Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can Craftsmanship survive the 21st Century in America?

A friend of mine recently returned from Europe proclaiming that she saw the most beautiful Architecture there. When I asked her which buildings she saw, she could not remember any specific names but had lots of photos of carved masonry friezes, ornamental metalwork, and highly detailed glazing. After looking at the photos it occurred to me that everything she had admired was not so much the work of an Architect, but the work of the Craftsmen who brought the Architect's vision to life. Sadly, these great laborers of bygone days are almost extinct with no great revival in sight. Will these highly specialized trades disappear all together, or just scrape by on wealthy patrons alone? To answer this question, let's take a brief look at the history of Craft and how we got here.

To begin, let's skip through thousands of years of tools and craft and head straight to the Industrial Revolution. People discovered that through the use of machinery, certain tasks could be expedited and completed with a high level of consistency and efficiency. You have heard me say that the Crystal Palace was actually pre-fabricated way back in 1851. At the beginning of mechanization, designers were trying to figure out how to balance craft and industrialization so that the soul of a thing was not lost. Some designers are still trying to balance these things today. Look at Frank Gehry. He thinks that he is an artist making sculptural forms, yet I don't know many sculptors that need complex computer programs to make their art stand up. And while the Design community has tried to figure out where this balance lies, all of the crafts people have moved on to white collars jobs in 6x6 cubicles where they don't have to break a sweat all day. We have gone from a laboring society to a servicing society and craft has disappeared along with it.

I remember being at a conference and remarking that 'Craft' does not exist anymore to which someone replied "I don't know how I'm going to live without their Mac and Cheese." Yes, it's true, the most popular thoughts about Craft have to do with pasta not plaster. And that pasta is also a good example of why the other Craft is dying. One box plus once sauce packet plus milk and butter and you have a complete meal in one pot. What could be easier? Oh, except for the easier version that you just microwave and eat? Yes, that is easier.

Here in America, we are fixated on convenience. We now install plumbing lines in houses made entirely of plastic tubes that clip and glue together without any soldering at all. We have ceilings made up of tiles that we just drop into a grid, and we have mouldings and false beams made of Styrofoam that you cut with a utility knife and glue to your wall. People are not interested in craft because craft takes time and time is money. Here in America, we only care about getting the best version of something for the cheapest price so that we can keep as much money for ourselves. Forget about the betterment of society. Forget about creating an urban fabric where each building actually enhances the other buildings around it. That only happens in those Socialist European countries. No, here in America, we would rather hire an uneducated laborer to glue some fake stone to the front of our house than pay a fourth generation mason to work each piece perfectly. Here in America, we would rather go down to the discount furniture superstore and buy a dresser (that was made in a country where factory workers make 6 cents an hour) than pay a woodworker to create an heirloom piece of furniture. Those kind of luxuries are reserved for the wealthy and those who can afford such quality.

Well, I'm here to tell you that those kind of luxuries used to belong to everyone. Towns were full of tradespeople and craftsmen who served everyone. From blacksmiths to cobblers to cabinetmakers to bricklayers, craft was the right of every citizen. For many, coming to America was and is more than the promise of work, it is the promise of pursuing that which makes you happy. I recently read a statistic that over 70% of Americans hate their jobs. I think that's because most people are working solely for the money rather than the satisfaction that a job can provide. So here's how I propose we get out of this all-consuming disposable society of convenience rut and preserve craft for generations to come:

1. The children of today need to learn that there's more to life than video games, TV, and cel phones. Instead of giving your child a technological baby sitter, teach them a skill or enroll them in a class at your local arts and crafts store. From baking to painting, there's a class for it.
2. Instead of purchasing lots of cheap things, purchase a few things of good quality. This will encourage more businesses to focus on quality items rather than cheap items.
3. Support local businesses and encourage the development of downtowns. Wouldn't it be nice to go to the butcher shop to get your fresh meat instead of the Sam's club?
4. Introduce craft back into your life. Visit websites like etsy.com and find a unique piece of art for your house instead of some framed poster from a big box store. Buy a handmade quilt for your bed, or better yet, learn to make one. Get a sewing machine and learn to use it instead of just watching Project Runway. Shop at Antiques stores for interesting pieces of furniture that you will use. Old desks and tables are useful in any house.

In movies, the future is always portrayed as a dark place where everything is automated. If we are to avoid this fate then we must put our faith back in people and be amazed at what the human spirit can accomplish. Become an individual who appreciates the labor of others and I guarantee you will start finding fulfillment in something other than your checking account balance.

1 comment:

  1. I love this blog.In fact we in India too are losing these values.Our crafts are now cheaply made with machines. Its a tough job to interact with clients and let them see beauty in handwork and thats a lot to do with(sorry) the American way of life we get bombarded with.