Modern Craft: Locating the Material in a Digital Age

Daniela Rosner. Modern Craft: Locating the Material in a Digital Age. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: Kimiko Ryokai. University of California, Berkeley. 2012.


This dissertation analyzes the form, character, and variety of materials with which specific forms of value are produced and maintained in craft. Two craft sites provide the foundation for the work I present: a bookbinding workshop in Cambridge, UK and a knitting guild in San Francisco, CA. Participant observation and interviews allow for a detailed examination of craft practice. In binding, the durability of the book and respect for the book's history are two central concerns, continually balanced through human-material interaction. In knitting, care invested in the artifact and anticipation of future use organizes production. Tied to familial pastimes and ancient histories, restored books and knit shawls become agents of recovery — of fading techniques, of cultural traditions, and of intimate interactions. Traces of creation, time, and use are valued for their emotional resonance in addition to the pragmatic goals in which they are embedded.

Reflecting on the practices of bookbinders and knitters, I introduce the analytic category of “material traces” to the study of design and technology. Material traces concretize a unique location in time and space to reveal the dynamic and evocative nature of form. In my conceptualization, they embody and reflect skill, use, and time; they evoke memories and confer value.

In the workshop, binders trace backward: they maintain certain material traces of time and use (creases on a book spine, scent of aged leather) and selectively mask material traces of restoration skill (replaced leather or stained paper) to expose marks of provenance deemed appropriate. In the guild, knitters trace forward: they foretell suitable fits and pleasing patterns through removed or intricate stitches, material traces of time and skill that are often missing or obscured for future recipients of the knit artifact. The relative invisibility of knitting labor enables a sense of `cleverness' or `secret society' that digital technologies (blogs, pod casts, social networking sites) sometimes threaten to unravel by exposing additional traces of craft production.

Using this analytic category, I develop a heuristic for examining technology that focuses on material traces of skill, use, and time. The heuristic is put into practice in the analysis of Spyn, mobile phone software that I designed to associate digital records (audio/visual media, text, and geographic data) with physical locations on knit fabric. The heuristic renders visible the stories of technique and spatiotemporal rhythm that imbue the knitted artifact with additional (digital) marks of production. In addition to tracing forward, knitters use Spyn to trace backward.

Taking lessons from this analysis, I then present a framework for design pedagogy — using the lenses of attributes, entanglements, and rhythms to gain critical purchase on the artifacts being produced. Mobilizing this framework within a classroom, students envisioned evocative relationships to the non-human (rodents), enriched connections to a familial hand, engaged physics learning, and opportunities for reminiscence around breakage. These design examples reveal how the analytic category of material traces comes alive in practice and pedagogy. Based on these insights, I demonstrate a research agenda for design that emphasizes temporality and materiality.


Last updated:

December 23, 2016