In the cultural battlefield

by Justin McGuirk

Make it yourself (Issue IV/2021)


There are few more conflicted notions than the idea of the “handmade”. It conjures complete opposites. On the one hand, it evokes the exclusive world of finely wrought luxuries: bespoke suits, expensive leather goods and jewellery. In this domain, the hand is a mark of quality and refinement, so much so that “hand crafted” is now a marketing tool stamped on everything from over-priced beer and crisps to supermarket sourdough. On the other hand, “handmade” evokes a humbler world of the roughly fashioned or the cobbled together, either by amateurs or those too poor to afford the industrial product and its ruthless perfection. Here, the hand signifies not quality but necessity, not perfection but imperfection. Now this may be obvious – of course there is a vast spectrum of qualities to the things humans make with their hands. But it demonstrates that we have a rather schizophrenic attitude to the handmade. 

The hand is a cultural battlefield. Since the dawn of the industrial age, prominent makers and thinkers have railed against the machine, arguing for the superior quality of the handmade or criticising the social effects of industrialisation – the loss of craft skills, the drudgery of industrial labour or the loss of jobs that so often comes with automation. The Luddites rose up in arms against mechanical looms and the exploitative labour of the cotton mills of 19th century England, while the writers and artists John Ruskin and William Morris looked back to the Middle Ages as a golden age of craftsmanship – one that they hoped to revive. They have often been categorised as romantic or nostalgic. Yet through the 20th century and into the 21st there have been successive waves of cultural rebellion against what are always perceived to be the domineering or insidious effects of technology.

The hand is always somehow seen as the answer. The hand serves as a metaphor for that quality of humanity that appears to be continuously under threat. It is as if the Platonic ideal of the human were Robinson Crusoe: totally self-reliant, skilled enough to fashion what he needs from his immediate environment and to live in harmony with it. Those who romanticise self-sufficiency and craftsmanship may to be too inclined to overlook that handwork can also be soulless drudgery, if one is forced to make the same thing over and over. This is as true of throwing clay pots as it is of sweatshop seamstresses stitching the soles of sneakers to their uppers countless times a day. You wouldn’t want handmade paperclips or food tins. Clearly, handwork is reserved for objects through which we can express ourselves and into which – through our hands – we can pour some of the humanity and character that make us who we are.

Appeals to craftsmanship often draw on the very origins of humankind, the tool-making animal, and the fact that our brains have developed through an intimate relationship with our hands. We “grasp” concepts just as we do objects, and when we shape a material with our hands we give it form, informing it, turning it into information. In his popular book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett recounts how we think through our hands. Anyone who masters a craft, be it carpentry or playing an instrument, learns through touch and repeats certain movements over and over until they develop muscle memory that is inscribed with a knowledge that is hard-earned and difficult to articulate. Other writers, such as the craft scholar Glenn Adamson, argue that part of the value in making things ourselves lies in the “material intelligence” we gain. After all, we live in a world where we are no longer surrounded by making. Manufacturing has been automated or outsourced to distant countries. The extraction and processing of materials, be it plastic or metal, are little understood and the way a product that you’ve ordered online has come into being may be a total mystery to you. Making something with your own hands, then, is not just a way to gain material literacy but a form of conversation between you and the material in hand. It’s a way of better understanding the world.

But back to that long line of cultural figures for whom the handmade was a form of rebellion against the status quo. For through their work runs a potent critique of societies that have been shaped by industrialisation then and digitisation now, a critique that is constantly renewing itself. For John Ruskin, the superiority of medieval gothic architecture over its Victorian equivalent was a moral one. The structures of gothic cathedrals left room in their designs for the masons to express themselves through hand carving. This embellishing of the structure through ornamentation was a form of improvisation, and while those goblins and curling leaves may have been quite crude, they were “signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone”. 

William Morris, the poet, artist and prominent socialist, was hugely influenced by that argument. He made no bones about despising modern civilisation. In part this was aesthetic, because he found machine-made goods to be of such poor design and quality, but it was also because he abhorred the numbing effects of industrialisation on the labourer. He poured scorn on the so-called “labour-saving machines”, noting that no worker worked an hour less because of them. Instead the work was less fulfilling, the exploitation greater and the products themselves Morris considered to be pure waste. Morris’s own designs – from wallpaper and textiles to furniture ­–were all rooted in his own mastery of those specific crafts. Often he was reviving lost medieval techniques, which might lead one to assume that he was a Luddite himself, and in many ways he was. But Morris’s contribution to the aesthetic debates of the day – one that led to the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement – was a social and philosophical one. He believed that everyone should be able to live of a life of creative work. This, in his utopian vision, was the path to fulfilment and happiness. Indeed, according to the mores of Victorian society, manual work was supposed to be beneath a wealthy gentlemen such as Morris. And yet there he was, weaving at his loom, learning to handprint wallpaper and bind books in leather. According to his socialist worldview, the future lay not in improving workers’ rights but in creating a society in which everyone was free to master their own craft. For Morris, the ideal future lay in craftsmanship.

