Artisan Modern: Quality Work, Transactions, and Objects

Artisan Modern is driven by two concerns: the experience of work and ecological sustainability.

The book is based on ten years of interviews with people who make things autonomously that can be made industrially.

“I always knew” … “I finally found” … “I wasn’t happy”…  These distinct and repeated biographical narratives drive people to build a business whose primary responsibility is to be a vessel for the pleasure and meaning of work. When artisans talk about making tables, cheese, guitars, and pants they say “I love every bit of it.” … “It’s an absolutely fantastic experience.” … “The best thing about the work is not delivering the shiny final product, but actually doing the work.” …. “When I come home inspired at the end of a day, my kids can look at work not as something to dread, but see that work can be inspiring and gives you joy and energy.”

Something is missing in the contemporary discourse on labor, something has gotten lost between exploitation and burnout: While obscene over- and under-compensation is surely an urgent issue,

It is a distinct and profound fact that not only circus artists and jazz musicians but also dairy farmers and war journalists subsidize their vocation with second jobs because the work is more important than the money.

While the Left is surely correct to draw attention to degrading and exploitative labor situations, it seems to have lost track of Marx’s original concern for work as a fundamental dimension of humanity. The labor movement misguidedly campaigns for less work, not better work.

A re-embrace of quality over “affordability” valorizes autonomy, tradition, and artisanship in production. Sustainability, too, on quality for the ethics of production, repairability of products, and durability of desire.

The world of products has since the 1930s moved toward disposability, planned obsolescence, the aestheticization of newness, and “affordability” at the expense of quality. This has meant the decline of artisanship and of domestic manufacturing in many countries (to varying degrees). Not only manufactory laborers, but also retail workers and consumers have been deskilled, costs externalized onto the ecosystem and workers, with the further side effects of mountains of consumer debt, e-waste, and packaging.

As they have delivered work from labor and industrial logics, artisans have likewise redeemed materials from their status and calculus as “inputs”.

Whether they reclaim or use “new” materials, their ideas expand sustainability far beyond responsible sourcing and waste-management. Artisans find pleasure, challenge, humility, immortality, and surprise in the interaction with materials.  A bowl-turner describes his work as “reclaiming the souls of trees.”  A knife maker has “no interest in new steel;” he transforms broken farmers’ tools. The artisans want to extend the “life” of materials, give them “new lives” as tools and heirlooms. A guitar maker uses wood salvaged from churches: “The bells have been ringing on it for a hundred years!”

I asked them about their business operations and “the math”. The finances of artisanship defy both business school microeconomics and the Left’s ill-aimed tilt at liberation. For artisans, “to scale” does not mean to get big. It means to find the correct scale to produce the revenue they need while maintaining their craft, ethics, autonomy, and quality of life. While artisans meet the bottom-line; the “profits” of their enterprises are diverse and largely qualitative. They offer a model for ethical, ecological and meaningful production.

The sustainable consumption movement offers righteous restriction, valorized by the purported pleasures of “simplicity”. Artisans make quite a different offer. They teach people to appreciate, honor, and steward natural materials. A furniture maker prefigures Marie Kondo’s focus on “joy”, proposing that sustainability is not only about ethically managed inputs and outputs, but about making objects that sustain “desire”. Objects with stories are already the antithesis of the global commodity chain; to magnify desire, artisans explained that their customers want to be part of the story.

By re-telling the story, by joining in stewardship of the material, and participating in the histories of an object. For the customer, these objects offer connection with a nature, history, and an artisan.

An example of how to apply this perspective is that rapid advancements in tech for electric cars now make it possible to retrofit any car (no matter the size or weight) to electric power, providing work for local mechanics instead of buying a new ev built by foreign robots. Matthew Crawford’s excellent treatise on labor history and motorcycle maintenance makes an excellent case for the “cognitive richness” of this kind of work. Besides, retrofit saves 3-5 years of emissions cost of building a new car.

Instead of villainizing consumption, the artisans suggest we can instead define a heroic form of consumption, one which is about quests and stewardship, repair and restoration, and collaboration with craftsmen.

Artisan Modern is available as ebook and paperback, only direct from the website of its accompanying magazine.

Journalists and scholars are now joining musicians and artisans in refusing to hand over the majority of sales revenue to middlemen. Learn more about why and how to publish independently.

The Magazine shares ongoing research and invites you to tell stories of your objects.