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.

12 thoughts on “A brief history of craft in Australia”

  1. I am looking for a copy of the catalogue of the exhibition World Craft Council 1970: new Zealand Asian Exhibition. The collection from Australia in this exhibition was the very first exhibition of the newly created Craft Association Australia Queensland in late 1970. We are celebrating 50 years of Craft Queensland next year and l am putting together an exhibition celebrating those 50 yrs

  2. My mother Marea Gazzard was World President based in New York City.
    I recall, as a child her going to WCC Conferences in ealy sixties.
    I have some posters of Bogota Columbia and Peru, Mexico.
    Late in her life I said it wad a CIA front, just joking, and she demured.

    1. I have met Marea Gazzard in Sydney, when I came to Australia, 5th Jan 1970. She help me settle in Sydney and I am still live here in Australia. I was metal crafts man and she was my saviour.

    2. Hi Nick, Marea was one of my referees for my successful Crafts Board Australia Council application in 1977. It has always meant so much to me. In 2016 I re established as a Studio Potter in Tasmania after a 20 year history of studio practice and art education plus a changed career of a further 20 years in Project Management/Place Management. I have continued to be active in Arts & Cultural organisations to give back following that original grant. Marea’s contribution to World Crafts Council was and is greatly appreciated. Bronwyn Clarke Ceramics – Deep Bay, Huon Valley, Tasmania

  3. We have a small box (H11cm W6cm H7cm domed). It is painted with what appears to be early colonial scenes in what you would call a naive style. It is obviously old and has been in the family’s possession for at least 80 years. The inner lid has a date of 1792.
    Where could I get this examined to find if genuine?
    As it has been handled over the years the exterior is in need of cleaning and probably need the services of a professional conservator. Where could we find a suitable conservator

  4. What can you tell me about the Caneries in Melbourne Victoria in the 1950”s or 1960”s or earlier
    I believe they taught weaving and crafts

  5. We are a family of makers in South Australia. A grandmother -who was a maker of textiles and natural wool items , I myself an artist, , one daughter who is a fine picture framer and another daughter Laura who is a fine craftsperson with a career of 30 years in a lampshades business.

    Laura is now honing her experience towards providing contemporary interior architectural designers with hand made lighting individual shade making. http://www.amorelampshades.com

    She is also thinking about training other. I write about her and ask if she would she be of interest to World Crafts Council in Australia.

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