young women that I just have to give them each their own little plug. (Please let me know if I have any of these details incorrect!)

:: Camille Howe is a designer who works with Chilewich, a studio in Manhattan that uses woven vinyl textiles to create chic table mats, floor mats, and handbags. She also makes her own work.

:: Denise Kerr opened a brand new shop called Beryl in Park Slope this past May carrying clothing and accessories by emerging designers. She also designs her own jewelry.

:: Erin Weckerle is the owner of Sodafine, a 2 ½ year old boutique offering handmade and vintage fashion, accessories, and gifts in Fort Greene. She is busy preparing Sodafine’s new digs on Grand St. in Williamsburg opening later this summer.

:: Grace Bonney is the creator of the essential-reading blog design*sponge, which has recently launched a podcast.

:: Kristen Aronsson is a designer (and fellow Bushwick dweller). Her new handbag collection may be found at Rare Device.

:: Laurice Curran is a full-time jeweler whose creations can be found at Rare Device.

:: MK Wong buys for and manages Cursive, a shop of colorful, edgy stationary housed at ABC Carpet & Home (and I don't think has a website yet). I must also mention that she brought the most deliriously delicious chocolates from Chocolat Michel Cluizel of Paris which can be found stateside at ABC, and thank goodness!

:: Karen Young writes the retailer-oriented (but eminently readable for everyone) blog called clothes-pin featuring new work by contemporary emerging and independent fashion designers every day.

It was a brilliant idea of Rena’s to put this together, and I’m hopeful that we can make this somewhat of a regular occurrence, even if it’s only a couple times a year.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Consumer Culture: Organic Buyer Beware

Things are not always what they seem, even when they're labeled "organic."

This isn't a new issue. But I read yesterday that people are boycotting Horizon Organic, the popular, easy-to-find organic brand, and the topic flared in my brain. Owned by corporate giant Dean Foods, (which also owns Silk), Horizon is under criticism for a number of alleged offenses, including not allowing their cows to graze freely in open pastures like they're supposed to (they use giant feedlots just like conventional dairy farms), and importing cows from conventional farms that have been subjected to hormone and antibiotic treatments and fed non-organic (read: slaughterhouse waste and GMO grains) feed. Hmmm.

It's bad enough that many of us have for years shelled out twice as much for the butter and milk sporting the cute, reassuring flying cow logo thinking we're getting the real deal when what we've maybe been getting instead is an expensive lie. But what is even more troubling is that these offenses are still permissible under the USDA's organics standards. From what I've gathered reading about this case, according to the USDA cows need only have *access to* pasture, but there's nothing saying they need to actually spend time roaming the free range. I can only imagine the number of other such loopholes that exist in the USDA oganic certification guidelines in order to appease the huge agribusiness lobby. (Click here for the USDA's organic program website, which I will need to parse through at a later date.)

Bottom line, and it's no big shock: we cannot trust the USDA Certified Organic label or any product that bears it. Instead, if we really want to buy organic food that is what we think it's supposed to be -- free from chemicals, produced with little damage to the planet, etc. -- we need to do our research. In other words, we need to be mindful.

A couple months ago I went through my fridge and pantry and wrote down the names of all the companies who made the organic food I'd bought. Then I sat down at the computer and read about all those companies. Only a slim handful were the home-grown, small-production, salt-of-the-earth types of companies I want to support. The rest were sub-companies of huge mega companies that I want nothing to do with.

I don't recall all the results of my pantry audit, but I'll see if I can dig them up to share with you. (I do recall a correlation between super-glossy, saturated color packaging and major multinational corporations -- think Cascadian Farms, which is owned by General Mills, and yes, Horizon.) In the meantime, if you'd like to read more about this case with Horizon, see this article from LOHAS. Also check out the Organic Consumers Association's website on protecting organic standards.

And of course if you want to really know where your food comes from, ask the farmer at a farmer's market, or ask at a food store that knows exactly where their goods come from like Pumpkin's Organic Market here in the South Slope. In an age when packaging is prioritized over contents and our government seem more interested in helping fat cats make money than in protecting its citizens, it's really up to us to decide what is true and what we want to support with our hard earned dollar votes.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Greenjeans In-Store Upgrade Complete!

Today Jae helped Dad complete work installing halogen lights in the display cases he built, the final element in our store interior upgrade! The results are smashing -- see for yourself!

Happy Dad!

All the lights are quite dazzling, really.

Dad inspecting the results.

Happy shopkeepers!

Dad and Jane Kaufmann's Carpenter finger puppet sharing a moment.

I promised Dad that next time he comes down it won't be for pro bono work, but instead we'll go play in the City. And maybe we'll go for dinner again at Taku where last night we feasted in the garden on flights of saki, fluke sashimi, and succulent angus steak that Dad pronounced "goes down like cookies." Mmmm, cookies!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Cherry-Pickin', Wine-Sippin' Day in the Country

What We Did on Our Fourth of July Vacation

On Sunday, we took a day trip up around New Paltz, NY, to Prospect Hill Farm to pick cherries. This is me with Jae's brother Sung, and his wife Amy in the tractor-pulled wagon up to the cherry orchard.

Jae picking dark, sweet cherries.

Jae's Mom liked climbing the trees as much as picking and eating the fruit.

The color was amaaaazing! We picked 20 pounds.

On our way up, we saw a sign for the Willow Tree Flower Farm. This is Maria, who grows gorgeous plants and flowers. We bought two pots of artemesia and a pot with daliahs and snap dragons to place outside the shop.

After the cherry picking, we drove to Benmarl, the oldest winery in the U.S. It's situated up on a hill overlooking a gorgeous stretch of the Hudson River Valley. This is me and Jae's Mom feeling as though we're walking into a Thomas Cole painting.

The young grapes. We did a tasting and brought home way too many bottles of wine. Afterwards we went to Adair Vineyards for another tasting and to see their 200 year old barn. It was very lovely there, too.

A self-timed portrait at Benmarl. It was our first outing since Amy & Sung's wedding in May, so this was our first vacation as an official family!

Today we returned to the shop. Dad is back in town to install the halogen lights in the display case. And this morning we had "Greenjeans" applied in vinyl letters to our new clear window. I know I always say this, but it's really coming together! I'll post pictures of the finished product tomorrow...

And big props to our neighbor Rena at Rare Device who got a fabulous mention in Daily Candy today!