Craft production

The following is Part Two of an excerpt from Michael Lockhart’s upcoming book called Wise First, Clever Second which is about post-industrial design and production. The key premise of the book is that whilst industrial design and production is very clever, it is not wise. The main problem is that there is too much making and not enough designing with wisdom and integrity. Post-industrial production will be wise first and clever second.


Craft production

Craft production has obvious environmental benefits because it uses less resources overall, and does less harm from pollution, waste and emissions. In addition, craft production provides many benefits to well-being for both producers and consumers.

As described in Part One, craft production is the obvious way to achieve sufficient production, which provides the maximum well-being for the minimum resource use. Craft production is characterised by a smaller scale (human-scale), more labour, less energy, less capital and less waste. It is where there is more design and less making.

Once, everything was handmade. Even now being handmade can be a sign of quality and traditional values. However, ‘craft’ became a dirty word in modern, industrial societies. It is often seen as quaint at best, but more often as being backward. This is probably because a lot of quality craft production was lost with the advent of mass production and craftwork became practiced primarily by amateur hobbyists. 

However, there has been something of a renaissance in craft production in recent years. This growth is a clarion call from the grass roots for quality rather than quantity. The types of craft industries flourishing in the current renaissance are in the areas of food, clothes and shoes, personal care products, and furniture and housewares.

Machine-made products may have the benefit of being more precise, uniform and cheap, but the downside is also that they are precise, uniform and cheap. Handmade products made from natural materials must all be different because the organic world rarely create exact copies.

Production has become a matter of quantity over quality. Quantity relates to what you can measure about designing extrinsic (material, physical) satisfactions than much more sustainable intrinsic (nonmaterial, intangible) satisfactions. In modern society there is a disconnect between how extrinsic-focused and intrinsic-focused productions are perceived in terms of value.

There is a deep divide between what our economy produces and what makes people well. Our economy is focussed on providing extrinsic satisfactions when people are more genuinely motivated and rewarded by intrinsic satisfactions.

If you work to improve and fulfil yourself, these are intrinsic benefits. If you work to make money, that is an extrinsic benefit. Whilst all work has some combination of the two, getting the right balance is important for well-being.

Intrinsic value

Craft production, by allowing a living relationship between the producer and the customer, helps sustain diverse, local cultures and provides more intrinsic well-being in society for both producers and consumers. 

Design was traditionally done by makers – people who were dedicated and skilled craftspeople. As production became more industrialised, design became divorced from making. Workers were no longer craftspeople, and consequently became more and more alienated from the stuff they were responsible for producing. Workers became cogs in a lifeless machine, rather than organs in a living endeavour.

Making a practical artefact by hand offers the maker an authentically human self-expression of their skills, intentions and values. The user of their products has a personal connection with the maker in a way that a machine-made, plastic product from overseas could never have. The Arts and Crafts Movement was based on this notion. By bringing the designer back in touch with their productions they believed that there would be more meaningful and therefore more emotionally durable products. This is both an environmentally and culturally sustainable approach than the current meaningless, throwaway approach.

In addition to the Arts and Crafts Movement, there have been many other anti-industrial dissenters over the years including early critics like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the more recent Hippie back-to-the-land movement, the Punk DIY ethos and to contemporary Maker Culture. Yet, the industrialisation of our culture has continued relentlessly.

Craftship

Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman was published in 2008 and it changed the way people thought of craftship (a gender neutral term). In particular it broadened the concept of craft beyond its practice by artists and heritage conservers to being seen as a contemporary, beneficial dimension of work. 

“The labourer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labour are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops with the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence, and experiment in craft labour”.
– Richard Sennet

Broadly speaking craft refers to an art, trade, or occupation that requires special skill, especial manual skill. Conceivably, a computer programmer, a plumber and a hairdresser could be considered a craftsperson, especially if they are very skilled. In Japan a master sushi chef is granted status as “shokunin”, an honorific offered to craft masters. Richard Ocejo’s book Masters of Craft gives an account about the uptake of manual trades by middle-class men who became barbers, butchers, bartenders and craft distillers.

Whatever the practice, the craftsperson is the prime mover of craft production and craftship is his or her competence.

The idea of the ‘happy artisan’ should not be assumed. Craftship is certainly not a remedy for all of the ills of the world; nevertheless, it is a remedy for some of them, especially over-production. For the individual, craft production can have as many problems and pitfalls as any endeavour, but as skills and experience develop craftspeople are more able to slip into a state of ‘flow’, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which results from being fully engaged in an activity that you are good at and enjoy.

Craft can also be taken too far sometimes, for instance when perfection is sought and becomes all-consuming. The benefits to the individual craftspeople of doing what they do well can easily be cancelled out by neglecting other parts of life especially family and relationships.

This is perhaps idealistic but it makes well the point that many great thinkers, from Marx to Ruskin to Fromm have made which is that if workers aren’t fully engaged in their work, they are alienated from the work, the performance and the product.

Conclusion

In summary, I believe design should be wiser and production should be sufficient, meaning not industrialised and more hands-on, as it used to be. This will mean that less is made, but it will have higher intrinsic value. The point is that whilst the world’s resources are limited, there is no limit to human creativity. A deeper connection between what is designed and what is made will create better quality, as well as less production overall and it promotes greater cultural diversity and resilience.