Despite such views, Morris’s work influenced an early generation of modernist designers who were much more in tune with the Machine Age of the 20th century. But even modernists who dreamed of tubular steel chairs that could be mass produced by machines found that, in fact, they had to be handmade by craftsmen. Just as Morris, much to his chagrin, failed to make his work affordable to the masses, so did they. One such designer was Charlotte Perriand, who, with Le Corbusier, designed some of the most famous tubular steel furniture of the century. But only the elite could afford it. And while in the 1920s Perriand was a zealous proponent of metal furniture and the machine aesthetic, by the mid 1930s she was changing her mind. By 1936, the machine age was starting to be associated with militarisation, the rise of fascism and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. It was around this time that she turned her attention to tables handcrafted out of thick slabs of wood. They had free-form shapes influenced by stones she found on the beaches of Normandy. The tables had a fleshy, organic quality. Quite an about turn from the metal “interior equipment” she was designing in the 1920s.

Perriand’s appreciation of craftsmanship only grew when she went to Japan in 1940 and immersed herself in the work of local craftsmen. In translating some of her metal furniture designs into bamboo, she realised that creativity is not dogmatic and that it adapts to what you have to hand. In Japan, she developed a lifelong appreciation of craft skills, and she felt enriched by her relationship with craftspeople throughout the rest of her career. But craftsmanship is slow and expensive, and she still sought to make her designs affordable. And so many of her most famous pieces, such as her shelving units, combined industrial sheet metal and handcut wood. For Perriand, working with craftsmen enabled her to find a harmony between industrial efficiency and the humanising quality of the hand.

By the 1960s, criticism of the industrialisation of society was going mainstream. Despite economic prosperity in Europe and America, a growing middle class and readily available consumer goods, critics were again making the case that some essential human spirit was being stifled – by conformity, bureaucracy, consumerism… television. Thousands of young people in America dropped out and went “back to the land” in search of a more authentic way of life. On hippie communes they reconnected with their inner Robinson Crusoes – building their own homes, growing their own food and sewing their own clothes. This burgeoning countercultural movement was served by the Whole Earth Catalog, which promised them “access to tools”. From the catalogue they could order the tools they needed for a DIY life. It was not all about making things by hand – there were radios and other technological devices – but the emphasis was on self-sufficiency and honing the skills to survive in a mini society of your own making. For most of the hippies this was a short-lived experiment.

But it caused ripples across the Atlantic. In Italy, in 1973, a group of radical designers came together to challenge the very basis of industrial design and the consumer society it had spawned. Under the banner of Global Tools, they formed a loose collective that, like the hippie communards, sought to rediscover some fundamental human factor that was being rubbed out. The first issue of their own magazine (with echoes of the Whole Earth Catalog) featured a hammer on the cover, because hand tools and craft skills were the path to self-discovery. It was as if only by seeking out some pre-industrial condition, and learning how to make things with your own hands, could you begin to reset society. 1973 was also the year of Oil Crisis, the first great shock to postwar economic order, and the question of survival skills felt relevant once more. Global Tools was equally short lived, and its leading lights would soon abandon notions of primitive making for the brightly coloured surfaces of postmodern design. Well if you can’t beat them, join them.

If Global Tools remained speculative and idealistic, other designers took a much more practical approach to critiquing the industrialised consumer society. In 1974, another Italian, Enzo Mari designed a series of furniture pieces that anyone could make themselves with just some timber boards, a hammer and nails. Frustrated by the lack of affordable furniture on the market, Mari posted his designs for tables, chairs and cupboards to anyone that sent him a stamped envelope. More than just DIY, this is now considered an early act of open-source design. Associated more with software, such as Linux, open-source makes designs available for anyone to use, adapt or improve. The internet has made open-source design a global, networked phenomenon. Companies such as Open Desk make designs available for anyone, anywhere in the world to download. You won’t necessarily make the furniture yourself, unless you have access to plywood and a CNC (computerised) cutting machine, but you can email the designs to a local fabrication shop and they’ll make the parts for you to assemble. This is not quite the William Morris version of craft – it requires no hand skills – but it has the same revolutionary potential. In a world of ensuing climate crisis, why would we manufacture everything in the Far East and then ship it around the globe. How much more efficient it would be to be able to be able to manufacture locally, how much more empowering of individuals and communities. This kind of distributed manufacturing gives you a much more active role than just being a consumer, and reclaims some of that lost material intelligence.

The call of the handmade always comes at moments of crisis. Be it the “dark, satanic mills” of industrial England or the suburban nine-to-five purgatory of post-war America, making things with your own hands – quaint though it may sound – has long been a way of challenging the system. In our own digitised world, where many now spend their days alternating between Zoom and doomscrolling on social media, the urge to shape something tangible with your own hands is understandable. On the individual level, the rewards and challenges of making are well documented. The real question is whether craftsmanship has the disruptive or utopian potential that visionaries such as Morris dreamed of. Is there a way of reigning in the globalised industrial paradigm of cheap but disposable goods? Can we reinvent the small-scale, distributed production that is so much more sustainable and that enriches local communities? That reality feels almost within our grasp and also further away than ever. 



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