At indie craft fair, a common thread

Crafting community wrestles with a creeping wave of conformity

Kate Funk cat card

Kate Funk cat card (November 30, 2012)

If you're planning to attend a holiday arts and crafts show sometime in the next few weeks — say, for instance, the massive, annual Renegade Craft Fair Holiday Market at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse in Noble Square, which wraps up Sunday — please allow me a moment to play personal shopper:

The Renegade Craft Fair, one of several popular Renegade Fairs held throughout the country (organized from Renegade's Wicker Park headquarters), promises 250 artists selling thousands of handcrafted and theoretically one-of-a-kind items made in home studios and at kitchen tables — belts, plush hot dogs, terrariums, recipe boxes, shadow puppets, jars of honey, containers of salt, baby bibs, pillows, guitar straps, wildlife prints, stationery, buttons, scarves, ceramics, illustrations of mallards wearing business attire. The ugly truth, however, is this: Every Chicago indie holiday craft show sells exactly five things.

•No. 1: Midwest Pride things (posters reading "Midwest is Best," underwear printed with the Chicago flag)

•No. 2: Anthropomorphic food things (plush tacos with arms, poster prints of hot dogs riding bicycles)

•No. 3: Artisan soaps (cinnamon blossom, Tuscan oatmeal)

•No. 4: Jewelry made of fabric and bottle caps (shaped into arrows and kodiak bears and triangles)

•No. 5: Things (posters, cups, T-shirts, stuffed toys, yo-yos) printed with an image of an owl, a deer or a narwhal (or, two narwhals knitting a homemade scarf printed with a Chicago flag or anthropomorphic taco)

Disclaimer: I realize this characterization paints the Midwest indie holiday craft sensibility in a crassly broad light. I also realize this unfairly short-changes hundreds of artists, designers and owlcentric imagineers, many of whom craft whimsical wonders I could never pull off. However, disclaimer to my disclaimer: As a regular craft-fairgoer, I also feel that, even though they boast hundreds of thoughtful, talented artisans who answer only to their own imaginations, the holiday craft fair has become a lesson in sameness, a reminder that somewhat unintended conformity develops among even the most independent groups of artists.

Disclaimer to my disclaimer to the disclaimer: I will attend as many holiday craft fairs as possible anyway.

Last year at the Renegade holiday show, I bought a Pac-Man cutting board. It's great.

"I like them all too," said designer Donovan Beeson, co-owner of 16 Sparrows, a Chicago greeting card and stationery company (and regular presence at Chicago craft fairs), "but I also think what we're wrestling with are issues of art meeting industry. That's a part of what's going on. Artists look at what other people sell a lot of, of course, then they do that.

"The indie crafting community jokes about this too. We're not blind to our ironies. For awhile the thing was deer — everything had a deer on it. Then it was owls. And now? I haven't seen a fawn in years because maybe fawns hit a saturation point. But I don't think we've hit the saturation point in hedgehogs yet. I buy anything with a hedgehog on it. I also want to say the thing now is narwhals, though I can't be sure. I just drew a narwhal myself! Maybe the collective unconscious is saying 'narwhals'?"

Maybe.

One of the best ways of tracking art trends within the crafting community is monitoring Etsy, the leading online marketplace for artisan crafts, and Etsy, at the moment, lists a mere 1,655 narwhal items. Which is nothing compared with the 47,081 deercentric items listed. Or the, um, 170,459 owl-related items for sale.

"Narwhals are, like, three years ago," said Madelon Juliano. She's the director of creative endeavors for Renegade Craft Fair. She knows her narwhals. She's part of the three-person team that screens every artist application for every booth at every Renegade Craft Fair — the first of which was held in Wicker Park in 2003, followed by Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, and, recently, for the first time, London.

She told me "the new owl is the bear." Also, as trends go, look for the "boy scout aesthetic" this year. Also, "a rustic, leathery, wood-worked sensibility." When I mentioned the now-classic "Portlandia" skit in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, satirizing the craft scene, implore artists to "Put a bird on it!" — to spruce up that tote bag or poster with a cute bird — I could hear eyes rolling on the other end of the phone.

"I think I've become more sick of people saying, 'Put a bird on it' than seeing birds on stuff," she said.

Debbie Stoller, editor-in-chief of Bust magazine — a New York-based pop culture magazine for women that's another gathering point for crafters (they've been hosting craft fairs in New York since 2006) — is also sick of the relentless "Portlandia"-centric view of the craft world. She said general motifs are "indie culture signifiers." Also, mason jars are huge — "Where does that come from? I should know, but I don't." Also, later, she sent me an email saying she asked her staff what's hot in crafting and they said: terrariums, foxes, giant letters, "old-timey arrows." But, she added, "I don't agree with you that all this stuff looks like it could be coming out of one warehouse. There is certainly more creativity at a craft show than at a mall."

Fair enough, and yet the success of the crafting community in the past decade has resulted in a "handmade" design aesthetic worming its way into stores such as Target and Anthropologie. It's getting harder to tell where art in a craft show ends and art in a department store begins. Last year, a Chicago crafter made headlines for accusing Urban Outfitters of stealing her idea for state-shaped pendants; Urban Outfitters, which has never had a great reputation within the crafting community, denied the accusation and countered that state-shaped pendants were hardly unique in crafting, anyway. Which is cynical but true. Even Etsy, which was founded seven years ago, now has more than 20 million members. In early November, the company claimed member sales of $700 million so far this year (more than the $525 million collected in all of 2011).

Frankly that sounds more mall-like than the quiet languor found in your average waning suburban mall.

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