“The Future Is Handmade”
A Dutch archaeologist finds artisans and thought leaders who are redefining craft, skill and, ultimately, the real meaning of a knowledge economy.
A CRAFTSMANSHIP mini-doc in collaboration with The Centre for Global Heritage and Development.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
One day in December, 2003, when he was a young archaeology student, Maikel Kuijpers was attending a workshop, at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Antiquities, and was handed a sword made during the Bronze Age. The workmanship of the ancient weapon immediately captured him. “The lines, the details, the fine balance when holding it,” he recalls. “The attention put into its making was still resonating 3,000 years later.”
Kuijpers realized that this ancient weapon posed enough questions about the nature of knowledge—how it’s produced over time, and why knowledge matters—that it could inspire a long-term program of study. Over the next 15 years, as he developed a Masters thesis on metalworking technology, Kuijpers thought about almost nothing else. His journey took him from excavation sites and artisans’ studios to the heights of academia, eventually earning him a PhD in Archaeology from none other than Cambridge University.
The dissertation for that PhD turned into a 318-page addition to the annals of academic research on the nature of craft and skill. Kuijpers’ case study for this inquiry was Bronze Age metalworking, which became a book entitled “The Archaeology of Skill” (Routledge, 2017). Along the way, with help from the Netherlands’ Centre for Global Heritage and Development, Kuijpers also produced a remarkable documentary, called “The Future is Handmade.” (See video below.) Running just over 12 minutes, the documentary features interviews with several of the world’s leading experts on craftsmanship, played over scenes of various master artisans at work. The cast includes a tailor, a violin maker, a ceramicist, a winemaker, and a barber.
The resulting film, brief as it is, is nothing short of a tour de force—both intellectually and emotionally. Now that I’ve said that, I should acknowledge that I have reason to be biased. Our team here at The Craftsmanship Initiative has been so taken with Kuijpers’ work that we’re now partnering with him. Over the coming months we will be helping each other find ways to revive and elevate the principles of craftsmanship in pursuit of a mutual goal: to infuse today’s society with a kind of second renaissance in creativity and skill.
During his explorations, Kuijpers was continually surprised by what he saw in the workshops he visited. “When you watch artisans at work,” he told me, “in a strange way it’s very calming.” Time after time, Kuijpers noticed a lack of stress in these workshops. One reason, he concluded, is that when people are working with their hands, quality can’t be rushed; nor can it be faked. “Masters don’t need to say they’re the masters—it’s obvious in the work.”
He also noticed an atmosphere of order, which seemed to arise from a shared sense of the hierarchy in these workshops. “I’m Dutch,” he says, “and we pride ourselves in having a very egalitarian society, so we don’t generally see hierarchy as a good thing.” Much of that view, he believes, comes from the very different atmosphere that tends to dominate white-collar offices, where there is often confusion about whether the boss really deserves to be in charge. “In an artisan’s workshop, it’s perfectly clear who the master is, and where everyone else stands on the hierarchy of skill.”
The power structure that hierarchy created inside artisan workshops left Kuijpers feeling surprisingly impressed, and hopeful that we can somehow find a way to spread its virtues. “It’s more stable, more easily accepted,” he told me. “It’s very clear, and it exists outside of social influences.”
Throughout Kuijpers’ film, one expert after another talks about the vital skills and virtues that have been lost as work has drifted further and further away from hands-on expertise. Granted, high-level skills obviously remain a prerequisite for all kinds of modern professions—law, various kinds of writing, and the analytical sciences, just to name a few. The point this film makes is that fine craftsmanship involves a richer variety.
“Working with my hands is what gets my mind going,” Ollie Trenchard, a pattern-cutter at Anderson & Sheppard, a Saville Row bespoke tailor shop in London, told Kuijpers at one point. “There is a connection with what I am doing, with the cloth, the garment, even the customer.”
To achieve real mastery, says Trevor Marchand, professor of Social Anthropology at the University of London, artisans must use “the mind and the body, with their full sensory apparatus.” Work of this kind intertwines an artisan’s physical knowledge and intellectual knowledge, Marchand argues. And that leads to tangible accomplishments that can be more fulfilling than desk work, no matter how many fancy digital tools are employed.
As you will see in the film, several experts see the values of craftsmanship—and our drift away from them—as an indictment of capitalism, and the education system we have built to perpetuate it. In these critics’ view, modern capitalism is what created today’s fractured work world, where people skip from company to company and job to job. And schools aren’t helping matters. “Students no longer have the opportunity to acquire skills in a deep way,” argues Glenn Adamson, author of “Fewer, Better Things” and the former director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. “They don’t know what it is to acquire mastery.”
But all is not gloom and doom. Kuijpers believes that if we can redefine craftsmanship and skill in a form that’s built for the future, instead of being simply a nostalgic eulogy to the past, we can create a new culture of excellence.
In his view, craft is not a set of fine products, or even a set of skills; it’s “a way of exploring and understanding the material world.” It is a reality-based approach to guiding social development. “I might be an archaeologist, but my concerns lie in the future,” he says. “This is why I like to focus on the formulation of knowledge, the effects of new materials on societies, or how innovations work. As many of these are long-term processes the past is an ideal place to study them. Archaeology is a way of thinking, long-term thinking to be precise.”
And now, he argues, some of our most promising artisans are “designers, scientists, and especially engineers, who might better be seen as craft technologists, or craft scientists.”
Why? Because today’s environmental problems, in Kuijpers’ view, will ultimately require a new, “circular economy” based on “sustainability, durability, and excellence.” When that time comes, he argues, it will require a new era of bold innovation. “Material is the mother of innovation,” says Kuijpers, adding that few people understand this challenge better than the artisan, whose work occupies a unique position “between tradition and innovation, thinking and doing, the local and global.”