Global Observer

Ingenuity drives a handcraft renaissance

Ingenuity drives a handcraft renaissance

Posting in Design

BERLIN -- The popularity of handcrafts in Berlin sees the emergence of innovative craftsmanship.

BERLIN -- When Ukrainian-born artist Elya Yalonetski became interested in a new technique for her ceramic figures, she faced one big problem: A professional printer, which would be the most logical way to achieve the technique, was unaffordable. But then she and her partner Arseny Vinogradov -- a former IT administrator -- had an idea.

Vinogradov would have to disassemble their old laser printer and disable its heater, plus a special toner containing iron would have to be used to enable the proper chemical reaction -- but soon, Yalonetski was screen-printing onto clay surfaces in her very own studio.

The clever adaptation is one of many the couple has made in their move with three children from the artist colony Abramsevo near Moscow to Berlin four years ago. Yalonetski also began selling her ceramic figures on the handmade goods platform Etsy -- where a steady stream of attention from as far away as the U.S. and Japan grew into a third of her sales, with purchases at galleries accounting for the rest.

As handcrafts enjoy increasing popularity on and offline, ever fewer artists and designers are turning to industry for mass production due to rising costs and a shrinking selection of vendors. The shift has seen an increasing number of artists and designers take the creation process into their own hands -- injecting the western world's handcraft renaissance with a healthy dose of innovative craftsmanship.

The growing popularity of handmade goods is reflected in numbers from Berlin's Chamber of Handcrafts, which reported a 5.7 percent increase in new small handcraft businesses during 2011. This was one year after U.S.-based Etsy opened its first office abroad -- in Berlin -- and four years after German handmade platform DaWanda came onto the scene in Europe. Offline handcraft marketplaces such as Berlin's Voodoo Market have also emerged as an answer to the growing demand for designer handcrafts -- higher-quality handmade goods that also cost more. The market went from 10 designers and 50 visitors in 2010 to 60 designers and 1,300 visitors in 2013, according to co-founder Maria Ziemann.

"What's special about Germany is that German Etsy sellers tend to produce and sell high-quality products," Kati Krause, Etsy Germany's Creative Communication Manager, told SmartPlanet.

"In fact, within Europe, German sellers have some of the highest-value orders on average."

Elya Yalonetski, who speaks Russian, Hebrew and some Ukranian, explains through her partner how adaptation of the old to the new -- and the new to the old -- on a small budget is an intrinsic part of life where she comes from. "In Russia, it's not as easy to pop over to the store and pick up stencils, molds or stamps there," Yalonetski says. "So you find yourself improvising with tools in order to be creative with traditional techniques."

Yalonetski -- a graduate of Abramsevo's art school -- has spent her life interpreting such techniques, a fact apparent in the quality of her craft. In a rooftop nook at the rear of their apartment, her studio contains rows upon rows of whimsical, historically inspired ceramic figures -- both finished and unfinished, waiting patiently for the next coat of glaze, exhibition or Etsy buyer. Strung up or situated regally upon their worktable-birthplace, the characters never seem to feign the quiet contentment with which Yalonetski originally fashioned them.

Matthew Stinchcomb, European Head of Etsy, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper he thinks there's more to the handmade community than just a mundane hobby: "It's a political movement against interchangeable mass-production."

But the Guardian describes the phenomenon as the rise of the "designer-maker" -- frequently fetishized by brand marketing departments or the media, this passionate group of designers has learned to embrace the role of "craftsperson".

"It's like the slow food movement –- but it is also a necessity. Who else is going to make their work?" writes Justin McGuirk.

"[Before the recession] product and furniture designers … aspired to get their work mass-manufactured, [but] many have now given up on the idea. Once that bubble [of getting your work into galleries] had burst, the market replaced the notion of the designer as artist with a humbler proposition, the designer as craftsman."

Dorothee Brodrück -- who came to study at Berlin's University of the Arts more than a decade ago -- is one half of Dieter & Thomas, a producer of designer bags recognizable by their 3D-leather embossing technique -- and for their head-turning motif of choice -- handguns.

"We have other options like handcuffs, sunglasses or scissors -- but those kind of miss the joke," Brodrück says.

She and her childhood friend Karoline Lobeck started making the bags back in 2009, but a viable product only came about a year later. Their technique -- which they maintain is secret -- emerged from a class on material processing for their costume design study. Today, the bags can go for as much as 400 Euros each, with the option for customization. Brodrück and Lobeck both have other jobs -- costume design and university-level instruction, respectively -- but say it all keeps them on their creative toes.

"The situation is ideal: We can give Dieter & Thomas enough time and attention to work the leather and sew the bags by hand, but still have other creative work on the other side," Brodrück says.

Meanwhile, Elya Yalonetski continues her labor of love, occasionally taking on interns to pay her knowledge of ceramic art forward, or supporting her three children in their various artistic endeavors.

"Art school for children in Russian is quite different than in Germany," her partner Vinogradov says. "In Germany, the kids have little structure, whereas in Russia you learn technique from the beginning, and you never stop learning it."

PHOTOS: Elya Yalonetski / Arseny Vinogradov / Daniel Wetzel / Dieter & Thomas

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure