In Shoreditch, east London, the fashionable young men about town are telling us something without realising it. You’ll see them wandering around in blue worker’s jackets with full beards or waxed moustaches – graphic designers dressed as artisans of old. Others sport outdoor gear, but not the technical variety (the North Face hoodies) so popular a few years ago; instead they prefer waxed cotton parkas and hand-stitched down jackets, like adventurers from Captain Scott’s day. Aficionados will recognise this vintage machismo as the Nigel Cabourne look, a world of recherché replicas. This is not nostalgia for a historical period as such but for a quality – the quality of long-lost craftsmanship.
“Craft”, a word once much derided, has taken on magical properties. It is the marketer’s shortcut to authenticity, to credibility. Last year, a Levi’s campaign called “Made and Crafted” presented one of the most mass-produced items of clothing in the world – jeans – as a piece of craftsmanship. The other day a McDonald’s delivery truck passed me, its side advertising “100% beef”. The advert was designed by Rob Ryan (unless it’s an imitation), who hand-cuts every letter out of paper in a demonstratively crafty style. McDonald’s plus craft equals corporatism with a human face. With rather more justification, the luxury brands are at it too. Gucci ads are normally draped with expensive-looking women wearing giant sunglasses and too much bronzer. Then suddenly it was a black-and-white photograph of master craftsmen cutting leather in a workshop. Instead of an aspiration – the man or woman who is everything you wish you were – Gucci is selling process, heritage, quality.
These examples are merely manifestations in the broader culture of a state of affairs that is predominant in the world of design. It is a truism to point out that most designers graduating today – or the ones who manage to capture any media attention at least – do so by virtue of craftsmanship. It is not that young designers have given up the aspiration to design for industry, it is just that such an outcome has become so unlikely that they no longer plan their careers around it. The fact that so many designers now make their own work – as “designer-makers” or with craftsmen – is symptomatic of the fact that they have little alternative. On the other hand, this is not merely pragmatism. It would be a mistake to underestimate the new ethos that prevails among this emerging generation. The mass-produced globalised product is no longer the idol that it once was to the aspiring designer – it has lost some of its sheen. Increasingly, self-sufficiency is what their work alludes to. Small-batch production, closed-loop material systems, a communitarian spirit – the local is replacing the global. Sometimes the work is nostalgic for a lost rural idyll, sometimes it reintroduces the village mentality into the metropolis. None of this is invalid, it is merely the way designers interpret their post-industrial condition.
In the past I have referred to this revival of the handmade as “craft fetishism”. What do I mean by that term? On one level it is merely an easy bastardisation of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, in which products are perceived to gain value through market exchange. But there is also clearly a Freudian dimension in which consumers project their desire onto a material thing (displacing it from a person to an object). Fetishisation – a routine aspect of life in a consumer society – might be stimulated by advertising, by invidious comparison, by dissatisfaction with one’s working life, you name it – I’m no psychoanalyst. The point I was making by coining the term was merely that, increasingly, we are being encouraged – by advertisers and by all those “behind the scenes” photo shoots in magazines of people in leather aprons toiling with chisels and such – to fetishise the handmade. It is specifically the trace of the hand that endows quality. Why? Because in the West we no longer manufacture many of our own goods, even by machine, let alone by hand. In a context where labour is prohibitively expensive, the handmade acquires genuine cachet.
For the sociologist Richard Sennett, craftsmanship is not merely a quality, it is a way of being, and a noble one. In The Craftsman, he sets out to prove Kant’s dictum that “The hand is the window on to the mind”. For Sennett, genuine thinking happens through making and repeating – the craftsman’s muscle memory is inscribed with thought. But Sennett’s argument is also social. He invokes the Victorian critic John Ruskin’s argument that artisans who eschewed mechanical production had a greater claim on society’s respect. Unlike Ruskin, though, Sennett is not reactionary, he is more interested in the constructive benefits of doing something well for its own sake. The book, by the way, is not a response to the return of overt craftsmanship (of the leather apron variety) to consumer culture. It just happened to be incredibly timely.
The philosopher Bruno Latour might argue that we are once again seduced by the “thingness” of things. In his essay Why has critique run out of steam? he extrapolates Martin Heidegger’s distinction between objects (Gegenstand) and things. He writes: “The handmade jug can be a thing, while the industrially made can of Coke remains an object. While the latter is abandoned to the empty mastery of science and technology, only the former, cradled in the respected idiom of art, craftsmanship and poetry, could deploy and gather its rich set of connections.” So we have a distinction here between the mute machine-made object and the poetic handmade thing. Does this distinction help us?
First, let’s just understand where it stems from. Heidegger makes much of the etymology of the word “thing”, which in numerous European languages originated as the word for meeting or assembly, and later became the matter (thing) to be discussed by that assembly. Thus, he felt, the thing is something we arrive at searchingly, through dialogue with a material (imagine clay in a potter’s hand), whereas the object is a closed loop, a cold fact. Personally, I believe this is a tad romantic. For one thing, industrially made objects are necessarily collaborative, requiring a designer and a manufacturer to go back and forth in an interactive process, while the craftsman may have autonomy in the exercise of his own individual hand skills. Furthermore, there was a period in the mid 20th century when Heidegger’s prejudice would simply not have been shared by the majority of the new bourgeoisie, enjoying the liberating effects of their washing machines and other household gadgets. Can you imagine the critic Reyner Banham writing about “things” in the 1960s? No, it was objects all the way: air conditioning, outboard motors, gizmos and (a terrible pun, this) “household godjets”. And it’s not as though we can pretend today that we are no longer in thrall to such idols. We continue to worship our flatscreen TVs, iPhones and X-boxes. For all our love of craftsmanship, technology remains an “object” of our desire.
However, without relinquishing our Chinese-made smart phones, we are being encouraged to reprise the moral superiority of craftsmanship. For Heidegger, Ruskin and Sennett, this is indeed a moral position. For Sennett, this has a partly sociological basis, since craftsmanship embodies social ties and rituals that he values, not to mention its salutary effects on the individual – pride in a task well done is conducive to self-esteem. To some extent this is a Ruskinian view, as, one suspects, is Heidegger’s. The architect Lars Spuybroek, in his recent book The Sympathy of Things, attempts to reconcile Heidegger’s “thingness” with Ruskin’s notion of “sympathy”. For Ruskin, the pleasure we take in any spatial form is a product of its sympathy. Reprising Latour’s example of the jug and the can of Coke, Spuybroek writes: “For Ruskin, the gift does not lie in what the jug does qua jug, because it does so habitually, but in how it is made, and how it is to be made precious and delicate, namely by being cloaked in something useless.” That “something useless” would be, for instance, gothic decoration. In other words, ornament – i.e. craftsmanship – is a gift. The can of Coke, meanwhile, cannot have sympathy. But, argues Spuybroek, Coca-Cola does everything in its power, through branding and advertising (through uplifting jingles and images of people holding hands), to endow it with some.
Thus far, craftsmanship has been a peg on which we’ve hung fashion, nostalgia and morality. The question of fetishism arises, I believe, from the way those three aspects are sewn together in advertising and the media. On the one hand, craftsmanship appeals to us in this period of “ethical” consumption, small carbon footprints and, let’s not forget, austerity. Invoking craft through advertising is a way of mitigating the associations with polluting factories, sweatshop labour and unnatural materials. On the other hand, craftsmanship tugs at those aspirational consumer instincts that only a few years ago (before the crash) were embodied by the words “limited edition” and “luxury”. The close-up on the stitching around the sole of that burnished leather brogue. When I say that we are fetishising the handmade, it is this aspect in particular that I’m referring to.
Now, I do not use the term “craft fetishism” to demean or belittle anyone who desires beautiful, hand-crafted things. Let’s be clear, I desire them myself. My point is that, while we still covet our shiny machine-made technological objects, we feel conflicted about them. Our consumption is more self-aware, more neurotic than it used to be – we know some Chinese labourer has probably been exploited in their production, we know they’ll end up as landfill, but we’re worth it. The beauty of craftsmanship, however, is that we can lust after it with no inner conflict. As a society, we place craft on a pedestal in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.
The irony is that even as we speak, these distinctions between one form of manufacture and another, one form of fetishism and another, are becoming more quaint by the day. The next generation of craftsmen is using 3D printers and open-source software. These designers are creating bespoke objects with rapid-manufacturing tools readily available to any avid hobbyist or half-competent hacker. The pieces themselves are not yet deemed fit for the auction house, but that is not their point. They embody a different ethos, one of self-sufficiency and the revolutionary desire to own the means of production. As these digital natives cross over with their craft cousins working in teak, leather and porcelain, the line between handicraft and industrial production will disappear. And, trust me, the marketing people will be quick to catch on, and their advertising campaigns will seduce us with their digital-craft fetishism.
Versions of this essay have appeared in Disegno and the journal of Collect: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects