Handcrafting a response
November 4, 2013

It was the “artisan-style” sandwiches at a Seattle-based coffee chain that really took the cake for NSCAD Professor Sandra Alfoldy.

“Artisan sandwiches?” she says incredulously. “You mean the sandwiches that they take out of the fridge and pop into the microwave?”

It was then that she started noticing the label everywhere, and not just on things truly artisanal, but on things mass produced and prepackaged. Things like beef jerky, mayonnaise, chocolate, tortilla chips, and even water.  (Artisanal water? A Google search turned up all kinds of companies touting “artisanal” water; one, in the Toronto area, seems to use the label interchangeably with “artesian” while emphasizing quality, the natural surroundings and uncompromising attention—and all this for what is essentially bottled water.)

“Handcrafted” is another label that’s tossed around a lot these days—applied to everything from sub sandwiches to car interiors.

“What I want to know is, do these labels benefit the professional craft sector or are they harming it?” says Prof. Alfoldy, the principal investigator for the research project, Craft and Popular Culture, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). She also teaches a third-year art history course of the same name at NSCAD.

Get your "fresh baked artisan" bread at Walmart - this week on Rollback!
She kicked off her research last year while on sabbatical with trips to the Walt Disney Company and the Carolwood Barn, which houses the miniature steam train that Walt Disney built, in California. Disney was “truly a consummate craftsperson,” says Prof. Alfoldy, and the company has a long tradition of valuing good design and craftsmanship.

Her research will form the basis of a chapter, "Craft Goes to Disney," in a book which the Smithsonian will publish. And it’s just one focus of interest for her own book, which will also include chapters on Craft on Television (Martha Stewart, Oprah, Portlandia), Craft in the Movies (remember the pottery wheel scene in Ghost?), Craft Saves the World (with examples from World Vision and the ‘Me to We’ movement), and Man Craft (Mike Holmes, Red Green and the Craftsman brand at Canadian Tire).

So far, she presented her research at conferences at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Tampa, Florida; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Sydney, Australia. Upcoming is a conference in Wellington, New Zealand, where she’ll present on Popular Culture interpretations of Indigenous Craft.

Clearly, she’s on to something. An exciting side project to emerge out of her research is an effort by the Canadian Craft Federation and the provincial craft councils to take ownership of words like “artisanal” and “handcrafted” by creating a recognizable brand for genuinely handcrafted and artisanal products.  Learning by the example of the fair trade, organic, and buy local movements in Canada, it’s possible that a special logo and an accompanying awareness campaign could be created.

“These labels on products that are not hand crafted and not artisanal may be harming craftspeople from a financial point of view, because they’re not at a price point that the truly artisanal have to be,” says Prof. Alfoldy, who gives the example of a mass-produced $39 “handcrafted” bowl from a chain department store. “On the other hand, they’re getting people to tune into the words. But people need to know what they can expect quality to cost.”

A road sign in British Columbia.
Prof. Alfoldy is sharing her research, which will continue to 2016, via a website (www.craftandpopularculture.com), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CraftAndPopularCulture), Instagram and Twitter.