In the world of crafts, practicality and price are important again Funky gives way to FUNCTION


Form and function, that stodgy Modernist couple who split up during the wild days of the '80s, when Craft was having a fling with Art, are getting back together.

That's good news for folks who'll be visiting the 18th annual American Crafts Council Craft Fair later this week at the Convention Center and Festival Hall, where the emphasis seems likely to be on work that is more practical and affordable than in some years past.

"People find it easier to spend money on something that's functional and beautiful," says Robert Erickson, whose Nevada, Calif., studio produces handcrafted furniture. Mr. Erickson has been showing his work at the fair since 1986. "Up until last year," he says, "there was less functional stuff, and more decorative, art-oriented work. There's been a little bit of a comeback to functional things -- stoneware, things you can use at the table."

"Things you can use at the table" will be in great supply at this year's fair, with items ranging from stoneware tureens and painted earthenware plates, to ash baskets and forged sterling silverware, to chairs of all sorts. Many ceramic artists will be displaying tea and coffee pots, cups and mugs, pitchers and creamers at the show, which is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The Convention Center-Festival Hall complex is on the south side of Pratt Street between Charles and Howard streets.

There are always trends and phases in the craft world, says JoAnn Brown, director of American Craft Enterprises, the show arm of the ACC. "We're in a phase right now of practical, usable work."

"The show used to be very much against tradition," says Pennsylvania fabric artist Kimberly Haldeman Klein, who's been exhibiting at the Baltimore show for more than a decade. "Now, I think, the '80s are over. People are looking for less artsy things, looking for more functional things."

It's not that people have stopped buying art, however. Ms. Brown sees larger social forces at work. "Certainly in the last year or so people have been much more inclined to buy something to share, something more for the home, as opposed to a personal item."

She sees this practicality as one aspect of changing times: "There's been a tendency throughout the country to take a more pragmatic approach -- even to health care."

White House interest

Mrs. Brown credits a sort of new awareness of the American craft industry to the interest of President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in American crafts. "I think the crafts collected for the permanent collection at the White House tend to be very recognizable shapes and forms, as opposed to outlandish, sculptural things."

Ginny Tomlinson, president of Tomlinson's Craft Collection, which has craft shops in Baltimore and Towson, says she has noticed a trend in the past year to less exotic, less pricey craft items. Craftspeople seem to be getting away from one-of-a-kind items. "I have noticed over the last year that some of them that had become very, very pricey had dropped back a bit."

Especially in pottery, she says, "they became awfully slick. . . . Now I think they're getting back to more functional things."

Ms. Tomlinson doesn't believe crafts should follow fashion too slavishly. "I tend to like the thing that is not so high-fashion, that is good design, that will last. Something that's well done and good design will last forever."

"The crafts business has changed in the last 10 years," says Pennsylvania stoneware craftsman Royce Yoder, "and the [Baltimore] show has reflected that. I think you see a lot more sophistication. The quality of the Baltimore show has always LTC been exceptional," he says, with top-of-the-line artists in every category. For a while, the trend was to top-of-the-line items in price as well. "Now that whole pendulum has swung back to functionalism," he says.

"People don't have the money to buy some objet d'art, but they do have the money for something practical."

People still want beautiful objects. "They might want something they can leave out on the counter -- they tell me, 'Oh, I'm going to leave this sitting out because I love looking at it' -- but at the same time, they can bake stew in it every night."

"I've seen a lot of people try to do more affordable things," says Steve Perrin, who makes craft furniture in Timonium. Handmade furniture tends to be expensive anyway, he says. "I couldn't afford to buy my own things. So I've added some things that are smaller, more affordable, more accessible to people."

Many craftspeople are trying to broaden the base of their customers, he says, offering items for those who can afford to spend a couple of hundred dollars for a piece, "as opposed to a couple of thousand."

"I've done a lot of one-of-a-kind furniture in the past," says David Golden of Boston. "Then I developed this line of architecturally inspired pieces -- mirrors, shelves and accessories -- and started marketing them through crafts shows."

Jeff Headley, of Berryville, Va., a furniture craftsman who specializes in reproduction pieces in Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Hepplewhite styles, offers another reason his work qualifies as "affordable:" Real antiques from the period before 1820 have become so expensive people might well hesitate to use them.

Built to last

He builds his chairs, hunt boards, and piecrust tables and other items the same way woodworkers did in Colonial times, with the exception of using machines to size the lumber. "There's no reason they won't be around in 200 years," he says. So not only is his furniture less expensive than antiques, "you can use it and hand it down to your children. In the long run, it could be more practical."

Besides creating a desire for homier objects and things that are more affordable, social changes are making themselves felt in other aspects of the craft world. Environmental concerns are one such area.

"Most of us are not using the exotic woods from the rain forest," says Mr. Perrin. "Or if you do use it, you just use tiny bits of them." He believes that woodworkers, in general, are a group that's aware of environmental issues. "I've even joined WARP -- Woodworkers Alliance for Rain-forest Protection," he says. It's an educational group that offers resources and information on woods that are not from endangered tree species or ecologically fragile areas. "The more exotic woods give you the colors and the textures, but we all know what the sacrifice is."

But perhaps a more alarming trend in the craft world itself is one cited by potter Royce Yoder. Looking back over his near-decade of visiting the craft council show, he says, "the crafts community in general is getting older. I don't see a lot of younger people coming in. We're all getting gray hair."

"We do refer to it as the graying of the crafts population," says Ms. Brown of American Craft Enterprises. "We're very concerned with that." There was tremendous growth in the field coming out of World War II, she says, with crafts programs at schools, colleges and institutions across the country. Not only did the schools turn out skilled craftspeople, they also offered a place for craftspeople to work as teachers. But cuts in education funding over the past decade or so have meant that many of the craft programs have been cut. People who might have thought about becoming professional craftspeople have second thoughts if it seems they will not be able to make a living, she says.

The craft council is supporting programs for high school students to encourage them to explore crafts as a career, she says, and the Craft Fair always has free space set aside for students to exhibit their work.

"It's of incredible importance to society to have this" pool of talented craftspeople, she says. Like other businesses, craftspeople are finding themselves competing in a world filled with objects imported from areas where labor is less expensive.

"If our American craftspeople cannot live and support themselves, they will be forced into some-thing else."

Society needs to understand the role of the craftsman, she says, which she sees as providing hand-made objects intensive of labor, high in quality of materials, and unique above all. She has seen over her 20 years in the craft business how those qualities attract people. "There's a spirit of this that touches people. People come to the fairs skeptical, but I've had people come up to me at fairs and say, 'I never thought I'd buy this, but I can't wait to take it home and look at it.' "

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