Monday, May 28, 2012

deep crafting?

Reader Reuben sent this video about "deep crafting," a maker's attempt to intellectualize his creative design process.
I am curious what readers think, and I am offering this with a request for feedback, and to stimulate conversation. Is it useful to use the term "deep" in place of more common terminology like "quality"? Is it useful to describe what we might find on Etsy as being shallow in comparison to one's own work? Is the "inclination to make" a condition that naturally pushes the craftsman's work toward gradual improvement? In watching this video, I was reminded of design schools where the objective is often to be radically different in one's work, rather than to progress in an evolutionary manner. Would another term that we might use to explore craftsmanship, be mature? Could one say that as one matures as a craftsman, a person might be driven toward some level of consistency in both effort and quality?

I suspect that development is most often arrested by success. Any thoughts? Share your own in the comments below.

Randall sent a link to a New York Times article suggesting that faster and more efficient is often not better. Let’s Be Less Productive by Tim Jackson.
It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?

The endemic modern tendency to streamline or phase out such professions highlights the lunacy at the heart of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive consumer economy. Low productivity is seen as a disease. A whole set of activities that could provide meaningful work and contribute valuable services to the community are denigrated because they involve employing people to work with devotion, patience and attention.

But people often achieve a greater sense of well-being and fulfillment, both as producers and consumers of such activities, than they ever do in the time-poor, materialistic supermarket economy in which most of our lives are spent.
An earlier blog post from this site is related to both of the items featured above. If its baroque, fix it, which is about "slow making".

On yet another subject (not completely unrelated), while Mitt Romney claims that class size doesn't matter a whit, he chose to send his own children (all boys) to Belmont Hill, a school that advertises a class size of less than twelve and offers woodworking. What's good for the goose, ought to be good for the gander, but that seems not to be the case in American politics. Certainly, Romney could claim that his own children are special and more deserving of the best he can afford, but that flies in the face of what Dewey had said:
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."
In my own shop today, I have been applying Danish oil to the jewelry boxes I've been making as shown in the photo below:

Make, fix and create...


  1. I think one source of the 'radically different' problem is the cultural hangover we're still trying to get over in the form of post-modern thought; the notion that every concept needs to be turned on its head. My favorite example of this is the furniture dept. at RISD and their non-chair project. (Build a chair that you can't sit in.)

    I concede that there are insights to be gleaned from turning a concept around to get a different view. Does a chair need 4 legs? Nakashima's a good example of a 'no' answer. But he turned the concept around, and then returned it to its original position, and found a practical application for the results of his thought experiment.

    (That's an example by way of broad generalization: I don't really know how he went about his design process)

    My point is that the relentless questioning of fundamental values has has its day. And I agree that refinement is a much more productive route, long term.

  2. There are some brilliant points in the video, and Constable has done some fascinating work. His shear engagement is quite admirable. But there's a deep contradiction in his "Deep Craft" brand: while craft is inherently vernacular, by "branding" it he's appropriating it for himself. I know he's trying to make a living, but the grandiosity of essentially staking an exclusive claim to ancient arts is extraordinarily shameless and arrogant. The thing I would call "deep craft" is characterized by humility and a self-effacing purpose of providing for others and participating in craft traditions and real community. He can try to claim it as all his, but the human race he's trying to claim it from shouldn't give it to him. (By the way, Bill McKibben's "Deep Economy" ideal Constable admits to borrowing "Deep Craft" from is deeply public in spirit; it's about creating an economy that serves all society. It was not presented by McKibben as his private brand.)

    I can take away from this some good stuff ("what makes a good day," "exuberant frugality"), but I wish I didn't have to disentangle it from so much vapid hype and self-promotion. What, after all, is his notion of "deep craft" but REAL WORK—something more thorough and thoughtful and skilled than what you find on Etsy? It might have helped if he'd actually gotten around to showing us his "manifesto." The point seemed more that he'd WRITTEN a manifesto, rather than WHAT the manifesto says, contributing to the pretentiousness. I felt like I'd spent 20 minutes at Best Buy with a salesman who just graduated from art school.

    I admire Constable's creativity and enthusiasm, but as far as his ideas about craft and society go, anyone who wants a deep understanding of those should read Ruskin, Morris, Crane, Lethaby, et al—or, better, immerse themselves—engage deeply—in the universe of surviving real craft that's provided the vast majority of material civilization.

  3. I had similar feelings about the video, and perhaps I could have best ignored it. I think crafts are best when they escape being pretentious... when they embrace and express some level of humility. There were things about this video that I couldn't quite get a grip on, an overt intellectualization that failed to grab me. That's why it reminded me of design schools, and the "B" I got in pottery class because I was working to improve my technique rather than trying to do off the wall inexplicable stuff.

    Thank you both JW and Tim for giving voice to what I was feeling but unable to express.

  4. Tim really hit the biggest nail on its head, I think, with his comment. There are a few others that could be driven home, and are worth thinking about. One is the idea of "maintenance = improvement." Which I would disagree with the video dude about when he says it wouldn't apply to an item from Ikea. On a literal level, I have an Ikea dining table which, through the years, has seen its original finish flake off (before I got it, so I don't know how), and because of my "maintaining" it with occasional treatments of Danish oil, it has taken on a gorgeous, living glow that it never would have developed under the original lacquer.

    On a more profound level, maintenance implies "keeping around" and further implies repairing as needed, like Doug's pressure washer. That Ikea dining table is another good example; my girlfriend and I found it on the curb where it had been left for the garbage truck. With 10 seconds' looking we realized the owners had mis-assembled it so that the legs couldn't be made tight, so when we got it home we put it together right. We also, by taking it home, kept it out of the landfill, which I consider a decided improvement.

    I'm curious, too, about the use of the words "deep" and "depth": before deep economy there was deep ecology, but before that "depth psychology" and Jameson's "deep description": am I only imagining that these usages delineate the devolutionary trajectory of an intellectual concept from high theory down through middlebrow intellectualizing and finally bottoming out as marketing concept?

    One last note, a bit of ad hominem I can't resist. The man physically resembles Elbert Hubbard and I kept wondering: would Hubbard have used hair gel if it had existed in 1905?

  5. Jim

    On your point about the term "deep", since Constable's a bit of a fast-talking salesman, it's not clear what he means. But deliberately or not, he strikes a legitimate chord with those of us who see the way craft has been DEBASED in our culture. With that term I'm guessing he's trying to reach down to its real basis in nature, craft traditions, utility, sound workmanship, and, as he says, love and care. I don't think he quite hits the mark, but there's something to his purpose. As I said, though, the whole branding thing is extremely arrogant and really devalues what legitimate motivation there is in his vision.