Isabel Fernández del Moral is a ceramic conservator at the Design Museum of Barcelona. She recently curated the exhibition “Tiles and crafts. Contemporary artisan proposals”, co-produced by the Design Museum and the Centre d’Artesania Catalunya. The show presents a selection of tiles from trades of the 17th to the 19th centuries and contrasts them with various objects of outstanding contemporary creatives that use artisan techniques.
We speak with her to learn how the world of contemporary design, art and crafts have reviewed some of the old trades techniques.
The exhibition presents 13 tiles that reproduce the most common trades in Catalonia between the 17th and 19th centuries. How were the trades like back then?
The knowledge to produce clay objects or vegetable fibers exists from the Neolithic, but it is from the middle ages that the union system becomes organized. In Europe, with the rise of trade, these artisan crafts began to gain strength. The urban classes from the 14th century required some services which needed specialized labor. In this way, artisans are grouped together because they have common interests and end up playing an important role in society. In urban settings, and a clear example is Barcelona, they end up being representatives of the city with the Consell de Cent. The stronger a guild was, the more influence it had on the city government. All this ends with industrialization: the union and artisanal system become small workshops compared to the great industry and factories.
Two centuries later, how have contemporary artists and creatives preserved them?
I don't think crafts have completely disappeared. Small workshops have continued to do more personalized things, working in their shops and providing this service. Now it is being given a value again.
Can we talk about survival of artisan techniques in the production of objects?
Absolutely. All authors present in the exhibition are an example. They have an absolute knowledge of the materials and techniques necessary to develop the product.
Would you say they are the new masters of the trade?
Yes, I would say that. All the designers, craftsmen and artists in the exhibition are experts in their trade. The selection of pieces was made with this criteria: a tile that represents a current profession, recognized designers who use artisan techniques to materialize their creations and artisans with the necessary baggage to respond to the new utilitarian, aesthetic and ethical needs of society.
How are crafts deriving from signature arts?
In the 19th century, with the strong industrialization, a current arises that is opposed to this serial production and that goes looking for the unique object, with added value. It is then that the author's arts begin to develop. Today there are many artists with a great knowledge of the subject and technique, and they apply it to their creative work; not only as a support to create, but actually using the same material and the result as a work of art. There is a lot of connection between crafts and the art world.
How are crafts being transformed to assume values such as sustainability and proximity?
Everyday needs have been solved for a long time with other materials, but now, for example, we are trying to eliminate plastic, and it makes us search for those materials that were used before, more natural, recyclable and sustainable. The return to crafts as a response to the most daily needs is already a trend but a minority. It is true that there are many aware people, but we also have to be realistic: there is not yet a system of artisanal production that responds to all demand, nor to costs available to everyone.
What makes these tiles some of the best in Europe?
These so-called arts and crafts tiles represented not only artisan crafts, but also popular or religious festivals, elements of nature or characters and scenes from everyday life such as hunting, soldiers, ships, bestiary, etc. That made them very popular. There are great productions in the rest of Europe, as in the Netherlands, but in Catalonia there was a time when this type of tile became very fashionable. Due to their variety and popularity we could say that they are among the best that exist.