A Theory of Craft

A Theory of Craft

Howard Risatti’s “A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression” attempts to unearth the full meaning of Craft.

In his chapter entitled, “Practical-Functional  Arts and the Uniqueness of Craft“, Risatti first tries to define the word Craft, as he believes there has been and continues to be a lot of confusion surrounding the term.

The Author refers to R.G. Collingwood’s “The Principles of Art“, and summarises Collingwood’s view that:

“If work is inventive, creative, it is art; if not, he concludes it must be a work of Craft.”

Risatti concludes (pp13) that based on this line of thinking, that according to Collingwood, Craft is “failed attempts at art” or “repetitive, rote work.”

It is clear that Risatti does not accept this as an explanation of Craft, and criticises Collingwood’s view as simplistic.  He argues that Collingwood should have distinguished between Craft as a family of objects (weave, ceramics, etc.) and also Craft as a process.

He also criticises Collingwood’s view that Craft required a pre-plan and forethought, but “Art Proper” happened as a burst of “creative imagination” with the Artist not knowing what the outcome would be until the piece was complete.  Risatti argues that Rembrandt of course knew what he was painting long before the piece was finished.

As such, Risatti moves away from Collingwood’s definition, as being simply incorrect.

Risatti proposes to use Craft as to stand for specific objects (pots, chairs, etc) but also for the process required in those object’s production.  Craftsmanship, he says, refer to the “skilled activities” with which those objects are created.

According to Risatti, the materials and the technical processes used in making a Craft object have historically been used to define them.  Examples of this include ceramics, glass, fibers, metals and wood.  Teapots constructed from all of the various materials above would be identified by their material instead of their object, which Risatti feels is incorrect.

Technical processes, like materials are also problematic for the same reason as above, according to Risatti.  As examples he uses weaving, quilting and turning to show how that the technical process can also differentiate itself from other Crafts.

Risatti says this categorization of Craft is due to the medieval Guild System and maybe further back to the Roman system of Collegia.

However, Risatti does not ignore the importance of materials or techniques, in fact he openly accepts that they are at the very heart of Craft.  But he believes there is more to explore.

Another term that Risatti explores is “Applied Art”, which he says was introduced in the 19th Century.  It was said to mean “manual labour” instead of mental, or design.  He gives examples where aesthetic elements were stuck on (applied) to machine-made functional objects.  This was driven by commerce so that consumers would buy more of the machine-made goods.

Risatti states that this was questionable and that the objects being decorated were often of poor quality.  He continues to say that the bashing that ornament and decoration received later in the 20th century, from authors like Loos, may be a result of this abundant and dishonest use of decoration.

“To a great extent, the rejection of ornament and decoration in the twentieth century was a reaction to the belief that aesthetic qualities could simply be ‘pasted’ onto an object.” (pp 19)

When discussing the role of function within Craft, Risatti argues that there are many long-running preconceptions.  One of the requirements for an object to be termed Art, according to Fine Arts, is that is must have no function.  Ignoring or denying the functional side of a Craft object, just so it can be labelled as Fine Art, is poor practise.

“Dismissing Craft’s functional dimension from discussion is to dismiss what I see as the normative ground upon which Craft originated.” (pp 20)

Here we can see that Risatti places function at the very foundation and origin of Craft objects.

Risatti states that a Craft object has an intricate makeup between function, materials, technique, workmanship, craftsmanship as well as some artistic meaning.  He states that the complexities between these elements forms a unique relationship that is not found in the Fine Art field.  As such, he suggests that Craft’s function should not be ignored or denied, but instead celebrated as it is key to understanding the meaning of Crafts.

Risatti then suggests looking at Crafts in regards to their “usefulness” and their “desirableness” as a means of classifying them.  Risatti is quick to point out that usefulness and function are not always the same thing as someone can always find many different uses for an object.  The example given by Risatti is that a ceramic cup which was crafted with the intended function of acting as a container for liquid, can be put to use as a paperweight.

However, Risatti decides that both usefulness and desirableness are poor starting points for setting out to classify Crafts and instead decides on “purpose” as his point of origin for the discussion.  On the definition of purpose, the author states it is (pp 25):

“…in the general sense of an end or aim to be achieved. All man-made objects…must have a purpose for someone to spend time and energy to make them.”

Risatti argues that by considering a man-made object’s purpose allows us to differ between an object’s use and its usefulness.  This allows us to consider when, for example, the ceramic cup as a paperweight, is fulfilling its original purpose through its intended function or not.

With purpose defined, Risatti introduces the concept of “Applied Objects” which he defines as:

“those whose purpose is to fulfill practical as opposed to theoretical, abstract, or imaginary aims; they are actual objects, instruments if you like, made to carry out or perform some practical, physical function.” (pp25) 

Risatti also suggests a particular sequence that the designer should consider:

  1. Recognise the purpose or finalise the concept as an end or aim.
  2. Make the physical object that is capable of carrying out a physical “operation” which realises that purpose.  This “operation” will be designated the object’s function.

