Today I want to talk about a concept that is usually treated by the business community as quaint, if it is acknowledged at all. I want to talk about craftsmanship – a desire to do something well, for its own sake. The satisfaction that comes from creating something beautiful and creating it beautifully.
I had an interesting though unconventional weekend in Budapest. First I went to the museum of ethnography, which is right across from the parliament building. This is a really wonderful museum, and for a couple hours I was able to see what it was like to live and work in Budapest in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. I came across folkloric clothing, textiles, and furniture of incredible craftsmanship. I walked through a reproduction of a carpenter’s workshop during the era of the guild house and saw the imperfect tools that were used to create what looked like perfect objects.
Next I went to H&M, a global clothing store that most of you are probably familiar with. I needed to buy some socks … but what I observed is that this store – which is one of many around the world – has hundreds and hundreds of pairs of jeans which are supposedly new, but look as though they were manufactured during the Soviet era. What is even stranger is that the older the jeans looked, the most expensive they were. Each model of jeans had the same holes and worn out areas. They are produced by the tens of thousands in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. I left the store thinking that today we seek authenticity and individuality, but we prefer the economic benefits of mass manufacturing.
Finally I went to a trendy neighborhood with many small independent boutiques. In these stores I found that a new generation of craftsmen were able to make a decent living by independently producing jewelry, backpacks, coffee mugs, furniture, and household accessories. In one store I found a messenger bag made out of old bicycle innertubes and I paid over $100 for it. I liked the bag so much that I sent an email to the designer who made it. She is a young Turkish woman who has been living in Budapest for the past few years and she explained to me the long process of craftsmanship until she got the bag just right.
So why was I willing to pay over $100 for a bag when H&M was selling shoulder bags for just 10 euro? In his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson points out that when a product moves from scarcity to abundance, a culture of artisanship soon follows. For example, the places where we work usually give us regular coffee for free. Still, most of us are willing to pay up to 800 forint for a good espresso or cappuccino. When goods are abundant we care how they are produced as much as we care about the final product.
The invention of tools began our dialog with the abundance of material items that surround us today. The 20th century was the apex of materialism. Increasingly, the 21st century won’t be a century of atoms and material goods, but rather bits and digital goods. Seth Godin has found that of the top 100 companies worldwide only 32 of them produce actual physical things. Material culture and materialism are transitioning into digital culture and what might become ‘digitalism’, which has a different set of rules and values.
Today we think of the craftsman’s workshop as a space of solitude, but in Medieval Europe the workshop was a very social space. Each guild had a master craftsman who was responsible for maintaining, overseeing and training a team of apprentices. Each apprentice was bound to the master for seven years while he studied and practiced a single craft. Today employees are rarely given more than a few month’s training.
From the 12th until the 17th centuries it is easy to see an improvement in the quality of all types of crafts in Europe. The near-perfection of craftsmanship can be seen in Antonio Stradivari’s 17th and 18th century violin workshop in Cremona, Italy. In 2006 a single Stradivari violin was sold for more than $3.5 million dollars. His instruments are still played today by musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Stradivari would spend months, sometimes years, on a single violin. He was active in all aspects of his workshop. But, while Stradivari was an excellent craftsman, he was not a good master. He didn’t pass on the secrets of his violin making to his apprentices and his knowledge died when he did.
Just a few years after the death of Stradivari, the French mechanical inventor Jacques de Vaucanson invented the mechanized loom in Lyon, which displaced thousands of cottage weavers. For the first time in the history of tool-making man the culture of craftsmanship was now at risk. The culture of craft, handed down from one generation to the next, would be replaced by machines. In Lyon, Vaucanson was pelted by stones when he walked down the street. In England the Luddites burned down industrial factories.
Despite these protests, technological progress continued. More and more machines led to more and more goods and a stronger culture of materialism. Giant shopping malls flourished. The proliferation of machine-made goods brought their cost down so low that we no longer bothered to fix them when they broke. Rather, we simply replaced them with new, cheaper goods.
We entered the era of cheap crap everywhere.
But as I mentioned earlier, Chris Anderson has shown that when an abundance of crap emerges, it is followed by a culture of artisanship. In the material world we see a resurgence of boutiques, farmer’s markets, and organic, local food restaurants. An abundance of mediocrity creates an expanding marketplace for artisanship.
In the digital age we are still very much stuck in the age of giant stores filled with cheap crap. Facebook, Amazon, and Google are today’s online equivalents of the giant corporate shopping malls that defined offline retail commerce throughout the 1990’s. Their goal is not to create craft beautiful products for their own sake, but rather to grow as large and as quickly as possible. Google’s business model is to release as many products as possible with the hope that they will make money on just a few of them.
The culture of craftsmanship that developed over the thousands of years that humans engaged with material items has yet to transition into the digital space. But I do see a reason for hope, and a space for opportunity. Both information and digital tools have become abundant online, and you can sense a growing desire for craftsmanship and artisanship. For products that are produced slowly over time. For digital goods that are both beautiful and beautifully made.
Mike Migurski is a partner at Stamen Design, which has developed some of the most innovative visualizations of the online flow of information. He is particularly interested in the visualization of geographic information as can be seen in Oakland Crimespotting and Cabspotting. Stamen is also responsible for labs.digg.com and the Flickr Clock.
Adrian Holovaty is a journalist and computer programmer in Chicago. He co-developed Django, a Python-based framework to easily build customized content management systems. For the past two years he has been leading development on EveryBlock, which has pushed forward the aesthetic frontiers of online maps.
Russell Quinn is a British digital polymath living in Zürich, Switzerland. Among his many other endeavors, he developed the McSweeney’s iPhone application, which is the best content delivery application I have ever seen. (Even better than one of my other favorite technologies, the printed book.) For the foreseeable future I will happily continue to pay $5 every six months for my content subscription.
Unlike.net offers a variety of travel guide products for just a handful of cities that range from free recommendations on their website to $5 iPhone apps with extra features to $30 customized digital guides to private guided tours for $400. They are a Berlin-based new media group that focuses solely on Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Ibiza, London, Miami, Paris, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Vienna.
Zadi Diaz is one of the pioneers of video blogging. Along with her husband, Steve Woolf, she produces Epic Fu, a web culture show. I have seen Zadi work as a producer and editor and I have a feeling that she puts more time and attention into a single episode than many Hollywood producers give to projects over an entire year.
What all of these craftsmen have in common is that they create for the love of creating. Yet they have all managed to make decent money in the process. They are not interested in being acquired by a corporate giant (EveryBlock being the sole exception). These craftsmen value their independence and the control they have over their creations.
We are even seeing a return to the craftsman’s workshop in the form of co-working spaces. Kitchen Budapest – an open space for digital innovation in Budapest – and similar co-working spaces around the world are becoming the new workshops for the first generation of digital natives.