Monday, February 2, 2015

Why hand made objects are still relevant in today's world.

Cornice carved from the solid
In a world of computers, electronic gadgets and an "app" to do just about anything, many people probably wonder why anyone should care about those who still insist on making things with the slow and deliberate art of hand-craft.I often encounter some version of the following statement; "Hey, this is the twentieth century, there are machines which can do that in half a minute, why would you want to take an hour to do it?" 

I will use this posting to make an argument as to why, with all the gadgets and robots making nearly everything we use, hand crafting things is now more important than ever before.

Once upon a time, everything was made by hand, and the manufacture of those things was very labour intensive. In fact, many tasks were so time consuming that people very quickly conceived mechanical means to assist them in the work they were doing, thus the lathe and the potters wheel were invented long before recorded history could tell us anything about their origins or early development. As time progressed, people continuously developed new methods to improve both the quality and economy of producing objects. The plane is an invention which made the smoothing of timbers much faster and more even than could be achieved by an adze, hatchet or chisel in a much more efficient means. No sooner the plane was invented then people set about devising new ways of making it work better.  

This brings to bear the first argument for the retention and promotion of handcrafts long after anyone needs to use them strictly for the purpose of utility. Every tool and machine in existence today has a very direct and continuous evolution from the stone age to our own, and owes its being to the manifold generations of artisans and craftspeople who, through the constant grind of the millennia, have slowly developed upon the work of their predecessors to arrive at what we call today "modern". I have lived long enough to see things which i once thought to be so spectacularly modern, to the point of looking futuristic, now being rather dated and outmoded. The Audi 100/200 series from the early 80's would be a classic example of this, along with the CD which, though spectacularly 'modern' in 1982 is nearly obsolete (sadly) now. (Hey, one good thing is that vinyl is having a come-back!) By maintaining the use and existence of hand tools, future generations can gain actual experiential knowledge into that long and slow evolution, and can visualize the impact it has had on the shaping of our world. By observing things from the past we can better realize that what we call 'modern' today will also pass into the world of antiquities in time. At no point in history have people ever really thought of themselves as anything but modern!

My second argument for the retention of the handcrafts would be that in a world where everything is so automated and digitized, having a personal encounter with the art of creation is perhaps akin to a spiritual experience. We have all heard of kids who, in answer to the question of the origins of our food, have only the answer of the supermarket. To follow in that trend, doubtless the origins of furniture, then , is Ikea. People would benefit greatly from watching a traditional cabinet maker at work at his bench, To see the shavings curling out from his plane, to observe flower and leaf emerge from their hiding amongst the grains of the timber under the skilled carver as he wields his gouges, or to see the whorl and curl of figured wood spring to life with the careful rubbing of the polisher leaves an experience never to be forgotten. 

Machine carved broken pediment

Hand carved broken pediment
notice the subtle faceting which
lends character to the piece

Things made by hand have character, character leads to personalization which lends intangible value to an object. A chest bought from the corner furniture store is nothing more than an exchange of 100 or 1000 dollars; a chest made by uncle Hans is something special to be shared with others and passed on to future generation. If you were lucky enough to watch that uncle create said chest, then you also now have a story and some great memories to go along with that very special piece of furniture. At a time when people need constant change to keep their attention, i have seen kids stand watching me work until the parent pulled them away. There is a natural internal connection we humans have with the art of creating something, because this is something unique to us as a species. Watching a CNC machine spitting out parts at five per minute does not connect with our psyche in the same way.

My third argument would be on a more subjective note, but one which i still believe has great merit; this is to address the aspect of appearance. A tree has a soul, (in my opinion) and that soul can still live on under the care and guidance of a skilled artisan. Though the tree no longer grows, still the wood can remain alive and impart its warmth and charm for generations to come when worked with skill, heart and spirit. No tree grows with laser strait lines, and dead flat surfaces; furniture which has these characteristics, in my opinion at least, are completely devoid of character. (All the thousands of cherished antiques around the world seem to back me up on this as well) A piece of furniture with subtle undulations and inconsistencies gives evidence of someone taking up the challenge of creating a piece of lasting beauty from an ambiguous piece of raw material and mastering his skill and control of mind over matter; the minor imperfections remind us of the human condition that though we can never attain perfection, we must always strive for it or our work will seem inconsequential and devoid of lasting worth.

So, my fellow woodworkers who share my love of the hand-made. Here is to many more years of teaching the world there is something of value beyond a gadget which is destined to be obsolete five minutes after it was purchased! Keep the faith! 
Hanging candle-box
oak with inlays

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