A brief history of craft in Australia

Indigenous Australians have a rich craft culture that is closely linked to both ceremonial ritual and daily life. In remote regions, there are Art Centres that promote indigenous craft through workshops, product development and exhibitions. Baskets are highly prized and collected in major state institutions.

At the beginning of the European colony, crafts were particularly humble due to lack of familiar materials and skills. The gold rushes in Victoria and Western Australia brought many artisans from northern Europe who helped establish workshops that manufactured traditional crafts such as silverware.

The Federation of the colony in 1900 created much impetus for nationalist craft as the white settlers chose to celebrate their advancement as a nation. In the early 20th century, a number of craftspersons were influenced by the Arts & Craft Movement and sought inspiration from Victorian and Edwardian English styles.

In the 1950s, Australia like many other Anglo cultures was heavily influenced by US consumerism, particularly new labour-saving devices such as washing machines and entertainments like television. This was mollified in the 1960s with the popularity of Scandinavian modernism. The crafts revival flourished in the 1970s and craft councils were established in all the states. Craft activity was strongly supported by the newly established Australia Council. In textiles, there was much experimentation with free-form and natural fibres. Influenced by Japanese pottery, ceramics explored use of local clays and timbers. There was a focus on jewellery as an art form, expressing individual ideas and experiences in dialogue with the German scene. Glass blowing as an art form was introduced, with strong US influences. And furniture design started to explore the use of indigenous timbers, particularly the Tasmania Huon Pine.

By the 1980s, craft practice began to become more professionalised. New publications, galleries and international touring exhibitions were produced. There was a relative decline towards the end of the 20th century, as technology was seen as the future of the new millennium. But the DIY movement revived a popular interested in crafts during the 21st century. One of its particular themes in Australia has been ‘poor craft’, involving a return to basics of creative making through the use of found materials. In the meantime, the crafts councils became more corporate in orientation, exploring new opportunities particularly in design.

Craft in Australia today can be seen as a component of design, a form of visual art and a political movement. While there are many practitioners at both the professional and hobbyist level, it would be very rare to find anyone who identified as an artisan in the traditional sense of a person who inherits a skill that be offered as a service to others. Instead, individuals are carving out personal careers in their chosen craft medium, presenting their work in galleries for audiences to enjoy, supplying the many outlets for craft and design, and working with communities in realising their cultural potential. There are increasing collaborations involving Indigenous Australia and the Asia Pacific region.

The key reference on craft in Australia is: Grace Cochrane The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1992

For further history, visit the Australian government website.

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