Fewer, Better Things

By Gaynor Strachan Chun
By Gaynor Strachan Chun
craftsmanship

How much do you know about the objects you surround yourself with in your everyday life? For most of us, the answer is probably not much. Since the inception of the industrial revolution we have gradually become disconnected from our physical surroundings (our material world) and the objects we use every day. And our penchant for over-consumption has only made things worse.

What would it take to reverse this trend? This is the question that guides, and animates, Glenn Adamson’s recent book, Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.) Adamson, whose career spans positions in the fields of design, craft, and contemporary art, builds a strong argument for reconnecting with our material world on multiple levels. And the first step to doing so, he argues, is to understand what each object is made of, and how it was made.

A woodworker's tale

Gary Rogowski (green shirt, at right) confers with his students during a class in wood-bending, a process he calls equal parts art, science, and luck. “Preparation is key,” he says.  Photo courtesy of Northwest Woodworking Studio.

To make his case, Adamson takes us on a journey re-examining craft, craftsmanship, and the material intelligence that comes from learning by doing. Along the way, he retraces his own path to falling in love with beautifully handmade objects. That path runs from his beloved childhood teddy bear to the professor who changed his life forever when he included a “handling session” in a class on the history of Chinese ceramics. “Then I turned the dish over and pow! Everything changed for me. On the underside of the object were the fingerprints of the potter who made it all those centuries ago. I could put my own fingers in the same spots… I had that electric charge you get when you feel a true emotional connection with a person. Suddenly this historically remote thing felt alive.”

Throughout this journey, Adamson visits, among others, a textile designer and a stone carver, in New York, a scholar who is the foremost authority on architectural terra-cotta, a space architect for NASA, and a professor at Cambridge University, England. And he finishes his tale, not coincidentally, with a delightful anecdote about his mother’s relationship with her own childhood teddy bear. At the age of four, she was given a toy first aid kit: a little stethoscope, a reflex hammer, and other miniature tools. She promptly enlisted her teddy bear and other dolls as patients. “If one of them had a broken leg,” he writes, “she would refuse to throw it out, instead setting the wound using two tongue depressors and some tape.” Years later, she became one of the first female doctors at her hospital in Winchester, Massachusetts, eventually rising to become its first female chief of medicine – an achievement she traces to her childhood opportunity to tinker with real materials.

For me, what resonated most in Adamson’s story was the argument that the chasm between us and the makers is leaving many of us estranged from beauty. Also, that chasm is contributing to us losing touch with the material objects that have nurtured human development for thousands of years. And that diminishes our ability to think creatively about the problems we face in our local communities, and our larger challenges of sustaining life across the planet.

SUmmer Workshops for Aspiring Artisans

Much like Boston’s legendary North Bennet Street School, Penland is a demanding place, and it expects students to take their work seriously. Image courtesy of Penland School.

By the end of the book you may find yourself, as I did, taking inventory of all the objects you have surrounded yourself with. And maybe, just maybe, you will think twice before you buy another.

I should also note that Adamson’s message is at the heart of our mission for The Craftsmanship Initiative. And we will be dedicating most of this year to exploring ways that today’s artisans and innovators can reclaim, and expand, craftsmanship’s age-old principles of excellence and durability, which in our mind are the centerpiece of true sustainability. To keep up with what we’re doing, please join our newsletter, if you haven’t already, at Craftsmanship Quarterly.

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