Thinking about craft...

Thursday, February 20 2014

I recently met a chap at a social event who, after the inevitable “what do you do?” conversation, launched in to a gleeful explanation of why I and my brand of craftsmanship would soon be irrelevant. “Technology will change everything” he declared. “In the very near future, anyone who wants a Cascade rocker will be able to down load the file, pop down to the local 3D printer and have one whipped up”. He tried to console me by telling me that I could still work as a designer and receive a royalty via PayPal. Whoopee, I thought, I can hardly wait to dismiss all my staff and place the machinery on Ebay.

Fortunately for me, our Hero had missed the point of craft completely, as well as the implications of the changing technology. Fine furniture is not solely about the performance of the design; it’s about the timber, the leather, the hand of the maker; the “vibe of the thing”. A life without crafted objects would be akin to a life eating energy pills rather than fresh food (i.e. really dull!).

The imminent death of craft due to changing technology has been predicted since the industrial revolution. Just about every generation of woodworker since then has lamented the “terrible loss of skills” being experienced within the craft. The whole Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to the fear that we would all forget how to cut a decent dovetail by hand. This concern is akin to the middle age parent’s worry that their teenagers aren’t as focused, respectful and disciplined as they were at the same age.

Our Hero from the party is partially correct that the current changes in technology are changing the practice of craft. A Brisbane client recently ordered a Cascade rocking chair in highly figured river red gum via our website. I had naturally expected our new client to have been familiar with the Cascade, and/our work and/or red gum. Instead, he had simply Googled “Fine furniture rocking chair” and been lead to the page on the Cascade. After a few emails, he chose his timber and leather and paid the deposit. He has never seen our work up close, never sat in a Cascade and never seen a sample of the figured river red gum we intend to use (other than in an image). Instead, he looked at the images, read all the information and asked some pretty specific questions. When he was satisfied, he paid his deposit.

A website sale is hardly a novelty, but a new client buying arguably our best design, in arguably our best timber on “face value” is an interesting development. It demonstrates a new level of trust and faith in the craft buying community. It also shows us, the craft practitioners, that we can reach across the internet to show you and tell you about what we are doing. To this end, I will shortly be launching my new podcast “Crafting a Life”, in which I will be talking about all things craft and woodwork.
Here is a sneak preview. 
In essence, I think our Hero from the other night is barking up the wrong 3D printed tree. Fine timbers and virtuosic craftsmanship will always be in fashion with a discerning few. The internet is just connecting those who care about fine craftsmanship and design with those who practice fine craftsmanship and design.