“…technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure…a technique for conducting a particular way of life” Richard Sennet, The Craftsman

The question of what craft can contribute to the Slow movement is a very timely one. The Slow movement shares a lot with craft, namely respect for tradition and heritage, an appreciation of where things are made, and an emphasis on social networks. For my contribution to this discussion, I would like to consider what I have been thinking about for a while – that society is undergoing a much needed change of direction and that designers and craftspeople may have a lot to offer this process – I’ll call it social creativity.

Problem solving, hands–on learning and knowledge sharing are all part of a craftsperson’s repertoire and these skills have great cultural and social value, more now than ever. This link between how we make things and how we live and consume, is what I would like to explore…….

Whether it’s the potter from Tuscany who has developed a particular way of throwing pots using local clay or the baker from England who uses local stone ground wheat, both craftspeople share a mastery over their material, and are able to work with the demands of this material, refining and problem solving as they go. They also appreciate the important link between the material and its place of origin, whether it’s a valley in Tuscany or a field in Devon.

The skill of mastering one’s local environment that comes with ‘making’, which brings with it a sense of confidence and agency, eludes most of us. We live in a fast-paced and world and are relying on most of our products and services being shipped in from other parts of the world. At the purely material level, we have lost that sense of connection between an object and how and where it was made. Traditionally, we either made things ourselves, knew who made them as they lived locally, or they were handed down to us through family connections. We had an emotional bond with things and this emotional durability withstood the test of time, as we were more likely to hold on to things and repair them.

But distance and speed have not only defined the way we produce products but also how we communicate, eat, work and travel – in short, how we live[1]. We have become inbred to accept speed at all costs. Economic growth is accelerating, our populations are growing and we work harder and faster. As a consequence, this distance and speed has also rendered us passive and deskilled, in a simple ‘hands-on ‘ way, and we have lost the know-how that traditional communities had, which enabled them to deal with the most diverse aspects of daily life, whether it was growing and distributing food or simply repairing something. It is clichéd but true that my grandmother’s generation were much more able and skilled in a ‘hands on’ way, and many of us have now lost these everyday skills.

Also, most of our daily lives rely on services of some kind, whether it is schooling, caring for chronic illness in a community or our household waste being collected and recycled. But thanks to advances in technology and a more centralised approach to organising these services, most of us have become ‘disenabled’ as users of these services. They do not require us to use our own skill and capabilities and they don’t really consider the user and how they may actively contribute to the service. We are merely being ‘served’ rather than being ‘involved’ and it is more likely to make us feel unsatisfied and powerless.

It is as if we are only ever mindless consumers, disengaged from the process of production and disconnected from shaping our daily lives. We also cannot continue under the false illusion that buying the latest consumer goods will make us content, as we have reached an environmental and social tipping point. We need to learn how to live better and to imagine new ideas of well being which are lighter on the earth, less about how many products we produce and buy and more human-centred. Enter the Slow movement.

Slow is a grassroots social movement, a new way of thinking and behaving. It is a small but growing force that is an alternative to this current unsustainable culture and way of delivering products and services. It is about reviving tradition, appreciating the quality of how and where a product was made and creating new ways to organise ourselves around these issues[2].

The signs are everywhere, in many local communities – rather than shop at supermarkets people are organising their own local farmers markets; instead of driving children to school, mothers are organising a local ‘walking bus’ [3]; and instead of shopping mindlessly on the high street, women are meeting up with friends and swapping[4] their unwanted clothes or making and repairing their own.

Ezio Manzini[5] an Italian service designer, explains that projects like these are all examples of ‘social innovation’. They include a small creative group of people who have organised their own way of doing things, against the dominant system. They all show entrepreneurship and initiative and are examples of people who are practising the solutions that they want and are not waiting around for someone else to do it for them.

So, the Slow movement offers us a tiny, diffused vision of a possible future. We need mastery over our lives and local environments again, as individuals and as communities, and to develop the skills to form a life that we are content with, one in which we actively build our own well being rather than passively receiving it. The Slow movement shows how it may be done. But, we will need to scale it up if we want to address the current challenges we face.

