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 couldn't remember 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 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 altogether, or 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. The Crystal Palace was prefabricated way back in 1851 and designed by a man who was NOT an architect. At the beginning of mechanization, designers were trying to figure out how to balance craft and industrialization so the soul of a thing was not lost. Some designers are still trying to balance these things today. Look at Frank Gehry: his work is often described as sculptural, yet I don't know many sculptors that need complex computer programs to make their art stand up. While the design community has tried to figure out where this balance lies, many craftspeople have moved on to white collar jobs in offices 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." It's true, the most popular thoughts on craft are about pasta, not plaster. That pasta is also a good example of why the other Kraft is dying. One box pasta, plus once sauce packet, plus milk and butter, and you have a complete meal in one pot. What could be easier? The version that you just microwave and eat? Yes, that is easier.
We are fixated on convenience. We 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 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. We only care about getting the best version of something for the cheapest price, so 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 rather 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 made cheaply in a foreign country 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.
In the past, those luxuries were, in fact common. 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 this is because most people are working solely for money, rather than the satisfaction that a job can provide. 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. We should show children that there's more to life than video games, TV, and smart phones. Instead of giving your child a technological babysitter, 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 antique 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, we must put our faith back in people and be amazed at what we 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.