It was a rainy day in April at Eleven Madison Park, and we were attending the fourth annual American Craft Council (ACC) Rare Craft Fellowship Award ceremony. Since 1970, ACC has been awarding significant contributors to the field of traditional and rare craft for their dedication. In 2015, it brought in the author and television producer Anthony Bourdain as a judge. As an integral player, alongside ACC and The Balvenie’s Malt Master, David Stewart, he is responsible for helping choose, from a wide spectrum, people who make truly beautiful things by hand. Bourdain has featured a handful of them in “Raw Craft,” his online short film series that attracted over 2.6 million viewers in the first season. Since 2013, ACC has also partnered with The Balvenie Single Malt Whiskey to recognize a handful of fellowship nominees with over $100,000 for their contributions.
After courses from Chef Daniel Humm, whiskey from Balvenie, and words from the craftspeople themselves, we celebrated this year’s winners, Martin and Erik Demaine—a father-and-son duo from Massachusetts that create artful computational origami. As well as receiving a $10,000 endowment award, the Demaines will embark on a two-week trip to Scotland, indulging in an apprenticeship at The Balvenie Distillery, to learn the brand’s world-renowned craft.
Just afterward, we sat down with Bourdain to discuss the obsession with craft, and the art of making beautiful things.
WHITEWALL: Why were you interested in judging the ACC awards in association with Balvenie last year?
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: I have an evangelical nature about me. I’m the sort of person that if I read a book that I really love, I’ll want to kind of hunt down all my friends and walk into their apartments and force them to read the book. This kind of allows me the opportunity to do that. I get to sort of choose people that I think are doing cool things, making short films celebrating these, and additional, craftsman. I’ll be looking for others for future awards, and I’ll be learning a lot about whiskey. It’s a subject I don’t know much about, but I’m learning.
WW: And these crafts are all created by hand?
AB: By hand. Foolish, romantic, crazy, but always beautiful things with integrity that few others have chosen to do—or certainly to do as well. What’s great is that often a lot of people won’t recognize the difference between something that’s really good and truly great. It’s nice that people care enough to persevere in the face of overwhelming evidence that what they’re doing is foolish.
WW: Tell us a little bit more about “Raw Craft,” your online film series that documents and celebrates some of America’s most talented craftspeople.
AB: It was a preexisting venture, but it sounded like a really good idea when they came to me. I thought right away of Frank Shattuck. I bought a suit from him last year. Unbelievable. Even the stencil inside, the framework—he hand-stitches all of that. So right away, when they talked about artisans and craftspeople, my mind went to him. And to look for more like him.
It’s nice to get to make these really beautiful little short films about people who may or may not have gotten a lot of attention. It’s really amazing to see what people have chosen to do with their lives and how well, and how hard these things that they’ve chosen to do, how physically demanding, and for a lack of a better word, crazy, the venture is.
WW: I’m sure it’s an interesting change of pace from the Travel Channel and CNN.
AB: Well, look. Honestly, I see myself as a part of a creative enterprise. I haven’t had to, really at any point in my career, consider what the market wanted, or what my corporate masters wanted. I’ve been very, very fortunate. When my employers did start to express concern or creative suggestions, I’ve always been able to move someplace else where they’ve given me total freedom, so I’ve had a really enchanted, charmed life in television. I’ve had so much freedom.
WW: You’ve spoken about food being more than just something you put in your mouth for nutrition. Have you ever had that same kind of epiphany while traveling in terms of seeing something unusual and then automatically having a more profound appreciation for that industry?
AB: I’ve seen some nice handmade shoes. George Cleverley Shoes in London are quite nice. And I was just in Kanazawa, Japan, and I was shown these beautiful, beautiful little sake cups and bottles. I was traveling in Japan, and the details were pointed out to me—the difference between really great ceramic work and very good ceramic work. There are some things that when you move from the physical world to the metaphysical world, where you think, “There’s something really going on here beyond a hunk of clay . . .”
WW: Do you personally collect art?
AB: I’m not a collector, probably because I have an addictive personality. I sense in myself that I’d disappear down the rabbit hole if I started collecting any of this stuff, but I admire and respect and yearn to somehow possess or maybe bask in the reflected glory of these people who make, and choose to make, beautiful things.
But I do have a very good relationship with Ralph Steadman. I’ve been lucky enough to get him to do the cover art for my upcoming cookbook. He sent me a lot of beautiful stuff—a lot of prints, some originals. So I have a lot of Ralph Steadman, and I have a Russell Chatham piece as well. To me, in this case, it’s personal. I’m uncomfortable about owning really beautiful, valuable things because, you know, we die. You can’t own art. I’m not owning it for investment purposes. I’m owning it because it makes me happy and it came my way. I value it. But who will love it after I’m gone?
WW: Looking back on your life, and now that you are a father, in terms of art and culture, what do you consider the most important to show your daughter when digesting the world around us?
AB: Well, my dad brought me to the Museum of Modern Art, and he’d being me often. And his delight—in Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock—was absolutely infectious. All of these guys were big. When I was a kid, my dad would say, “Look! Look! It’s a giant cheeseburger!” And I was six years old, but it was awesome to me. That sense of joy and delight that my father took with modern art was something that really made a big difference to me. And so I’ve already brought my daughter. This should be fun for a kid. Exciting. She was on representational stuff until I brought her in, and then she started doing abstract stuff. You know, it’s great. Art is good for you. And absence of art is bad.
This article is published in Whitewall’s winter 2017 Luxury issue.