Friday, October 12, 2007

The New American Craft Magazine (Review/Essay)

(Note: The first and last images are of the new American Craft magazine. All the rest are older issues. See details at the end of this post.)

In case you’re just returning from months at sea with no contact to the mainland, you may not have heard that the 66-year old American Craft magazine has undergone a major re-launch under the direction of Andrew Wagner, former executive editor and founding managing editor of San Francisco-based Dwell magazine, and Jeannette Abbink, former Dwell founding creative director.

After much anticipation, I received the first issue of the new American Craft (Oct/Nov 2007, pictured top right) and noticed immediately that things had changed. A new font, a new format, a new look, and even new paper immediately grabbed my attention, and the 144 pages of rich content drew me right in. It’s almost like a whole new magazine, more lush and bold than before, extending the limits of what an “American” craft magazine can be.

The launch party on September 19 was a pretty good indicator that this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. It was unexpectedly fabulous and definitely exciting. (The American Craft Council should throw an event like that every year!) Click here to see some pictures.

At the same time, the new version of this respected magazine undeniably maintains the dedication to and passion for craft and its practitioners found in the pages of its earlier self.

The strongest and most common criticism I’ve heard (at the launch party and since) is aimed at the mag’s newly internationalized scope, which, reasonably, one might not expect from a publication titled American Craft. I have heard both first-hand and through friends that many readers find the international content odd, and many artisans are downright distressed about this wider angle. My sense is that some American artisans feel their territory has been violated, that somehow the magazine is threatening their existence by covering a French multimedia artist or the craft scene in Australia.

For me, the international coverage is inspiring and does a great job of both introducing exciting work in the field of craft to American readers as well as putting American craft into a broader and more relevant context.

But I am getting ahead of myself. After reading the new issue, I sat down with both it and the Aug/Sept ’07 issue, the last of the earlier version. Here I offer you some highlights from the newly re-launched American Craft magazine and my thoughts about its new direction.

The cover, a beautiful close-up color photo of French artist Nathalie Lété flirtatiously half-veiled by the cover flap, is definitely a departure (and only the third time a person has appeared on the cover, I'm told). The new font in wheat strikes out against the aubergine background, announcing itself as it invites us to go inside…

The new mag starts with two of the many new features: “Call & Response” (letters to the editor) and the “Editor’s Letter,” both of which create space for much-needed feedback and dialogue. The old “Craft World” section (pages and pages of craft world news) has been deconstructed and transformed into a 30-page feast called “Zoom.” Here we find short articles on galleries (“Shop Talk”), notable works of craft (“Product Placement”), upcoming exhibitions (“Preview”), and emerging talent (“Radar”). Book reviews and exhibition listings are peppered throughout.

There is even a “Blog Beat” bringing a handful of craft-related blogs to the reader’s attention. Thumbs up for that – new media, including blogging and the internet, is having a great impact on the American and international craft community, connecting and fostering a broader, more diversified craft world. I appreciate the more in-depth approach and very much like the vibe of the new “Zoom” section. Compared to what came before, it is fresh, vibrant, and exciting. The visuals and layout play a big part in creating this sense.

The new layout also tripped me up a little. For example, I found having a book review and an exhibition preview pressed side by side on the page a little awkward to process (especially since the inside margins are a bit too tight against the text). Also, placing the exhibition listings along the margins of the pages doesn’t quite work for me; it seemed too fractured. I prefer the old “Calendar” section which, although inelegant, did a better job of offering a comprehensive “menu” of what’s one tap for the next two months.

After “Zoom,” we turn to the meaty sections and notice right away that there’s definitely an international flavor happening here. A short piece on a Dutch designer inaugurates the new (and particularly promising) “Material Culture” section, followed by a piece about a New Zealand-based maker. Next come three multi-page reviews of craft-related exhibitions in (American) institutions.

Next we read a story about a Brooklyn-based artist who makes intricate wood sculptures, then head back overseas, this time to France, for a story about the alluring home of an artist who makes everything from her rugs to her jewelry. (It is her picture featured on the cover of the mag.) These are both great and feature big juicy pictures of the artists’ work and studios. The savory content continues with a story about the George Ohr museum on the Gulf Coast followed by “Critic’s Corner,” which this month addresses the issue of how craft presents itself within the history of modernism.

The next section, “From the Stacks,” is brilliant. It simply reprints a carefully-selected set of pages from an old issue of American Craft or Craft Horizons (the magazine’s earlier title), directly sharing with us pages from craft’s past. I love this, and think it’s a great way to both foster a sense of continuity in craft’s history as well as introduce readers to the ACC’s incredible library (which is open to the public).

The new “Hunting & Gathering” section follows, bringing us a collector’s story (always intriguing reading). And last but not least, “The Wide World of Craft” offers an overview of the totally cool craft scene in Sydney, Australia, complete with pull-out guide. Nice!

The new font, while much more “seriffy” than we may be used to in contemporary magazines, is at least interesting. I’m not sure if I love it, but it does lend a sense of new identity and expresses the magazine’s willingness to try something unexpected. It looks almost avant-garde, though in fact is the digital reincarnation of a hand-drawn 18th century Dutch font. And the paper stock is FSC-approved – green is good.

Taken on the whole, the new magazine reflects a keen interest in presenting new ways in which to consider not only American craft but CRAFT itself. It also makes a strong case for the notion that American craft today is large and flexible enough to contain a plethora of different aesthetics and approaches.

Moreover, today it makes sense for American craft to be considered within a global context as well as to look at international craft from an American perspective. We undeniably exist in a global era, and what constitutes “American” can no longer be defined by maps.

Critics may question some of the new choices, and the magazine will likely undergo some tweaking before it settles into its new format. But that’s all great. It reflects a more important thing that this re-launched magazine has to offer craft, especially American craft, at large: DISCUSSION. People are talking about this magazine. People are asking questions. People are elated and disconcerted and everything in between. It is creating heat and a sense of change (I’d call it renewal) in the craft community. And that is something the American craft world needs if it wants to be vital and relevant in the 21st century. It’s something we all need if we want to grow.

In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Isn’t it so for each of us? And then why not also for CRAFT? The new American Craft magazine isn’t afraid to tease and explore the edges and contours of craft even if it means risking criticism and confusion. And while that may present challenges to our presumptions and even our identities, it may be the only way in which the American craft world will be able to evolve.

Click here for a virtual tour of the new American Craft. Also available on newsstands. Or pick up a free copy (while supplies last) at Greenjeans.

Posted by Amy Shaw.
Images (top to bottom):
1) First cover of new American Craft (Oct/Nov 2007)
2) Cover (Dec 06/Jan 07) - after Wagner and Abbick joined the team, but before the relaunch
3) Cover of Craft Horizons featuring Beatrice Wood (Aug 1945) sourced here
4) Cover (Dec 05/Jan 06)
5) Cover of Craft Horizons (Jan 1952) sourced from this awesome blog here (Cathy of California)
6) Inside the new issue sourced here

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