Growing demand for unique items with a handcrafted lineage has created a golden age for artisanal goods. Five Australian creators weigh in on why handmade is back in.
The irony that the revival of the handmade movement owes much of its success to the digital age isn't lost on most makers. They know there has never been an easier time for independent artisans to find an audience for their bespoke or handcrafted works thanks to the rise of peer-to-peer online marketplaces such as Etsy.
Not only has Etsy helped educate and cultivate an audience, it's facilitated the transition for many of its purveyors from weekend hobbyists to self-employed maker. In 2013, Etsy notched up US$1.35 billion in sales (up from $895.1 million), with the US-based site set to further challenge traditional retailing models and growth potential with the launch of Etsy Wholesale.
This private, juried marketplace is the original Etsy on steroids - allowing major retail and independent boutique buyers to discover emerging designers and makers who want to grow their business, with the likes of major international retailers West Elm and Nordstrom jumping on board since its launch in August 2014.
Etsy's popularity and position in the market has been fuelled by the growing number of shoppers seeking one-of-a-kind, custom-made and artisanal works created by people who are energetic about building a passionate fan base via social media sites and then selling direct to their followers.
Instagram is perhaps the most useful and successful tool to be harnessed by this creative community. The way it allows artists to share elements of the creative process and their everyday life provides the personal touch that both consumers and creators in this field find compelling. It's also a powerful and direct marketing tool for a group who often find marketing an uncomfortable prospect.
Meanwhile, sites such as Squarespace, Cargo Collective and Shopify have made it easy for self-employed makers to build a slick professional website themselves.
Here we meet five Australian artisans revelling in the handmade revolution.
Jon Goulder, Furniture Designer/Maker, Adelaide
Handmade is in Jon Goulder's blood. The fourth-generation furniture-maker has carved a niche for himself as one of Australia's most acclaimed makers, with his work acquired by galleries and collectors worldwide.
In addition to managing his own practice, he has spent much of his career nurturing the next generation, initially in Perth at Midland Atelier and now as creative director of Furniture at the JamFactor in Adelaide.
What does it mean to be a contemporary craft practitioner?
It's about handmaking but you need to be able to maintain relationships with industry. And, of course, it's about trying to make a living. I have three modes of practice: one-off handmade, commissions and mass production.
The handmade allows me to create things that my peers and competition simply can't because they don't have the skills, the budget becomes too much or because what I am delivering is a new technique or method based on 10 or 20 years of practice.
What percentage of your practice is made up of commissions?
A huge amount. When I left Western Australia two years ago, I had eight full-time employees and we were doing really large-scale commissions for some of the biggest architects around. I have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of commissions happening all the time.
I use them as training mechanisms for younger designers at the JamFactory. I hope to see them emerging in the market in the next few years.
Was there any point where you thought you wouldn't go into this business?
No. I am very lucky. A lot of my friends are disillusioned by what they do. Most trades are non-progressive, you get good at it and it is hard to get much bigger. Furniture is a never-ending journey, you keep getting better and evolving.
Andrei Davidoff, Ceramic Artist, Melbourne
Andrei Davidoff is one maker who has capitalised on the trend of supporting local producers. From his Melbourne studio, the artist creates mostly wheel-thrown functional ceramic pieces made from local clay.
He has worked with Australian furniture producer Jardan to make an exclusive ceramics line, and supplied custom-designed tableware to restaurants including Melbourne's Grossi Florentino and Ruyi, a contemporary Chinese restaurant with an interior by award-winning design studio Hecker Guthrie.
"More and more, customers, chefs and winemakers are into the story of where food comes from," Davidoff says. "To take all those carefully sourced ingredients and throw them onto a mass-produced white plate from overseas - it just doesn't make sense."
Life could have been quite different for the young father of two: he studied engineering and commerce but found himself drawn to the creative industries after a stint of globetrotting.
"I have a good friend who is a wood-fired potter in the Snowy Mountains in NSW. When I got back to Australia I stayed with him to check out his studio. Eventually I started making a bit."
Davidoff says his indirect path to ceramics via engineering was the result of nerves - it takes guts to follow solely creative pursuits. But now we supplies works to Australian retailer and a London store while also maintaining a practice as a visual artist.
Interest in the handmade is becoming more mainstream, he says. "It is now a normal thing to have a nice handmade thing on your table. I wasn't around in the 1970s, but handmade used to mean a crappy rough brown mug. Now people perceive it as a beautiful slick object that is obviously handmade but is a really stunning and fine thing to hold."
