To all those who slaved over blue foam and chip-board models, who sprayed one too many Krylon cans dry (wearing a mask, of course), Richard Sennett's latest book is your new bible.
"The Craftsman", aptly titled, is a conglomerate of case studies that explore the relationship of hand to mind, craftsmanship to Enlightenment. Herein, Sennett, a renown London-based sociologist with a zest for the human experience (and a great cellist - who knew?!), argues that the most basic, fundamental ability we humans share is that of craft. When properly trained, this process functions as muscle memory, literally training the mind while working the hand. If its up to Sennett, all those hours spent learning how to throw clay pots, plane wood, and mix plaster for some toy-design/coffee-maker/mobile-phone project actually might just make you, the designer-cum-craftsman, a more enlightened person,
And what is it that such persons know? They know how to negotiate between autonomy and authority (as one must in any workshop); how to work not against resistant forces but with them (as did the engineers who first drilled tunnels beneath the Thames); how to complete their tasks using 'minimum force' (as do all chefs who must chop vegetables); how to meet people and things with sympathetic imagination (as does the glassblower whose 'corporeal anticipation' lets her stay one step ahead of the molten glass); and above all they know how to play, for it is in play that we find 'the origin of the dialogue the craftsman conducts with materials like clay and glass.
So what's in it for the designer? Proof that maybe, as we all suspected, process is king. From the computer screen to the workshop table, it's the stuff we've known for years: think, make, share, and do it again. It's what we wake up to do every morning, and what we dream about at night. Now if only Sennett could convince the boss to give me a raise...
illustration by Leif Parsons via the New York Times