Rena Tom Rena Tom

What is the distance between hand and machine?


Last night, I had the privilege of attending a preview of a show called Heath Design Series One: Between Hand & Machine inside Heath Ceramics SF’s new Clay Studio. Besides hearing a fascinating talk about what they are trying to accomplish, I think it’s a fine title that addresses many of the issues that are swirling around both methods of making and who is doing the making.

A disclaimer: I was going to try to talk about “handmade” a little bit but it’s really like a land mine, and also Abby Glassenberg has done such a fine job of bringing up salient points here, here and here (in relation to, but not exclusively about Etsy) that I’m going to focus on my own thoughts about production, creation and intent in the making process.

Heath’s San Francisco studio director Tung Chiang had an incredible opportunity to work closely with the factory that will produce thousands of candleholders, the object requested by creative director Catherine Bailey. To get to the chosen design, though, he created over 100 experiments, 100 different design explorations, all by hand. Tung explained how his influences come from three directions (his background in advertising, his love of making with his hands, and the production capabilities of the factory) that correspond with three periods of time (past, present and future). There’s a great tension between balancing the constraints of a very strong brand, his desire to sketch in clay, and finally the limits of mold-making and the abilities of the factory craftspeople. I love both the creative journey and the outcome, and both the one-off handbuilt prototypes as well as the mold-made final product.

One could argue that these candleholders are not handmade, according to a simple rule that is basically “If you ask the average person on the street to define it, what would they say?” Perception of and around products is extremely important – and it can be manipulated by both hand-makers and manufacturers. A master artisan might show their process and tell their story when their work is so precise that you might mistake it for machine-made. On the flip side, a manufacturer might use the same technique to show the hard-working people behind their array of products.

I’m not dogmatic one way or the other. In my consulting work, this is no doubt frustrating to clients who ask me questions and often get an answer that begins with, “Well, it depends…” This talk reinforced my thoughts that makers exist on a spectrum. The term handmade, for many, means a single person making products, with significant labor being done by their own hands. The difficulties lie in that there are no equally strong, agreed-upon terms for other kinds of makers. Instead, we have a jumble of terms like designer, maker, crafter, and manufacturer – and we are lacking terms for those who operate in between.

For example, Heath operates a factory, but it is not the extensive, nameless factory that I think many people imagine, if you go back to the simple rule for definition. The people who make and trim and glaze the ceramics are extremely skilled and non-interchangeable, and I learned today that they have input into the design process. I have a friend who trains autoworkers at a plant in Detroit and he tells me about all the creative exercises that the workers on the floor have to go through, which I was not aware of.

For me, it’s not the tools or the process that shape the product – people do. People who make with intent are who interest me, and always have, ever since I opened my first retail store in 2005. At that time, I myself made work by hand, and I wanted to sell the work of others made by hand. Gradually, though, I realized I really wanted to help people who made with intent, no matter how the product was created. As a shop owner, I would help them find customers who agreed with not only my aesthetic taste but my buying philosophy.

I’ve worked with businesses who made some items by hand, got help from an employee to create others, and licensed designs to a third-party to be turned into yet more products. That business owner could benefit from all three ways of making. Some shopkeepers would decide to only sell the handmade work, and others might buy all of her lines, focusing on the person and not the method of manufacture.

Consumers have a choice of how they want to consume. Despite the crowded marketplace, it truly is easier than ever to create, market and sell work on your own terms, and there is a buyer for every product out there, at every price point – and far less crossover than you’d imagine. That means that if someone wants to buy an object made in the US that costs $20, there’s someone else who wants the same object made in her hometown but at ten times the price. I exaggerate a little, but the point is that you aren’t competing for the same customer – these are two distinctly different customers.

Solo makers and micro-businesses absolutely have a harder time in the conventional marketplace. Making by hand is a very personal act, and should be nourished and treated with care. I don’t think it is inherently a better way of making, though, or the only way of making. Each method has an advantage, a disadvantage, and a real cost – financial, mental and even emotional. It’s up to that person making with intent to decide what’s best for that product, for themselves, and for the goals they established for their business. If the goal is to control the design and creation of the product from start to finish, so be it. If the goal is to work collaboratively on a larger project, that’s great. If the goal is to grow big enough to employ others and spread knowledge and wealth, that is fine too.

This is a long-winded way of saying that there’s room for everybody, and even for a single business, there’s room for different kinds of making. The spectrum of making between hand and machine is very finely shaded, and definitions are slippery. Semantics absolutely matter, but in the end, it’s about making the best possible work in the way that you want to make it, and finding the right customer to appreciate your decision.

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  1. Hi Rena, this discussion is so present in my work every day. I am a textile designer, designer maker, who also employs very talented people to help hand craft my ideas. I strongly believe there is something very special behind hand crafted objects (textiles), the uniqueness, it’ s imperfections and the fact that there is someone’s time and passion behind each product. Clearly these products have a higher price and as you say “there is a client for everything”, but, can you, under the same brand, have a machine produced , line of products at a lower price?
    Anyway….thanks a lot for your article, it’s got me thinking.

    • Rena Tom says:

      hi juliana, i think you can have a high and a low product line. you just want to be careful with the naming and who you pitch each to, and i think folks will understand :)

  2. […] Lately, I’ve become really interested in what handmade even means these days, and I’m clearly not the only one. In these first few weeks of the year, “artisan” was named one of the “words for the dumpster” of 2013. And the concept of handmade became a hot topic this past fall when Etsy changed its seller rules to allow for outsourcing of production and hiring staff, as many Etsy success stories have outgrown the platform. This has led to some really fantastic conversations wondering if anything is truly handmade anymore and what that might mean (see NYTimes op-ed and this Rena Tom post). […]

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