IN A COUNTRY on the cutting edge of high technology, we still like our pots pinched and our pewter hammered by hand. It's the personal touch that does it, the experts feel.
"Every advance in the industrial era has brought with it an anti-industrial reaction," says Paul J. Smith, head of New York's prestigious American Craft Museum. "In this day of high technology, people want something personal, like crafts."
"I'd rather do all my shopping at craft fairs," says metalworking craftsman Dave Bacharach. "You can talk to the people and learn something about what you're buying. It's like going to a good butcher . . . You're gonna get someone who really knows what he's talking about."
The field itself has grown and spread. Crafts are available in stores, galleries and through mail order catalogues now. Where the field was once fairly homogenized, it's now split into three parts, says Katherine Pearson, editor of Creative Ideas for Living and author of a number of crafts books:
"First, there's good, solid, functional work, where the emphasis is on the love of material and workmanship rather than innovative design." Some master craftsmen put down this category, she says, "but it's the solid base that the whole craft movement grew out of, and ultimately, I think it will last the longest."
A medium category includes "higher-priced giftware -- just-for-fun, trendy things picked up by Bloomingdales and Saks."
And the third category, she says, is "museum-quality work," quality based both on superb workmanship and "originality of design, something that's often refined by the artist over a period of years."
These are the pieces that show up at craft shows with screening judgesand finer galleries, giving rise to a hot debate over craft vs. art -- when does a craft work become a piece of art?
One popular answer centers around functionalism: When a cup is meant to be drunk out of, the argument goes, then it's craft. But when it says something about what it means to be a cup, then it's a work of art.
Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick Gallery -- one of the major craft galleries in the country -- objects, saying, "I don't think that just because something is functional, it can't be art."
But who cares? Many buy crafts and art for roughly the same reason -- to enjoy. What follow are some ways to do just that -- -- at a high-quality craft fair, a number of special craft exhibits and at galleries and shops where you can revel in crafts year round.