Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is their a minimum price for fine craft?

Fiber artist Karren K. Britto has a fascinating blog about her craft, Shibori, and the business of craft, called entwinements. A recent post about pricing of craft
has my brain in overdrive.

Her premise is that it is impossible to make a handcrafted item which retails for $20 to $25, and have it reflect the "head, heart, and hand of the maker." I am the first to agree that many consumers today do not begin to appreciate the work that goes into creating something by hand. Stores like Target, Pier One, etc., have shifted the ground under our feet. People see something that has elements of good design and style, and a good price, and their expectations shift. They believe it is entirely possible to have the cake and eat it too.

They often are not aware of what lies behind that package of design and low price. That designs may have been stolen from an artist....modified slightly and then moved into mass production overseas. It is no longer an item made with care and attention by the designer. It may be pretty, but sometimes it comes with a hidden price tag. Laborers in other countries, out of view, who toil in difficult conditions, at wages that do not truly support the worker, even in developing nations. Think back to the mills in Lowell in this country's history. Those same scenarios are playing out now in other corners of the world. But the output is being snatched up by the happily ignorant.

I may not like it, but this is the world we live in right now. Add to this the general uneasiness many feel about their personal economic condition.....falling real estate market, rising gas prices, disappearing pensions plans, medical costs that skyrocket,.....and it is no wonder that they hesitate to indulge in high end craft. Impulse purchases that give short-term gratification are more likely. Look at the popularity of high end coffee. Or boutique chocolates. Or shows on cable that promote the idea that you can redesign your room in a weekend for $500 or less and get a high end, sophisticated look. Sure, it is the look, not the substance. But the current psychology seems to be short-term. Not one of investment. Collecting.

So, back to my point. In this environment, is it possible to satisfy both ends of the spectrum? Is it possible to sell a hand crafted item, that reflects the makers "head, hands and heart"? Yes, I believe it is.

One thing I have learned in the last few years, is that it is much easier to make something expensive. Something that has lots of labor and love in it. If I could do nothing but that, it would be utopia. But the last I checked, utopia still doesn't exist. So, the creative challenge is to make something that is relatively inexpensive, but is still something that is unique and wonderful.

I have literally stumbled on my answer to this. The cranes I fold out of polymer clay are made by hand, by me. Each one is unique. Each one is carefully (very carefully!) folded by hand, by me. Each hanging crane has a bead at it's base that is made with clay to coordinate with the crane, by hand, by me. And each one reflects a creative process or journey.

And the cranes have been something that people connect with on many levels. They have been purchased as memorials for someone lost. They have been given as wishes for healing. They are given in celebration of birthdays, or anniversaries. And they are given to reflect a wish for peace. They are the least expensive item I sell. But they have more emotional connections for more people than anything else I do. I often say after hearing someone's story, the universe is telling me I have to make the cranes. They are a touchstone in a fragile world.

I hear wonderful stories about people's collections of pears, or apples. Or someone connects with a design on a piece of jewelry or vessel. But the richest emotional connection is with the cranes. And the money generated by the cranes lets me explore the other end of the spectrum. They finance the vessels. And they let me have the vessels out in the world for people to see and enjoy....and eventually, we hope, purchase.

I wish I lived in a world where people's impulse purchases were art or craft. Beautiful work, made with love and care by talented artists. I wish people did not live in a world so fraught with anxiety about what tomorrow will bring.

But I don't. So in this world, as an artist who wants to do this for a living, I need to figure out what I can do to increase the awareness and demand for my work, and at the same time, offer work that people can afford. These are where the true creative challenges lie. I wish it was easier. But, for now, it is not.


Molly said...


I totally agree that you can put your head, hands and heart into a creation and sell it for less than $25.

I also think that occassionally we create something that hits us (the artist) so personally and profoundly that no price tag would ever do. Of course, that amount of *head, heart and hands* is a certian rare jewel that most of us would be very blessed to find.

Karren K. Brito said...

Of course you can make something that reflects the head, heart and hand of the maker and sell it for less than $25. Even if it took you a year to make.

What you can NOT do is make a living -paying for the heat, telephone etc.with health-care for you , flea protection for your pets, a cellphone to stay in touch with family while on the road.... all paid for in the US.

If you use Wendy Rosen way to estimate the retail price of something you made, in place of detailed calculations, time and materials to make the item is 1/6th of the retail price. Thus the $25 item has $4.61 for time and materials. If we say the materials were free the maker gets $10/hr you have just bought 25 mins. total of her time including some design thoughts and sourcing. I'm not sure that is what I want from a master craftsman.

I do understand your point about making without without understanding the consequence of working effeciently. Creativity can be applied to how you do it not just what you do.

Judy said...

Karrin, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are right that fine craft could not possibly be made in this price range at the quality that you are talking about. I could not agree more with you.

But there is craft that is beautiful, thoughtful, and creative out there and selling for $25, and appropriately so. In the post on your blog, you are referring to socks made overseas. I agree that they do not have the elements that you see as essential.

It is rare, it is not easy to find, but I do know it is possible. But that number is probably about as low a price as anyone could realistically go, and it is probably close to the breaking point.

Not all craft that people fall in love with is made by master craftspeople. But not everyone could possibly afford work of a master. But if we limit our defintion of craft that is made with care, attention and skill by price, do we possibly create an elitism that will only serve to further harm the overall craft market? The market cannot support a product that is limited to the work of the masters.

I know of a few galleries that generates some great cash flow with "those socks" but also have work from masters. In order for galleries to be strong and vibrant financially, they must consider the pocketbook of the consumer. They can show them work to aspire to as well as work they can afford. This psychology will keep them coming back and keep the gallery in business.

Your work is stunning. I saw it in person in New York in December and I stopped and gasped at the beauty of the pieces. Your materials and the care and attention absolute demand a price far, far above the $25. But I don't think you can directly translate that into the work of others.