In a recent post on Japanese kōgei, I mentioned that the word “craft” seems to have fallen out of favor. The language we use to talk about objects that are intentionally planned (designed) and made by some combination of hand and machine (crafted) is confusing. Is the final product art, craft, or design?
Peter Korn’s book, Why We Make Things And Why It Matters, The Education of a Craftsmen, gives some explanation for this confusion. As he recounts his unexpected career first as a carpenter, then a professional furniture maker, and finally as founder of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, he explains how the perception of craft has changed over time.
Korn is one of those fortunate people whose career matches up with his passion, and this is what makes the book such a pleasure to read. The discovery and fulfillment that he experiences as his career progresses is, I think, recognizable to anyone with an abiding curiosity that is sated in their daily work. With this in mind, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in what a fulfilling life’s work looks and feels like, no matter how unconventional it may seem from the outside. Here are a few highlights:
On the definition of craft
“When it comes to definition, craft is a moving target. Like its cousins, art and design, craft is a cultural construct that evolves in response to changing mindsets and conditions of society.”
On the history of craft
“In fact, the concept of craft as we know it is a recent invention. Weavers and potters in the Middle Ages, woodworkers and gold-smiths during the Renaissance; cabinetmakers employed by Louis XV in the Age of Enlightenment — none of these practitioners thought of their work as craft.”
On how craft has come to be devalued
Korn writes, “about craft as it is practiced today by professionals and amateurs throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and other industrialized nations — countries where manufactured goods have almost entirely supplanted handmade products in meeting the material needs of society. In these countries, contemporary craft items stand in sharp contrast to preindustrial objects that we also designate as craft. Premodern craft was made to satisfy culturally prescribed, functional purposes. A hatbox held a hat, a snuffbox held snuff, a clothes press held clothes.”
“Contemporary craft, being economically marginal, is created primarily to address the spiritual needs of its maker. As a result, it often lacks utility and its practical disposition may be left to the whim of the purchaser.”
On creative fulfillment
“Creative effort is a process of challenging embedded narratives of belief in order to think the world into being for oneself, and that the work involved in doing so provides a wellspring of spiritual fulfillment.”
I can’t think of a better description for what drives us to embark on creative projects: when we create — whether a book, a table, a business, or a garden — we are thinking the world into being for ourselves.