It’s no surprise that adult coloring books, digital pin boards, and the DIY craze are prominent in today’s culture. After all, they target the same generation that grew up with LEGO, paint-by-number, and the unofficial grandfathers of DIY: Bob Ross and Bob Vila.
While craftsmanship has strong roots throughout American history, technology is fueling a new generation of makers who are reshaping American culture. By way of providing resources and tools, capturing a global audience, and fostering a sharing economy, technology enables makers — across wide demographic backgrounds — to become small business owners, tech innovators, and cultural influencers.
The Rise of the Etsy-preneur
In the mid-2000s, the emergence of social media and blogs, combined with the proliferation of e-commerce sites, provided makers with a platform to expand beyond small, local crafting communities. Traditional crafts like knitting, cross-stitching, and weaving now had a place to reach an untapped generation with a limitless growth potential.
For example, the online marketplace Etsy allows makers to sell their wares directly to consumers. It’s the place where people can “shop for everything from creative people everywhere.” Clothing, jewelry, crafts, toys, original art, and ceramics are just some of the items available. More than 500,000 craft supplies and 800,000 baby accessories available on the site, with prices ranging from a couple dollars for a digital art file to $18,000 for a bronze sculpture octopus coffee table.
In 2006, Etsy finished its first year with $175,000 in sales. Today, more than 100 million items, collectively valued at a few billion dollars, have been sold through the site; and its online community boasts 30 million members from more than 200 countries.
Tools of the Trade
The maker movement is gaining traction and shouldn’t be regarded as a passing fad. Tools, training, and software are less expensive and easier to use, and access to communities of professional and hobbyist artisans is increasing — thereby introducing a new form of apprenticeship. This was echoed recently by Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables, who said, “[The movement] has the potential of giving anyone the tools they need to become makers and move them from passive users to active creators.”
Laser cutters, 3D printers, and home screen printing kits are making it easier for makers to create without the burden of large, expensive equipment. Software companies like Adobe continue to advance software features, develop mobile design applications, and refine digital art brushes that rival authentic brush strokes. Hardware companies like Wacom and Apple provide digital canvases for artists and illustrators to take their studios anywhere, and maker spaces, pop-up shops, and citywide Maker Faires are on the rise as well.
(Social Change) Makers
The maker movement has had a significant impact on today’s culture. Consumers have become numb to generic, mass-produced, foreign-made merchandise, and are looking for locally-made products born in suburban garages, urban studios, and cluttered rural workshops.
Now that the maker movement has evolved from a hip sub-culture to a widespread cultural movement, corporations are following suit. Big box companies are spending more time designing their ads; they’re printing catalogues on uncoated stock using photos that focus more on aesthetics and craft than low prices. Billions of $6 cups of Starbucks coffee will be sold this month, emblazoned with the words “Crafted by Hand and Heart.”
The shift is reaching upscale commercial retailers as well, turning handmade from quaint to chic. In 2013, West Elm — owned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc. — launched West Elm LOCAL, a handcrafted line of products featuring works from local artisans. The partnership started in two stores and has since grown to include all 70+ locations, featuring 4,500 products from more than 500 local makers. Hemlock & Heather is one such company.
In 2014, West Elm began featuring the Austin-based business’ handmade, reclaimed wall hangings in stores across Texas, from El Paso to Houston. “We also sell our Texas and California state-shaped wall hangings on West Elm’s website and will be adding a few other states and pieces in Spring 2017,” says Kelley Denby, the company’s co-owner.
The husband and wife duo started Hemlock & Heather in 2012 as a supplementary source of income while Kris was attending The University of Texas at Austin. “The moment we realized that it wasn’t just a part-time gig for Kris was when he graduated from UT in May of 2014 and we had enough business built up to sustain paying him full-time,” says Denby.
What started as an attempt to restore old furniture, expanded into repurposing the discarded pieces and transforming them into one-of-a-kind art. “Our products contain 100 percent reclaimed wood, and we’re proud that we are salvaging what we can and reviving wood that might be deemed unworthy by most,” says Kris.
For a small business like Hemlock & Heather, Denby and her husband Kris say social media plays a vital role in their company’s marketing. Social media platforms, like Instagram, have helped Hemlock & Heather build up direct sales on their website while they continue to grow their retail base. “We grew our total sales 43 percent from 2014 to 2015. Also, we experienced a 110 percent increase in our West Elm sales from 2014 to 2015,” says Denby.
“We have learned that there are people out there who want handmade, original pieces that you can’t get just anywhere. Those are our customers, and we’re so grateful for them,” says Denby. “What’s truly difficult is when you see a big box store completely rip off a local maker’s work — our hearts ache for them.”
The widespread availability of affordably priced tools will continue to increase, which could lead to a worldwide maker community. Today’s movement helps build maker communities and maker cities, but the movement’s growth could propel makers from small business owners to global marketers. Perhaps, the maker movement will inspire an industrial revolution, reviving lost manufacturing jobs throughout America’s rust belt.9
Consumers will expect retailers to offer unique, curated products to them. This can already be seen by the numerous choices of subscription box companies and companies like Nike and New Balance that allow consumers to design their own shoes.
While our youngest generation no longer studies home economics and cursive in school, they are enrolling in robotics programs and even kindergarteners are using iPads in the classroom. Surprisingly, research suggests children’s imaginations are growing despite reduced access to free and unstructured playtime.
It’s impossible to predict what may happen, but the cultural shift of supporting small business and buying local is proving to be more just than a fad. Crafting no longer means decoupage and puffy paint. The crafts of today are reaching new consumers across demographics, borders, and — notably — across the screen. Thanks to sites like Etsy, knitting circles now more closely resemble global webs.
This article originally appeared in Pens, Pixels & the Future of Design, a publication produced by Texas State University MFA Communication Design students.
1. “Etsy — About.” Etsy. Accessed November 22, 2016. http://www.etsy.com/about.
2. “Etsy — KirkMcGuireSculpture.” Accessed November 22, 2016.
3. Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, “How the Internet Saved Handmade Goods.” HBR, August 28, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/08/how-the-internet-saved-handmade-goods.
4. John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Duleesha Kulasooriya. “A Movement in the Making.” Deloitte University Press blog, January 24, 2014. https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/topics/emerging-technologies/a-movement-in-the-making.html.
5. Tim Bajarin, “Why the Maker Movement Is Important to America’s Future.” Time, May 19, 2014. http://time.com/104210/maker-faire-maker-movement/.
7. Joan Voight, “Which Big Brands Are Courting the Maker Movement, and Why.” Adweek, March 17, 2014. http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/which-big-brands-are-courting-maker-movement-and-why-156315?page=1.
8. “West Elm — Local.” West Elm. Accessed November 22, 2016 http://www.westelm.com/shop/collaborations/all-local/.
9. Voight, Adweek.
10. Amy Miller, “Children Today Are More Imaginative Than in the 1980s, Study Suggests.” American Psychological Association (APA), September 2012, Vol. 43, №8, Print version: page 12. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/imaginative.aspx
11. Gina Guzzon, “American Crafts: The Contemporary Pursuit of a Handmade Material Life.”