Darren Baum, Baum Cycles, Geelong
Baum Cycles is proof that it's not just artists who are benefiting from an increased interest in bespoke products. A handcrafted bike from the Victorian company is a dream acquisition for passionate bike riders not only in Australia, but internationally. People fly from all over the world to Baum's Geelong factory. As one rider told us: "They're bikes you'd go into battle for."
Baum makes about 150 customised bikes a year and boasts some impressive clientele. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans are Baum bike owners.
Buying a customised bike is similar to ordering a bespoke wedding dress - the studio only deals directly with customers and the discussion process can take hours.
While bespoke craftsmanship is at the core of the business, engineering is what motivates design: performance, not aesthetics, is the driving force. Darren Baum is a former aeronautical engineer and has been building bike since he was a teenager and aspiring competitive bike rider.
"Number one for us is how you fit the bike," he says. They next look at handling, compliancy and use. "If you ride out in country Victoria on very rough roads you want a more compliant bike. Whereas if you are going to be riding up and down a perfect road in Singapore it can be stiffer."
This investigative process gives the engineers an idea weight, which drives material and component selection. All stages of manufacturing - from putting the spokes in, to machining and painting the frame - are done in-house. Clients can customise their bike's aesthetic, from frame colour to the handlebar material, stitching and perforations.
In an era where most people are removed from the making process, being able to go to the factory and see how the bike is made is undoubtedly an attraction. "It is something that has been lost in Australia," Baum says. "Not everyone knows how things are made. For an engineering type person, they love the process. For an artistic type, they want to see where we do the painting and colour."
A Baum bike doesn't come cheap, starting at about $7000 and often hitting the $15,000 mark. But these are bikes made to last.
Like his customers, Baum is passionate about longevity. "I hate obsolescence. I always prefer to buy something that is crafted and meets my needs. I don't chase trends. I buy quality."
Madeline Prowd, Glassblower, Adelaide
Emerging glassmaker Madeline Prowd is one of a number of Australian women gaining recognition for their practice. Originally from Canberra, Prowd is now based at Adelaide's internationally renowned centre for craft practitioners, the JamFactory.
"I focus on production ware and functional items. I utilise a lot of traditional practices in my work, drawing from Italian techniques that have been used for hundreds of years but applying them in a modern context.
It's important for my work to be functional. I think it speaks back to the tradition of the material. I like producing things that people can actually use. It makes it all feel worthwhile.
I try to keep the handmade element otherwise I don't see that there is a really any point. There is still a lot that machines can't do, so I try and maintain those things: I pre-blow all my products, for example - nothing goes into moulds. Then the different elements, whether it is a colour-patterning technique or a specific curve on the lip, it all relates back to the handmade.
I am strongly influenced by the inherent beauty of glass. I love the material and the endless possibilities. The creation is a team sport - you can't do it alone, so it has a really good community involved.
One of my biggest challenges is that I'm left-handed and glassblowing is completely right-handed. That was a slight adjustment. But because I haven't done it any other way it now feels natural."
Joanna Fowles, textile artist, Sydney
These days, it's enough to buy handmade pieces - more people want to make their own. Stylist Megan Morton's The School is one of the more glamorous locations for Sydney's non-artists and craftspeople to tap into the growing impulse to get their hands dirty.
One of The School's most popular classes is shibori textile printing presented by Joanna Fowles. The workshops often sell out months in advance, and Fowles says there is no typical attendee. "We have nurses, dentists, graphic designers - people who haven't done anything creative before but want to do something with their hands."
Part of the attraction of the traditional Japanese art form - apart from its rather striking indigo and white aesthetic - is its accessibility. "It is almost impossible to produce a bad result," Fowles says. "Every textile comes out beautifully because you have this contrast of blue and white and patterns. Also, I teach people to embrace mistakes. The flaws are part of the pieces."
She describes her practice as a 'cross process' as it combines the handmade and the digital - an approach that has gained her an international following. Fowles has supplied textile designs to Louis Vuitton in Paris and collaborated with local labels.
She says she has noticed a shift in the approach to the handmade since she established her first textile business in Australia more than a decade ago.
"People are recognising the value of an authentic product that has a bit more behind it than a long supply chain that is very anonymous."
This story was first published in Virgin Voyeur magazine, March 2015. Download a PDF of the story here.