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Technology Enables Small Artists to Compete for Big Bucks


Artisan Autumn Wiggins is starting a Website called Craft Commons, based on open source philosophy. Instead of computer code, artists and craftspeople would open source their designs.

Artisan Autumn Wiggins is starting a Website called Craft Commons, based on open source philosophy. Instead of computer code, artists and craftspeople would open source their designs.

Individual might be able to make enough of their work to start selling wholesale

The philosophy behind open source software - giving every access to the source code so anyone can adapt the program - is spreading to the real world. It's being applied to art as well as the business of art.

Open source site

To organize volunteers for a craft fair in Ofallon, Illinois, Autumn Wiggins relies on collaborative online resources. Instead of calling or emailing dozens of people to schedule them for volunteer shifts, she sets up a spreadsheet on Google docs and emails everyone the link so they can go online and fill out their schedule themselves.

"And the volunteers are editing the spreadsheet to sign up and I use technology so much to automate things that it's not as much work as people think and I am able to move on to other projects," says Wiggins.

Her next project is a Website called Craft Commons, based on open source philosophy. Instead of computer code, artists and craftspeople would open source their designs. Wiggins expects this to spur creativity and make it possible for multiple artists to work from a single design.

"And so what my aim is with craft commons is to break out of this idea of I designed something and so it belongs to me."

Big plans

That means artists and crafters could take a design by someone else and remix it, tweak it and create their own version of it. But Wiggins has much bigger plans. If a group of artists and crafters could work from a single design and make the same piece of jewelry or article of clothing, Wiggins suggests they could compete for wholesale orders to large retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.

"I think if we work together, maybe we could be in Wal-Mart and actually be creating enough of a buzz that people demand it."

None of this would have been possible 10 years ago. But as the price of specialized equipment has come down, home crafters now have access to tools like laser cutters and fabric printers. That gives them the ability to mass produce their designs. Katie Miller, for instance, works with sheet metal. Katie Miller's sheet metal jewelry designs

Katie Miller's sheet metal jewelry designs

"How we have grown as a business is, anything I can get a jeweler's saw through, I'm gonna try and make jewelry out of," she says.

Miller makes jewelry in the basement of a small boutique in St. Louis. She says it used to take her several hours to cut a single piece of metal into a pair of earrings. But now she can take her design drawings to a small fabricating shop that quickly cuts the pieces for her with a laser cutter.

"The sky is the limit almost on what you can cut now with a laser or water jet," says Miller.

New technologies

She is one of a growing number of artists around the country taking advantage of new technologies. Jean Lee and her partner Dylan Davis are industrial designers in Seattle. Using a computer aided 3-D printer, they designed a ceramic bank shaped like a pig. Industrial designers Jean Lee and Dylan Davis recently started wholesaling their pigs to high-end boutiques where they sell for $60 dollars each.

Industrial designers Jean Lee and Dylan Davis recently started wholesaling their pigs to high-end boutiques where they sell for $60 dollars each.

Lee and Davis make the piggy banks in their garage using a process called slip casting, in which liquid clay is poured into the plaster mold they created.

The couple recently started wholesaling their pigs to high-end boutiques where they sell for $60 dollars each - closer to the price of a piece of art than a child's bank. Lee says they would consider working with other artists in an open source network to sell to retailers.

"I totally support it, if it means that the price doesn't get compromised, or that the effort that it takes will get rewarded," says Lee. "I think that means that Wal-Mart and Target would have to change their value in these products because they would have to appreciate that these products are being made by artisans in the States and it's not just by machines."

Other artists, however, might be willing to work together to mass produce more low cost items. In fact Lee and Davis are already doing this on a small scale. They recently purchased a laser cutter for their workshop and occasionally cut material for other artists in Seattle. They said they would welcome an opportunity to offer this service through an open source system.

Even so, can independent artists who are spread out across the country compete with large manufacturers in places like East Asia where labor is so much cheaper?

"I think it is feasible and what has made it more feasible is technology. Technology interestingly, the way I see it, is almost re-democratizing capitalism," says Clifford Holekamp, senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. "What I think is really neat about creative commons licensing is what we're seeing here is a foothold that the small guy is coming back in and competing with the big guy. There is this sense that somehow in the evolution of our economic life that companies get bigger and bigger and were squeezing out the small guys. But that's the beauty of the free market, with every change new opportunities are uncovered and every giant of industry of the past eventually falls and so maybe this is the start."

Or maybe it's simply another creative use of technology. Holekamp says in the end, it will be up to the market to decide.

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