Monday, February 1, 2010

Home as Studio and Canvas - A Defense of Martha

Guest Blogger: 
Katie Hawkey Swindler
Organizer of Swap-O-Rama-Rama Chicago

October 15-17 the American Craft Council welcomed the growing community of "indie-crafters" and "DIYers" to their workshop: Creating a New Craft Culture. As an avid DIY-girl and organizer of the annual, indie-craft inspired Swap-O-Rama-Rama Chicago, I immediately planned to attend this event.

Rounding out a program of fairly academic presentations on modern American crafts, were a few brave speakers who delved into the emerging indie-craft movement and quickly sparked heated discourse about standards of quality, new online market places, and generational divides. The combination of “old-school” and “new wave” crafters was a veritable powder keg.

Throughout the conference there were two words that – once uttered – turned a room of hippies, hipsters, artists and scholars into two packs of snarling wolves – “Martha Stewart”. 

Martha Stewart - Inspiring DIY or Evil CEO?

Some attendees vocally despised Martha – they saw her as relegating "craft" to low-brow, homemaker-hobbies. Many of these craftsmen had spent their lives making "Craft" synonymous with "Art".  As one woman put it,

    “She has no place in a legitimate discussion of Craft. End of story.” 

But the indie-crafters defended Martha, citing her as an empowering "maker" who started them on the path to their own home-based craft businesses. I overheard a woman mutter behind me,

    “Martha Stewart is a gate-way drug." 

I tried to hear both sides of the argument, but I must admit, my personal love for Martha Stewart Living, Trading Spaces and This Old House made me biased. I've long been inspired by these TV shows because they treat the home as both studio and blank canvas. They tell their viewers that they deserve to be surrounded by art, beauty and handmade items to which they can share an emotional and physical connection.  One might even argue (and I certainly have) these programs teach their audience to view their home and their belongings through a craftsman’s eyes:  seeing the hidden potential in the materials that surround them. 

The programs educate and encourage viewers to do-it-yourself. Take risks, and “make” – in their living spaces, using found objects and everyday materials. Every room of the home becomes a studio and every thing in the home; a potential craft.

A Door as a Headboard

From Trading Spaces I learned to see that a door taken off it’s hinges could be a headboard. From Martha Stewart Living I learned that an unused vase could be smashed and grouted to create a mosaic table top and enjoyed every day. From This Old House I learned to appreciate the handcrafted furniture in my home, and how to repair these heirlooms instead of replacing them with something cheap and mass-produced. 

All of these programs (at least before they started their own line of products), taught us to be “creators not consumers.”  This inspiring phrase, taken from Swap-O-Rama-Rama, is a central tenant of the DIY ethos.

When you learn to see like a craftsman, then every screw, spork and sofa in your studio has the potential to become the medium for your art. How many of us, while deep in the creative process have glanced up for inspiration and seen before us ”the perfect thing“?  That piece or item immediately snatched off the shelf (or off the floor, or out the garbage) – and incorporated as the pièce de résistance. Then your home has become your studio and, at the same time, your home becomes a work of art.

I’m not saying that someone’s artistic education should begin and end on HGTV, but I would say that these shows have given permission to the craft-curious to try their hand at “making”.  They have helped expand the idea of where and when “making” can take place and thereby have made the studio accessible. 

Removing our judgments – and definitions – opens our minds to be creators. If we say “This is a vase” - than it can never be a mosaic table top. And if we limit “what is a studio?” then we might miss a world of art.

Katie Hawkey Swindler is a maker, marketer and craft-enabler.   Her life-long loveafair with Chicago has made her an evangelist of audience development for Chicago theatre, dance, art and the emerging indie-craft movement.  She is inspired everyday by the oh-so-Midwestern practicality of the indie-crafting community who not only tells everyone to “Do It Yourself” but empowers them with shared knowledge, tools, encouragement and marketplaces. 

Images from top to bottom
Swap-O-Rama-Rama Promotes the DIY Ethos, design by Kevin Reed, Vin designs
Martha Stewart - Inspiring DIY or Evil CEO?, design by Kevin Reed, Vin designs
A Door as a headboard, photo from Apartment Therapy


  1. Think I'm wrong about Martha? I'd love to hear it! I'll try to respond if anyone cares to comment. Love conversations about this topic!

    -Katie Hawkey Swindler

  2. Great and interesting points. For those working in the medium of "craft" oriented materials, the continuous argument of craft vs. art debate will always exist. The point of shows, magazines and other public media exposing the everyman to aesthetic concerns is well intentioned, but it is interesting how a certain aesthetic is represented by Martha and her followers. It would be interesting to see a Latina Martha and her interpretation of the perfect interior setting. It is also surprising to hear people say, "I saw that on Martha's show or in her magazine, but I could never do that." So, despite the attempt to get people to do-it-yourself, I wonder how many people actually jump off that cliff to become a DIY'er.