Why the practice of craft makes a meaningful life

Bench made by Craftswoman Alice Blogg

I was trained both as a typographer, and as a book designer. Both these practices are steeped in craft. So much knowledge required of materials (don’t get me started on paper – colour, transparency, weight, texture – to this today every piece of paper I touch is evaluated – receipts mostly), production processes, typefaces, and, what to do with them on a page, creating an experience for the reader – visual, sensual, tactile. Three abilities are foundational to the practice of Craftmanship: first – the ability to localise, really getting into the detail of things, beyond surfaces, second – to question – the why?, three – to open up, seeing the bigger picture, being open to new ways of seeing the world. which all comes back to how to be – how to live, meaningfully.

As I worked on writing Do Design. I reflected deeply on what craft means, and my experience of ‘making’ over many years. Craft based work feeds us, I know this because of my own practice. ‘Craftwork’ is a practice. The framework bringing enduring beauty into our world. It is in a way, a seed we plant, tend and feed. It is a form of generosity and love.

For example: Olafur Eliasson — is an artist, known for his extraordinary work with light. The Weather Project at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall perhaps is one of his best known works. Olafur has a studio in Berlin where he employs a staff of 90. Everyday the staff sit down to eat freshly cooked vegetarian food, sourced mostly within a 10km radius of Berlin, or grown on the roof of the studio. The kitchen is not an addendum tucked away in a basement, it is at its the heart – centre stage. The daily communal lunch, Olafur believes, is about showing respect and hospitality to his staff, its about dignity. “Cooking,” says Olafur, is caring for others, it is a gesture of generosity and hospitality that functions as a social glue; it amplifies social relations and translates thoughts into food, into giving and sharing”. Cooking is craft, and, beautiful things are prepared with love, infused with optimism the say simply: life is and can be worthwhile. Generosity and service to a greater good, a higher purpose – Craft.

Social philosopher Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman is an exploration into the practice of craftsmanship. His journey begins with the basics of technique and personal expression that define the mechanics of craft. Then he applies that philosophy to how craftsmanship could be at the epicentre of social good in modern society. Sennett’s view is that craftsmanship is an innate capability in nearly all of us, and that, ‘nature furnished humanity at large with the intelligence to do good work (craft skills)’. The consequence of which was we became engaged citizens. He writes: ‘Our species ability to make things reveals more what we share. Learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and become good citizens.’

It is this knowledge of the deep social constructs of craftsmanship which allows us to envision how as humanity and individuals we are able to re-engage meaningfully with the world and each other.

Craftsmanship as a philosophy is the bringer of peace, the maker of civilisation.

Why is the idea of craftsmanship significant at this epochal moment in time? Because it is about shaping our future and the ‘engaged’ craftsman brings the full power of humanity to bear upon his or her work. The craftsman’s hand is guided by their eye, informed by their creative mind; their productivity is the act of unique creation. Indeed, the master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. All Craftwork is in one way or another ‘being in service to others’, and that is what makes it different as a frame for life.

Working well: Reflecting on the craftsman analogy, Sennett explores how and why people will work well, which is opposite to the popularly held view that the motivation to work well, is defined, not by the need to do good work, to collaborate and find meaning in that work, but by making money.

Open mind, open heart: the craftsman must be open to new ideas, techniques, tools and processes; to close his mind to the new, or new ways of doing things, is the greatest risk he will take. The ability to bring two unlikes together in close adjacency and recognise a pattern or a new possibility is the true act of creation. The craftsman must combine technique and expression so that he is also able to act intuitively.

This can only happen when he possesses deep or what is called implicit knowledge. Rather than acting only upon empirical information, the craftsman’s ultimate act is one of unique expression which can only be delivered through the mastery of these skills. Intuition, felt knowledge, are vital.

The engaged craftsman is a committed craftsman.

Craftsmanship in the 21st century provides us with a framework and a pathway to craft a more meaningful life. The craftsman constructs authentically. His / her honesty is communicated through their work, which then holds an inherent eternal truth. And the craftsman represents all of us with a desire to do something well, concretely and for reasons for other than material profit. It’s the unleashing of this deep motivation that we seek.

Journey further

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