Rena Tom Rena Tom

More thoughts about handcraft versus machine craft

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(This expands on my post from last year. It takes me a long time to chew over stuff.)

A physical object is the culmination of many things but at its heart, it is the manifestation of a job well done. It can spark recognition of the person behind it – her resourcefulness, thoughtfulness and ingenuity. It provides room for a kind of genuflection. ‘I see you, object; I bother to take the time to acknowledge the hand of the maker, his skill, and the craft he’s chosen to engage in.’

And all people want, I think, is to be seen. An object is seeing. It’s time compressed into a novel new shape. It may have its own function, or its very existence may be the only function.

An object is also a reflection of the consumer, though, and the constant struggle toward perfection that many of us want to achieve. It’s about choosing one outcome over another because it is, in some fashion, better. Defining ‘better’ is a prerequisite for curation, and we’ve been doing it since toddlerhood, when we chose one colored block to shove in our mouth instead of the other.

Does it matter, then, if the object is handmade or machine-made? If it emerged or was engineered? Can we love both?

I like something so well-made that you can’t detect the seams. That’s engineering. It’s harder to appreciate the humanity behind it, though, which is why we also love when the guts are exposed, whether that’s on purpose or an accident of fate. If you were to slow down your consumption enough to ponder the question, you could unravel the mystery. Engineering is about speed, but craft is about slowness. When you take the time to explore (cold, efficient, effortless) engineering, it transforms into (joyous, deliberate, effortful) craft. They are two sides of the same coin.

Recently, I pulled the drawers out of my dresser to move it, and was reminded about the exceptional design of the drawer slides. Every day they quietly and effortlessly let me open and shut the drawers. You shouldn’t think of them at all if they are working properly. But removing the drawer was a matter of clicking a lever, and putting it back into the carcass was a breeze. They made a satisfying audio cue, a slight click, to let me know it was done correctly. The hardware is actually quite minimal, and ingenious. I took time out of my day to love these drawer hardware. That’s good design.

I also like something that has design visibly in its bones but is still unique. That’s handmade. On top of my dresser is a motley collection of ceramic beads I made in a class. They are lumpy, misshapen, poorly glazed and rough. Part of that is my lack of skill, and part of it is on purpose. When I roll one of the finished beads in my hand, I remember what it was like to make it, sitting at a table on a clear evening in my coworking space with friends and strangers. I recall what Jen, the instructor, told me about the physical transformation the clay would take over successive firings. The size of the bead fits perfectly in my cupped palm, because that was the palm that shaped it. The irregularity of the bead is a constant reminder of an experience.

Sometimes I like knowing, and require backstory and provenance. And other times, I like mystery, and making up my own story. One side is unique handcraft and the other side is machine precision. The funny thing is that it’s hard to tell which goes with which. It depends on your perception of the world and your particular skillset. This maddening ambiguity is, I suspect, beneath all the debates between hand or machine. Yes, there are many other factors that fuel the debate, but the element of relativity keeps us from ever finding a stable starting point. However, instability has its uses. It forces us to slow down, and consider each other, as well as the object, and say, ‘I see you, maker. I acknowledge your position, even if I don’t share it.’ And that’s only a good thing.

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  1. sarah sky says:

    Thankyou for writing about this. I often question all this “handmade” notation on things that i am pretty sure were made in sweatshops. There were hands on it, sure, that slid in into one set machine that sews one type of stitch. and then there are the dresses my nana made, that i can tell she pinned and pressed. The distinction is important, thankyou for clarifying it. Both good design and handmade make our lives better when done well.

  2. julie says:

    Wow, I’m really glad you chewed on that Rena. There is so much satisfaction for me in pondering the hands that create the things I love, but there is also total awe in the minds that engineer.

  3. Beautifully written, thank you!

  4. Thalia says:

    This is something that I’ve been mulling over for some time now. I’m into cardmaking and do all my cutting with good old scissors. I think it gives them character.
    I see a lot of cards that have been made with diecut machines and though they are beautyfull, they all look the same to me somehow. They ink the edges of the diecuts, color them with markers, cover them in glitter, and yet for me it doesn’t feel the same as a nonmachine card. There is a fine line between handmade and handassembled, and buckets of ink and glitter aint gonna hide it.

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