Stitching Work and Play

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do” – John Ruskin

A trip through southwest England made with no expectations surprised me with a bridge between the Ages of Guilds and what remains of a culture of craftsmanship. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a response to the mass production and commoditization of design that came with the industrial revolution. The the decline of guilds as the backbone of manufacturing was not the end but maybe the beginnings of a new stage of design centered thinking. Its leading lights may be less well known now but the threads of their influence remained interwoven in the architecture, furniture design and jewelry making well into the 20th Century. Where is that joy of crafting in work now? Are we moving to further separate work from craft and play or are we seeing the first signs of their reintegration?

My wife and I had met up with my mother and sister as they took a tour through the the region where my mother spent her early years. My sister, master of itineraries had planned a delightful trip from Brighton to the 100 Acre Wood. One stop was to be a hidden gem. Standen House and Garden is an Arts & Crafts house. Its design and interior was influenced by a group who built a following in the later 1800s.Their ideals revolved around making creations that were unique yet functional but most definitely not mass produced. The four principles forged by the movement were design unity, joy in labour, individualism and regionalism. They could have been in software development with quotes like these from Arts & Crafts inspiration A.W.N. Pugin:

  • On how architectural depends on: “the fitness of the design to the purpose to which it is intended”
  • On features echoing the Agile mantras on highest value first: “there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety”

At Standen I saw examples of the furniture and wallpaper designed by William Morris. I had just finished reading about the decline of the Age of Guilds and arguments against that decline being caused by guilds’ lack of willingness to innovate, share knowledge and mass produce. Morris, John Ruskin and friends looked to extend the ideals of guilds through their own companies and writings that eventually spread across Europe and America eventually influencing names like Burley Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright. The unfortunate irony was producing their unique goods was too expensive for the average consumer of the day. They relied on the well off upper class patrons who Morris would later rail against with his more socialist views.

“No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder” – John Ruskin

I have come to believe that craft and play are naturally intertwined. The crafter works away from the limelight but ultimately in presenting her piece for show, there is an element of performance, of showmanship. There is practice and then there is play. I see these as reflections of the same dilemma as faced the Art & Crafts movement. Literally like the modern fashion show the performance requires a dance between the creator and those with the wealth to buy. Even worse, the immediate conversion into mass production. The performance is more marketing than making for the joy of it and connecting with a small audience. Where are the modern crafters hiding or are they finally extinct?

I recently visited the first National Maker Faire in Washington DC. I had been to the World Maker Faire a few years back. They are like a mini Expo of home spun technology. Some largish companies but an equal amount of small companies and individuals with everything from custom hardware, 3D printers special projects of all descriptions. A common theme is a sense of sharing knowledge and collaboration, of celebrating small wonders of technology. What was also unique was that all these makers had found a way to bend mass production to their needs. Funding through Kickstarter has removed a barrier while enhancing the sense of community. A lot of the hardware is also open source like the ubiquitous Arduino and all its variations. Small fully featured computers like the Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone add to the platforms available to makers on which they can create their unique wonders.

Hackerspaces are increasing common in the US as meeting places for Makers to collaborate. Hackerspaces from the region were well represented. Even libraries were showing how they were expanding from lending books to providing access to 3D printers and lending tools. They both seem to echo the purpose of the settlement house movemen,t from the Arts and Crafts period, which in its day provided accommodation, group craft classes and fellowship in urban areas.

USAID at the National Makerfaire

USAID at the National Makerfaire

My daughter accompanied me. Fresh back from studying displaced communities and the conflicts in Colombia, maybe this nest of nerds was not her cup of tea. Yet buried amongst the stands were the dreams of the Art & Crafts ethos come to life in a global community. There was the USAID Global Development Lab with a display of technology solutions aimed at solving problems in a sustainable way, of developing countries. Their brochure, “Makers for Development” showed how one Afate Gnikou from Togo, built a 3D printer with local eWaste and about $100 of specialist parts. I could imagine the impact of being able to fix a piece of vital equipment by printing the spare part over shipping it in.

The display by MIT showed how this idea was being extended via organizations like IDIN into developing communities. They have created a program that introduces design thinking to local communities then supports entrepreneurs in developing their ideas that solve local problems. The approach first looked to improve the productivity of the individual but with an eye to selling their innovations or using them as the basis of a service. Kofi Taha’s talk showed how impactful the maker entrepreneur could be in everything from palm oil presses to bicycle driven maize strippers. He showed how a the knowledge of a local bicycle repair man could be expanded into a whole host of devices including one that made drip irrigation tubing for local farmers from a local supply of plastic, all from old machine and bicycle parts. Wish for WASH showed how the symbiosis of a community willing to pay for cellphones could be used to introduce basic sanitation into communities in a way that was culturally compatible. My daughter asked Kofi whether IDIN had considered working in displaced communities where typically there is distrust of outsiders. He said that their involvement was by invitation only. I was glad to see initiatives were not imposed but became a supportive collaboration to make a localized version of the design workshop model they had developed.

“Our duty is to preserve what the past has had to say for itself, and to say for ourselves what shall be true for the future” – John Ruskin

Here then I feel is the start of the New Age of Guilds. Devoted as the old ones were to meeting the needs of their locale but leveraging the modern communications to make the sharing of knowledge and fellowship a reality at a global scale. Rather than protecting innovations, they are shared. Unlike the industrial age there seems to be a symbiosis of mass produced low cost platforms and the unique innovations that grow on top of them. The popular Maker Faires showcase a high tech version of the the practice and perform cycle.

If knowledge work provides the option to pursue craft without the weight of manufacturing and if commoditized technology can provide a platform for play then can we squeeze both into the workplace of established organizations? I think so. At a recent all hands meeting where, a group in another the office gave a talk on how they were using their spare time to build a whimsical device to measure their coffee stock. They were using the opportunity to learn new technologies that clients would likely be needing. They challenged other offices to join in. A group of us has taken up the challenge. Who knows if it will lead to anything but it is a start on the journey to bring the good parts of guilds – learning, mastery, autonomy of purpose and fellowship to dilute the manufacturing models of software development and hierarchical management holdovers of the industrial revolution.

“The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” William Morris


The Arts and Crafts Movement by Elizabeth Cumming  Wendy Kaplan

Guilds, Innovation and the European Economy, 1400-1800 by S. R. Epstein (Editor), Maarten Prak (Editor)


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Agile Anthropology, Play and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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