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‘We are not the first to believe in the utopia of craft to deliver us from the shock of modernity’

Williammorris

We must not be drawn into the fictional satisfactions of nostalgia – whether in the artisanal bread we eat or an overworked Arts and Crafts detail

How do you like your beer? Monikered with craft? Your bread? Prefixed with ‘artisanal’? Well, frankly, who doesn’t these days? It’s a long time since we believed in the optimistic future of processed food – a world of Angel Delight, white bread and other space age spin-offs, of laboratories and factories engineering nutrition and delight. 

Instead, faced with a crisis of faith in those late 20th-century ideas of progress, we have turned elsewhere. Not to the technological future but to ideas, sensations or traditions of the past. To heritage, craft and artisanality. These are more than a lifestyle choice. They are a deep and profound cri de coeur, a howl for the authentic, for what we might call the ‘real’.

This world of authenticity is all too easy to parody as a hipster fantasy. Reclaimed wood, exposed brick, jam jars for glasses, eschewing gears for fixed wheels. A world where you pay more for dirty vegetables. We know (or feel we know) that late capitalist modernity is a hall of mirrors where meaning and significance have been eroded, where natural resource is plundered and whose communities are uprooted for profit. From a distrust of institutions and politics to fake news, ours is an era where conspiracy theories have bled from the fringes to the centre ground and become indistinguishable, where the idea of truth has been eroded. 

And we know too that even our cry is doomed, that the more we struggle, the tighter the perverse bindings of modernity become: ‘The luxury’ as Italian fashion brand Diesel once put it, ‘of dirt.’ It’s no wonder dirt, texture and complexity have re-emerged as ways of connecting with sensations of authenticity, as ways of reaching for the possibility of ‘real-ness’. And this is at the core of our obsession with the idea of craft. For craft suggests ideas of care, time, recognition of the value of labour. Craft resists expediency and exploitation. It stands for meaning, morality and social responsibility. Or at least we want it to.

‘Couldn’t we cast William Morris, the figurehead of the Arts and Crafts Movement, as the original hipster’

We are not the first to believe in the utopia of craft to deliver us from the shock of modernity. In fact this sensation has been a shadow born out of and following modernity, an inverted shadow-Modernism that has recoiled with revulsion at the very same things. Couldn’t we cast William Morris, the figurehead of the Arts and Crafts Movement, as the original hipster. Beard, medieval-based artisan manufacturing, entrepreneurship and politics all bound up in one alternative worldview of opposition to industrialisation. And Walthamstow. 

For Ruskin too, the critic who has done more to shape British attitudes to art and morality, the act of craft was far more than simply making something. Design, he argued, could not be delaminated from its social and economic milieu. Design, in Ruskinian terms, acts not only as a moral compass. It is the magnetic north too, the utopian destination of a profoundly resolved society.

But what would Ruskin and Morris make of our contemporary circumstance? What kind of horror would they feel at another century and a half of alienation between maker and consumer? Would they too retreat into our artisanal nostalgias? Or might they help us to understand new ways to figure the idea of craft. Not only post-industrial craft, but post-digital craft too. 

Acts of contemporary making involve hand, tool, machine, robot and code in a continuous spectrum of possibilities. The divisions that once clearly marked the boundary between craft and mass production rearrange themselves as, over time, forms of technology percolate through culture. All tools were once technology, and all technology is human culture. Everything can be crafted.

‘We find ourselves reaching for things that signify craft, for things that suggest the work of the human hand’

Yet at the same time we find it hard to delaminate ourselves from traditional ideas and nostalgic references. We find ourselves reaching for things that signify craft, for things that suggest the work of the human hand, of sensations of time and process. 

Architecture might act with more sophistication in its gestures but it remains – often at least – bound to the same motivations as hipster culture. When architecture attempts to speak truths it does so through a set of clear references: materially, different kinds of truth can be summoned by combinations of timber, concrete and brick. Formally, truth can be invoked through historical reference (as long as this reference is abstracted). It can also be drawn forth by appeals to apparent eternals – the ‘natural’ and its highly cultured derivations of climate, ecology and engineering. But these – and the other forms of truth that architecture attempts to perform – are simply that: performances of cultural ideas of truth. 

To reclaim the act of craft from nostalgia and traditionalism means to recast it once again as a force of conceptual intelligence, political agency and social possibility. This means discarding fantasies about making, about the assemblage of things, about material qualities. The possibilities of architectural making should not resist modernity but rather should fully embrace its complexities and inconstancies.

That’s to say, the danger of the fetishisation of craft is to remove it from the very place where it belongs. If craft is the negation between material, labour, technology and value, then its real site is not in the rarefied spaces that allow for the most correct, refined and controlled of details. Instead the figuration of craft as a relevant contemporary act can only really take place where it can contest the political and economic circumstances of architecture.

By all means join me for a craft beer. But recognise that if craft represents anything, it cannot afford – in our post-truth era – to provide us with lifestyle comforters. Instead, ‘nu-craft’ can warn us not to be drawn into the fictional satisfactions of nostalgia – whether that is in the type of tomato you eat or an overworked Arts and Crafts detail. It can serve to remind us of the sheer difficulty for architecture to act as a political-aesthetic project. Yet it can – through a speculative re-working of the structures, organisations, operations of how architecture is assembled and what it is assembled from – begin to chart new ways of putting the world together.