Manzini explains that the pleasure of moving on foot, of eating local food and of caring for the things we own, are all activities which our current dominant system actively discourages.[6] Roads are built relentlessly, food is flown in from the other side of the world and fast, cheap clothing is now the norm. So if we hope to encourage and nurture the vision being offered by the Slow movement, a massive change is needed. It will be a sort of ‘social learning process’ on a vast scale which must involve everybody. This will require the skills to be able to project an idea of how we would like to live and then to be able to carry it out. It is about taking the tiny seeds of the Slow movement and helping to spread the ideas.

Also, society in the UK will be facing some very challenging problems in the next fifty years, such as the need to find alternatives to our oil dependency and the threat of high food prices. We will need to find creative solutions to these problems and craftspeople may prove to be a valuable resource. The skills that come with developing a craft technique, such as hands-on learning, willingness to experiment and peer-to-peer exchange will all be needed for ‘social innovation’ in the future.

So, if it is no longer sustainable or desirable to continue with the old ‘buy and throw’ consumer culture, we will need to replace it with something else. Not only do we need to rethink our production system (which the craft community would be well advised to consult on!) but we need to regenerate the cultural and social qualities of local communities and places[7]. The Slow Food movement has shown how we may be able to develop new economies and social networks which are based around local production and this is now the challenge for other industries and enterprises.

Craftspeople are well placed to understand the value of local production. They are at their heart, local producers. Their objects are not made by someone else far away, they are made by their own hands within a locale, and the object’s value is inherent to this.

The history of craft shows that there has always been a strong link between skill and community. As an apprentice, developing one’s own skills was seen as honouring your ancestors and was considered a contribution to society[8]. But maybe social creativity can go beyond the making of objects and can somehow direct these skills towards the re-making of our communities and lives. I hope to consider these ideas further in my next posting…….

[1] Thackara, J (2005) In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press. pg 29

[2] Manzini E. (2006) Slow + design: slow approach to a distributed economy and sustainable sensoriality, brochure for seminar event

[6] Manzini, E (2005) Enabling solutions: social innovation and design for sustainability. Downloaded from www.sustainable-everyday.net

[7] Manzini, E (2008) New design knowledge, Introduction to the conference ‘Changing the Change’, Turin, 10/07/08

[8] Sennet, R. (2008) The Craftsman London: Allen Lane, pg 23

One thought on “A Summer Season post from Clara Vuletich

  1. Translating the skills needed to be a craftsperson to community building and creating social networks, is something I have been thinking about a lot over recent years. I once did a presentation on the similarity of forming a pot and creating a social network/ community for Craftspeople.
    When you throw a pot on the wheel you go through a stage of familiarising yourself with the clay, an unformed lump on the wheel head. You get to know its temperature, texture, firmness, you become acquainted, you shaping the clay but also somehow the clay informing and shaping you. Similar to when a social network or community is formed, there is a process of finding out, of getting to know, to begin to understand and know what it is you have to offer eachother. Each group is different and unique, and so is every piece of unformed clay. Everything you need is already there, it is just a process of finding out exactly what that something is.
    So a community begins to take shape as different skills and talents, personalities assert themselves, just as a pot takes shape in relationship with the hands of a skilled potter. Sometimes you need to abort, a hard lump or air bubble in the clay, a group of people that find after a time they really can’t work together. Most of the time you produce something, depending on skill and perseverance. A social network might do a project together, have a gathering, the unformed clay might turn into a plate or a jug. Something is manifested, there is a process of evaluation, in both cases you decide if it is a good piece of work, whether it is worth doing again and how it can be improved. It is then put out into the world and so it continues endlessly assessing and reassessing depending on the material and environment you are working in.
    The feedback loops for a craftsperson are instant and ongoing. Because many of us work from raw material to finished product, we have a sense of what it is to be sustainable because of the limitations of the material we are choosing to work with. Often the weather and season has a part to play in how we live and work. Raw materials seem to be alive and breath and are affected by changes in the weather. Just like we are if we stopped long enough to notice. More and more in our fragmented society we have become ‘handlers’ of things and merchandise, we have no sense of completion, of a beginning , middle and end. It is something the craftsperson has to offer, they offer skill, the reintroduction of skill into daily life and the transferrence of skill from making to reshaping society.

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