This month, Huntsman cutter and tailoring columnist Matthew Gonzalez considers the 21st century revival of the arts and crafts movement
We live in a globalised world where almost everything is designed in one country, mass produced in another, purchased in a third and even resold online to someone in a fourth. A perfect example is my mobile phone. It was designed in the USA, manufactured in China in the millions, purchased in the UK, and will probably be sold online for a bit of extra cash when I get a new one.
Global trade and mass production ushered in a myriad of benefits to the western way of life. They became an earmark of modernity that ended up being synonymous with luxury for most of the 20th century. However, it also helped turn the world into a homogenised mass-produced society. Some people realised this almost 140 years ago. From the 1880s to the 1920s the Arts and Crafts movement rejected industrialised sameness in favour of old world artisanal craftsmanship and in the modern age, it’s starting to happen again.
Artisans and Craftspeople have never gone away but for decades their skill was under appreciated. Since the Post-war era there has been this misconception that perfection was good and imperfection was bad, it seems logical but in many instances, it’s plain wrong. The nearly imperceptible irregularity of handmade objects gives them their value. Small workshops like knife maker Blenheim Forge (@blenheimforge), based in Peckham, exemplify how small batch crafted objects can be both aesthetically pleasing and well-made while not coming off an assembly line by the thousands.
Expressing one’s own self identity has never been more accepted and important in society. Now, nearly two decades into the 21st century, in the era of luxury and high street brands that have shops around the world, online shopping from anywhere and next day designer knock-offs, people are growing fatigued of global uniformity and are once again valuing artisans and craftspeople. Whether it is Savile Row tailors, bespoke shoemakers, independent jewellers or objects created in small artisanal workshops, handmade once again means luxury.
Advertisements from the 1950s onward were full of glossy colour photos showcasing their perfectly manufactured items that would be displayed on department store shelves and supermarket aisles in harsh, but modern, florescent lighting in all their glorious sameness. Before the Kardashians, families were trying to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’, that fictional family who had everything, by buying the latest branded ‘thing’ that was put on the department store shelves. The west had been swept up in an idealized, middle class, quasi-conformist lifestyle that embodied the American dream.
Perfectly mass-produced clothing, leather goods, furniture or even food are nice and offer consistency, but they lack a certain richness of character. There is no real story behind the mass produced. Whereas there is something special about buying an object that has been made as a one-off or bespoke commission in a workshop, especially if you can actually meet its creator. Making something by hand will never be as precise as a machine and that is a good thing.
Craftsmanship for many years was relegated to something one’s grandmother would make and always seemed to manifest itself in an unwanted quilt, a hand knitted scarf or Christmas sweater. Those incredibly valuable skills were marginalized. Those objects with their rich character and beautiful imperfections were discarded to make room in one’s closet for a coat that everyone else probably owned.
There is a great 1960s song called ‘Little Boxes’ by Malvina Reynolds which perfectly parodies the problem with mass production’s effect on culture by describing the suburban housing in America as being “all made out of ticky tacky [while in the end] they look just the same.” Over the past decade I have seen more men and women becoming aware and interested in high end craftsmanship and, as a Savile Row tailor, I am privileged to participate in the creation of bespoke clothing on a daily basis but craftsmanship is not limited to the esoteric world of high-end tailoring.
There are talented people making interesting and unique objects across the UK. Meeting and commissioning from them is an unparalleled pleasure. Not only do these objects have more character, they tend to last longer, create less waste and are subsequently more cost effective in the long run. Mass production is a necessity of life. We need the necessities of life like transportation, phones and computers to be made en masse. However, when possible, it is also important to surround oneself with objects that also intrigue, engage and inspire. MG
Words by Matthew GONZALEZ
Image Credits by Lo Ken