Editorial 3/20: With Hands and Brains
In the kitchen of Villa Savoye, perhaps the most iconic private home designed by Le Corbusier, visitors have the chance to discover the original 1930s kitchen units, complete with sliding doors. Viewed from a distance, the units don’t look entirely dissimilar from the sort you might find in a 2020s kitchen. Step closer however, and the details begin to look clumsy, their proportions cumbersome. When you go to slide open one of the doors, you soon discover the total absence of any rails or other fittings. A fair bit of force is needed to shift the heavy, thick-set sheet. Although the tactile experience of it is subdued by the solid paint finish, the units are made of solid wood. This experience reveals the hidden world camouflaged behind the building’s sleek whiteness; though every effort was made to conceal it, in its very early stages, modernism was built by hand.
Manufacturing and crafts have always enjoyed a curiously symbiotic relationship. It’s no coincidence, in fact, that the word manufacturing derives from the Latin manu factum or “made by hand”. Before the advent of the heavily mechanised forms of industrial production we are familiar with now, there were manufactories, handworking establishments, where the skills and creativity needed for production were controlled by the church or other ruling class. Following the emergence of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and the consequent collapse in demand for traditional craft skills, the Arts and Crafts movement was born in England, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. Traditional craft skills and industries suddenly became a creative and artistic pursuit, maintained by middle class lifestyles and bourgeois spending patterns.
This European fin de siècle phenomenon proved a boost for the Finnish arts and crafts industry too, and handcrafted items were adopted as a symbol of the National Romantic movement. Later, during the decades of modernism when Finnish design went on to garner particular international renown, industrially produced goods overtook handmade items in popularity. Craftsmanship continued to thrive and be celebrated as an art form, as the everyday domestic items made and used by earlier generations were re-purposed as decorative items and placed on display, often on a kitchen shelf. The same pattern can be seen in construction too. The preference for automation, the pursuit of cost and material efficiencies and the focus on industrial finishes, tidiness and convenience became a clear norm.
Today, awash with material plenty, we have a more ambivalent attitude towards handcrafted items. On the one hand, there is our persistent belief that new, shop-bought items are the safe and sensible choice. Old wooden window frames, for example, are often replaced with new aluminium coated ones purely out of expediency. On the other hand, our attitudes towards asbestos cladding and fitted carpets, once celebrated for their durability and ease of maintenance, have by now shifted towards mild amusement. Vintage Arabia and Iittala dinnerware are now collector’s items and old brick walls, which were originally intended for a plaster finish, are now being left exposed thanks to their atmosphere-enhancing quality. Our appreciation of traditional craft skills appears to be directly proportional to the multiples of time and effort involved in making a product or finishing a project and the degree of pleasure and utility it affords us in the here and now.
This makes it harder to pin down an exact definition of what arts and crafts now mean. Handmade items are associated with a complex set of values, and we are also often aware of the importance of traditional skills and just how endangered they are these days. As knowledge working has proliferated, crafting and making have become an opportunity for some me-time as well as a quest for something authentic. Art and design professionals have recently taken a visible interest in traditional techniques, with a new-found appreciation for the unique quality of handcrafted materials and an almost DIY aesthetic. Contradictorily, many items are highly valued and attract a premium precisely because they are made by hand using traditional techniques, while in some parts of the world, manual working methods are what fuels low-value production.
Our attitude towards traditional craft skills is largely dependent on context. If the aesthetic ideal at Villa Savoye was to make the craftsman’s contribution invisible, we can also ask whether that is a choice we are freely able to make these days. We can choose to lend visibility to someone else’s work, but the real issue is whether we have the power, through the choices we make, to control the conditions in which that work is carried out and the processes by which products are made. In global terms, both goods manufacturing and construction continue to involve a high degree of invisible manual labour for which we pay no extra. So when we talk about craft, about people using their hands to make things, we would do well to pause and consider the complex networks of skills, makers, people and materials that underlie the activity. To value the handmade is to value the labour that produces it. ↙