Why Do We Care About Craft?
(Originally posted on Medium in May 2013 and very gently edited just now.)
Where do makers come from? Why do people care about craft so much?
One could argue that people have always cared about a job well done, and have appreciated expertise gleaned over time through hard work and practice. But why does it seem so, well, crucial these days to buy your clothes direct from a designer, or your food from a family farm?
Looking beyond trends, beyond DIY and shop local, I think people are hunting for an emotional reason to spend money. In the modern world which tells you, shows you, then sells you what ‘perfect’ is, people have a reason to rebel, and revel in imperfection.
I’m sitting here, typing on my MacBook Air. With every release, Apple aims for perfect. Indeed, the laptop works very well, but if I want to crack open the case and tinker, I can’t. I can add endless applications and produce all kinds of content, but I can’t get into the guts of the thing to swap the drive or change the battery. (Nerdy aside: I had a black PowerBook about a dozen years ago. It was the opposite of the Air, full of options, full of promise – and my favorite computer ever. It wasn’t perfect but hinted at perfectibility, by the owner, and thus was an entirely different kind of machine.)
I know the point is to have something that works well, all the time. The downside is that my computer is this mysterious silver box. I don’t question it, and I wouldn’t be able to fix it. It’s beautiful and it’s…boring. I’ve learned to take something rather miraculous for granted.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic when I can’t play with, attempt to break, or modify something, and I don’t think this is just my own personal problem. Hacking on a physical level is getting harder and harder to do as more of our daily objects become clean and streamlined. The more we optimize the form of an electronic device, the fewer buttons, levers and knobs it seems to have. My fingers glide over so much seamless metal and plastic, seeking texture and variety.
Let’s look at cars. I used to have a 1967 Mustang. This particular car was both a triumph of design and an engineering disaster. I was always replacing a part, adding fluids, or cursing it when I was stranded in inconvenient locations (like the middle of the Bay Bridge). However, I loved that car. I was enthusiastic about that car. The willingness to own that car said something about me.
I now have a reliable, fuel-efficient hatchback. It actively discourages you from trying to work on it by covering most of the guts, under the hood, with a plastic panel. It’s very safe, it gets me from place to place, and I don’t feel a thing about it.
Back to makers and craft. Supporting a beekeeper, a goldsmith, a weaver or a welder is a little subversive. In the business world, people often begin by considering a real-life problem which inspires working toward a solution – the one, best solution they can think of. Artisan makers, on the other hand, are trying to solve problems of their own choosing; it’s conceptual exploration made physical, it’s expertise and enthusiasm given form. Their results might not be optimal in any conventional way, but that’s fine. Sometimes optimization is not the end goal.
I’m a retail consultant. I try to ensure that makers and retailers have a good relationship. I love working with makers because helping them share their work, with all of its glorious imperfection and ambiguity, is important to me. When I work with makers, I tell them they should present themselves professionally and ensure that projected demand can be met by their production schedule, because nailing the business side is important. The business side should be humane yet professional, leaving the actual work to take whatever form that maker feels like it needs to take.
I think there’s a way of nurturing enthusiasm for craft while making sure distribution, profit and all of that good, business-sustaining stuff happens. It’s a delicate thing to balance efficiency and market-friendliness with the frankly sub-optimal, unique, defining characteristics that are the hallmarks of handmade…and the reason why you buy those products in the first place.