Is there a demand for hand-made objects and work? And why?
Is the desire for hand-made products based on a romantic perception of the hand-made and a sense of ‘post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial’?
Are hand-made products viewed as luxury or value-added products? How do hand-made items compare with mass-produced items, in terms of value, life cycle and ethics?
Reflect on any hand-made item you own.
I think that there is certainly a demand for high quality beautifully crafted hand-made objects but also that this a limited, niche market appealing mostly to post-industrial sophisticated Western consumers that have got tired of traditional mass produced products after decades of purchasing, accumulating and discarding them in almost limitless amounts. I think that Justin McGuirk is right in saying that ‘while western consumers aspire to craftsmanship, the majority of the world’s population lives in countries that have local craftsmen but aspire to industrialised products’. We have been there before and we are now past the industrialisation stage since we already have all the basic goods that we need and aspire now to something else.
But with the exclusion of laboriously produced luxury items like for example high couture garments or high jewellery that only very few people can afford, we generally crave for a hand-made quality that nonetheless does not cost much, used as we are to the low prices of mass-produced articles, and it’s difficult to understand how we can have hand-made products that are at the same time well crafted and cheap unless we underpay the makers.
I am not totally convinced that the desire for the hand-made is born out of a ‘post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial’. I think it’s only partially so since after all almost nobody would be ready to give up washing machines or mobile phones and revert to a true pre-industrial way of life with slow transportation, difficulty of communication and scarcity of goods: there seems to be no way back to a craft-based economy on a general basis in a highly developed world and mass-produced goods are here to stay and go from cheap to cheaper.
I think that the desire of the hand-made can be explained also as a reaction against globalisation and the feeling of people of getting lost in a huge world without borders in which it is not easy to maintain one’s roots and local identities. A hand-made item can look soothing and familiar, to get to know how it was created and the story of its maker can help us reconnect with our own story and feelings. A hand-made product is emotionally and culturally charged and can contribute to keep us rooted and to identify with people as individuals.
Also to hold or to wear something hand-made that we have personally chosen speaks about who we are, what we care about and like and so can define us as persons much more that a mass-produced item. More generally it seems that we need to make and to listen to stories to stay grounded and the material culture we live in can help us to do just that.
This can explain also why more and more people are driven to use their hands to make things, perhaps as a way to tell who they are through what they make. So I think McGuirk is right again when he writes that ‘what’s new is the desire to reveal the process and not just the finished object’. The crafter does not humbly disappear behind his or her object as during the Middle Ages, but wishes instead to tell a story and come to the fore as an individual.
But if the hand-made can be seen in part as an understandable trend in this scary globalised world, its important but limited economic importance goes well beyond its value in figures: I think it also has a positive influence on more and more industrial sectors that in their efforts towards sustainability and slow design have in many cases significantly improved working conditions, reduced wastes of natural resources and limited their impact on the environment. Much is still to be done but a process has started.
I am personally involved in crafts and making things gives me much satisfaction and a strong sense of fulfillment. Whenever I learn a new skill I also get more curious about the work of others and I see objects made by other people with new eyes. On a recent trip to Saint Petersbourg I happened to visit a matrioska laboratory where a team of painters was skillfully decorating them one by one, brush stroke after brush stroke. On some shelves there were also mass-produced matrioskas which were obviously much cheaper. After much looking around I finally bought a set of hand-painted ones and it was a difficult choice to make because they were all slightly different even if painted with similar traditional motifs.
Whenever I hold my little dolls I see some more details and new small variations, to hold them is an invitation to look more closely, to pay a focused attention and to study how individually made they are. It’s a question of differences not only of quality like it may be the case with a well designed and well manufactured product. And of course those little variations speak about the painter: in that laboratory some matrioskas had a precise and skilled touch, others a more fluent flair, some had thicker layers of paint, others were smooth and flat. So they all reveal something about their maker, and this is for me the real charm of the hand-made which goes beyond skill and quality.
McGuirk, Justin, ‘The art of craft: the rise of the designer-maker’ (2011), at: