Reflections 9th January

Hallmarks. Birmingham Assay Office

On my Mind

Identity. As we find our way into 2022, amidst the newsfeeds dominated by high energy low value content which may capture our attention but will make not one jot of difference to our lives, just where do we ground ourselves? What do we hang onto to prevent ourselves, and the purpose of our lives, being washed away in this tsunami of relative trivia? What, and who, do we connect to?

One of questions I have been playing with is what is i that we produce that identifies us? My grandfather was a stone setter in Birmingham, and we still have jewellery made by him for my grandmother. I never met him – he was a casualty of war – but the jewellery he made, and why he made it, creates a sense of connection. My grandfather in law was a preacher, and I have on the desk in front of me a beautiful little box he made which contained little rolls of paper with extracts from the Psalms he would use a prompt for sermons. Neither have any great material value, but they are signatures; and expression of who they were, frozen and made tangible at a moment in time. I’m not suggesting some sort of rustic idyll here – their lives were variously short and challenging – but I find these expressions of who they were important, and wonder, in an age of disposable consumption, with most jobs in the U.K. in services rather than manufacture, just how do we sign our lives?

Making something is an outlet for energy, and a vehicle for contemplation. It takes preparation, revision, love and commitment. In the end, we are putting something, however small, into the world that says something about us. That takes an element of courage. I was here. I made this.

What happens when a large chunk of our identity is subsumed into the processes, procedures, controls and strategies of an employer who may well be very distant from the community we feel part of?

In her work “The Human Condition,” Hannah Arendt differentiates between “Animal Laborans” – taking work as an end in itself, where nothing else matters, and “Homo Faber.” – “Man as Maker” – which is her image of men and women doing another kind of work, making a life in common. Work as community, where the impact of the work we do is central to the work itself.

Over the last several decades, at first gradually and then suddenly, the distance between maker and consumer has increased dramatically. Initially through globalisation as technology and logistics gave us the opportunity to make in volume wherever was most cost effective, and then through the art of branding to give what we consume a manufactured patina that disguised its true origins and provenance. (I have a well-remembered visceral reaction to discovering that a high-end brand handbag sold on the High St for around twenty four times its cost of manufacture in India whilst the brand advertising represented it as hand crafted much closer to home. Partially true – the handles were attached in Europe.)

The march, of course, continues. Services that were offshored are now migrating to the ether as machine learning and AI become ever more effective, lower cost and indistinguishable from the offshored version. “Animal Laborans” is becoming an endangered species. But what about “Homo Faber?”

Relationships are at the heart of what really matters to us. with ourselves, others, and the planet we live on. The emotional connection between maker and client matters, and is very difficult if not impossible to counterfeit. In his book “Why we make things and why it matters” furniture maker and designer Peter Korn refers to clients as “respondents” because what they buy is a reaction to what he has created, not a commodity. I think there’s an important lesson there.

Scale relies on anonymity, and the ability to hide low-cost manufacture, whether achieved through outsourcing, automation, or both behind slick advertising, social media influencers, celebrity sponsors and other artifice.

Artisanal businesses go in another, altogether different direction to promote and leverage what makes them unique – a combination of commitment, craft, and relationships that makes their client respond to the act of creation. It’s not a brand, it’s a visceral relationship, and businesses that confuse the two get stuck in the middle, neither memorable nor differentiated.

The same is true of us as individuals. I know, and work with accountants, vets, designers, and even lawyers who are artisans – even though they would not describe themselves as such. I also know those who make things – from Dogfood to Jeans to Jewellery who exhibit the same qualities. People for whom the idea of an annual appraisal or leadership course would have them recoil in horror, and for whom the idea of “A personal Brand” is ridiculous. They are grounded in human relationships and responses far more than net promoter scores. They are what they do, make and behave.

With eight years to the end of the decade, when AI will be into its stride, and consumption a much more considered activity, I wonder what it is that will make us memorable. What will our own hallmarks be?

I’m running a project this year to consider what makes “New Artisans.”  It’s invitation only, and a collaboration around a question. If you make something, from spreadsheets to sausages that reflects who you are, I’d love to talk to you.

What’s catching my attention.

Weird Walk. I’m a believer in weird and wrote about it earlier this week. Serendipity brough this to my attention.

Stop Striving. It’s vastly overrated. Develop a signature, not a brand.

Sensemaking, I’m a fan of Rebel Wisdom, and this initiative is a good way to spend some time.

Continuity. I love the fact that creativity doesn’t need resources.

Craft. One of these cases will cost you a litttle shy of £5000.00. I used to have a leather business just down the road from these people, and I still miss it. There is an ethic, even a poetry, to a business that makes things by hand, one at a time, rather than efficient mass production.

A Quote that is on my Mind

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

Matthew Crawford. Shop Class as Soulcraft.

We can treat anything we do as a craft.

Have a great week.


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