The Author’s point here is that “purpose initiates function, and that function then initiates object, with object being the physical solution to the problem posed by purpose.” (pp 25)

Next, Risatti discusses in his chapter entitled “Taxonomy Of Craft Based On Applied Function“, ways to categorise Crafts.  He discussed the previous ways of grouping crafts by their materials, or their techniques, or in some cases both material and technique (like smithing).  Risatti states that this method of organising Craft is flawed.  He believes that function is an important feature of Craft and should be the starting point for categorisation.

Risatti proposes three categories, based on an object’s applied functions.

These categories are:

  1. Container – bowls, jugs, vases, etc.
  2. Cover – clothing, quilts, etc.
  3. Support – beds, chairs, sofas, etc.

Risatti states that for something to be classified as a Craft, it must meet the requirement of “objecthood” (a self-sufficient identity not reliant on another object).  As such, he rules out graphic design, interior design, illustration and typography as being Crafts.

Risatti accepts that there are also other areas that he struggles to classify, or categorise.  In particular Jewelry is something that he finds difficult to define.  He believes that Jewelry does not contain, in itself, its own function but instead is reliant on the body that it is worn.  However, he suggests a new category for Jewelry, that of Adornment and Decoration, which he says would exist somewhere between Craft and Fine Art and would not be, in the strictest sense, a pure Craft category.  Risatti continues then to say that all of the previous Craft objects mentioned (e.g. Containers, etc.) can be Adorned or Decorated.

Adornment and Decoration are then discussed by Risatti in more detail.  He attempts to find the difference between “decorating” and “being decorated.”

Risatti suggests that by applying decoration to an object, the ornament becomes one with the thing that it is decorating.  Tattoos and body-painting are also classified by Risatti as being “surface decoration” and not Craft. Again, the concept of “Objecthood” and self-sufficiency is what Risatti uses to make this decision.

Risatti concludes that an “important way decoration differs from Craft objects is that it does not have a physical function.
For Risatti, Adornment and Decoration are simply “surface treatments” and as such can’t give an object a “physical function” which, according to him, is a requirement to be classified as a Craft (pp 36).

Risatti then moves his discussion to origins of Craft, which he puts at somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago (Upper Paleolithic Age). Risatti reiterates that the early baskets from this period owe their origin to natural objects.  Inspiration for containers and covers came from nature’s elements, shapes and forms such bird’s nests (weaving), and coconuts ( containers).

Risatti says that even though these objects existed naturally in mankind’s environment at that time, there was still a need for an “abstract thought” by man, to mimic nature’s method.

“Creation of a Craft object cannot occur without a conscious conceptualisation of the relationship between necessity, purpose, function, form, material and technique.” (pp 51)

Lastly, Risatti believes that the Craft objects of today are symbolic of our ancestor’s awakening consciousness and their mimicking nature.  This inspiration coming from nature and its elements are still evident in the shapes and forms of today’s containers, supporters and Crafts in general.


I found Risatti’s exploration of Craft enjoyable and insightful.

It is clear that Risatti holds Craft in a high regard, and he sets out to dispel some of the outdated definitions, that for example, Craft is “failed attempts at art.”

I found Risatti’s discussion surrounding the importance of the materials, and the technical precision to be in keeping with my thoughts on Craft, and so I agreed with most of this.

His discussion surrounding the rejection of Ornamentation was of particular relevance to my research as he helps to clarify what may have led to Loos’ negative attitude towards Ornamentation.  Specifically, that in the run-up to Loos’ era all manner of man-made, mass-produced functional objects were having Adornment and Ornament added to them solely for the purpose of pleasing consumers.  It is now a little bit clearer why Loos and his fellow Modernists were so quick to vilify Ornamentation as being unnecessary, and dishonest.

Risatti’s attempts at a function-based taxonomy for Craft is an interesting approach. I’m still not sure if I totally agree with it, but will give it more thought.  It certainly made me think more about Craft objects, specifically the concept of considering the Purpose which then leads to the creation of the Form, the physical thing, that can then can perform the intended function.

I disagree with Risatti’s discussion around Adornment and Decoration as he calls it simply “surface decoration” and regardless of what medium (mosaic, stained glass, etc.) it is all non-functional and therefore not Craft.

Risatti’s thoughts on Jewelry are also something I am still thinking over.  His point, much like Adornment, Decoration and Ornamentation, that Jewelry is not a Craft object because it relies on something else, some thing which it must hang off, or adorn.  As I thought about this, I found that I disagreed with Risatti.  He has stated that to create a Craft object requires a lot of thought and technical skill, both of which I would argue are present in Jewelry.  Where our opinions differ, is that I believe Jewelry can be a Craft piece, enjoyed by observing it, not necessarily on someone’s body but hanging on display.

Lastly, I would suggest that although Risatti explored the physiological and touched on the psychological dimensions of Craft he did not explore or consider the Emotional dimension of Craft which I believe is quite important.


Risatti, H. (2007). A Theory of Craft. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Google Books Link: here.