Maker Assembly
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Maker Assembly

John Ruskin: Grandfather of the Maker Movement?

Relentlessly forward-looking, and rolling along in our own bubble of hype and noise, those of us caught up in this capital-M’s Maker Movement sometimes forget to look up. Why are we making? And what does it mean to make well, when we live in a world of manufactured products, all reproduced perfectly by machines?

It’s an uncomfortable problem, and when we look around for ideas about how to understand it, we often look back to the Arts and Crafts Movement, which could in part be characterised as anti-industrial, or at least reacting to the rise of industrial production. Their ideas were influenced by the writer and critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) who in 1849, published an essay called The Seven Lamps of Architecture. While focusing on what he believed were the canonical design principles of good architecture, it went on to become an influential text for makers more generally.

I spoke with the designer Dean Brown about Ruskin, his legacy, and his own work looking for useful ideas in the text of this equally controversial and influential figure.

In 2014, Brown published a project called The Seven Lamps of Making, a physical response to Ruskin’s text in the form of 7 hand-made lamps (Ruskin used the word ‘lamp’ metaphorically, to mean a enlightening thought or a guiding principle), each exploring one of Ruskin’s original principles in the context of 21st Century making.

It’s easy to read Ruskin and dismiss him as someone lamenting the end of an era. Caught between the two industrial revolutions, he was the equivalent of someone living today who knew a world pre-internet. He saw manufacturing technology as a radically transformative force, often not for the good, rather than just part of the background hum of life. But Brown believes he still has a lot to offer.

“Is he relevant? I do think the things he talks about in the book are largely translatable, largely enduring — they’re nice broad themes that can relate to things that are made now, for sure. There’s nothing in there that doesn’t apply now if you bother to read and understand it in contemporary terms.

“The thing that makes him tragically outdated is that he was scared of — or against — the machine. If Ruskin was here now, I imagine he’d really like the grassroots attitude that is very much apparent in hackerspaces, but he’d get right wound up about 3D printing, basically.”

The Lamp of Life

Dean Brown’s “Lamp of Life”. Photograph: Shek Po Kwan / Fabrica

“… hand-work might always be known from machine-work … it will be plainly seen that some places have been delighted in more than others — that there has been a pause, and a care about them; and then there will come careless bits, and fast bits; and here the chisel will have struck hard, and there lightly, and anon timidly; and if the man’s mind as well as his heart went with his work, all this will be in the right places, and each part will set off the other; and the effect of the whole, as compared with the same design cut by a machine or a lifeless hand, will be like that of poetry well read and deeply felt to that of the same verses jangled by rote.”

– John Ruskin, 1849

This notion of imperfection signalling warmth or life has been perhaps the most enduring of Ruskin’s ideas. Brown says:

“It has to serve as a counterweight to Ikea, for want of a better term — things that are churned out perfectly. People find comfort in a thing that isn’t quite right. It’s not the same as just being badly made. The things that Ruskin liked were almost perfect; they just kind of have a little wiggle here and there.

“You feel like someone has made it. There’s an element of trust; you’re more reassured when you know where something came from. And you’re possibly more reassured when you know someone made it by hand.”

While marks of the maker’s hand can inspire feelings of comfort, deceptively or otherwise, they also remind us that these objects are unique. Dean continues:

“The other side of it, is that it feels special; it feels like this is the only one that’s exactly like this. You value it because it’s made in this particular way, and in that case, you’re not valuing it because it’s flawed, but because it’s different.”

Contemporary makers can play with this idea. Brown points to Piet Hein Eek as a contemporary example:

“He makes furniture out of floorboards, he’s recycling wood, making these kind of patchwork objects, as wonky as you get. He’s very much ‘the lamp of life’ kind of guy. And he does it on a semi-industrial scale; he’s got this huge factory in Eindhoven; he has 50 or 60 employees to make these things. And to buy a Piet Hein Eek chair or dining table costs thousands.”

Artificial imperfection is now sold to us as a sign of the human touch in industrial products from jeans to greetings cards. But what Eek is doing feels different and more interesting. He’s producing high-end furniture using low-end materials; he’s mixing handwork and mechanised processes in novel ways; and this year he’s formed an unlikely alliance:

“He’s started working with Ikea. So Ikea, the poster boy of ‘churn it out cheap and cheerful, its always the same’; they’re starting to create slightly different pieces.”

As Eek himself says in an interview with Dezeen,

“We’re going to do mass production but it will look completely handmade. That’s a trick that I had in my mind for a long time and this is the perfect collaboration to actually execute it like that.”

We can only wait and see what comes out of this partnership, and whether it helps shift our understanding of the relationship between hand- and machine-made products.

Any discussion of Ikea and handcraft must acknowledge the economics or production. If all good design must come from the heart and mind of a craftsman, are we condemning everyone but the rich to endure the rest? The 20th Century has seen an egalitarian ideal spread through design, from Dieter Rams to Muji, but it’s difficult to see how one can square this ideal with Ruskin’s Lamp of Life.

But Brown is careful to distinguish quality of work from processes of work:

“It’s the economy of scale that makes it more expensive, rather than the inherent quality of the work. Ikea is cheap because they have the infrastructure to produce products in millions, and the unit cost is small because of that.”

And this opens up an interesting way of thinking when we turn to digital fabrication tools:

“One of the interesting things about 3D printing is that it promises to do away with that contradiction, it’s not necessarily more expensive to make things differently from each other.”

Today, that force works to the detriment of digital manufacturing processes — it’s really expensive to make anything, no matter how large your production run. Last year, Justin McGuirk, chief curator at the Design Museum wrote of his experience costing up a CNC-cut open source stool from London’s OpenDesk digital design startup:

“I downloaded the drawings and sent them to a CNC milling company for a quote. In return, I received a professional breakdown covering the cost of a standard sheet of 18mm birch plywood (£54), the CNC cutting (£98) and delivery (£18). That comes to a grand total of £170. But ideally you would use a better, furniture-grade plywood of the kind less likely to leave splinters in the infant’s backside, which would easily take the cost over £200. For a child’s stool. Made of plywood.

“Price is always relative, but most readers would probably agree that that is a pretty hefty bill just so you can say that your tiny stool is a piece of “open” design. For that money, you could buy 25 Frosta stools from Ikea (£8 a piece for what is essentially a knockoff Aalto number) or you could take your pick from one of the fancy design shops on, say, London’s Upper Street.”

Both McGuirk and Brown acknowledge this is a problem of transition. It’s probable that the likes of OpenDesk are designing the future — and we’re just not quite there yet. Brown also suggests there is room for an approach in which we welcome all kinds of objects into our lives:

“The very real way to live is that you fill most of your house or office with simple, easy, mass-produced, does-the-job things, and then you have one or two really nice things, and that’s an alright balance. I don’t think hackerspaces or the new maker movement has to acknowledge that. That’s the territory of mass manufacture.” says Brown.

“The niche that can be carved out with these new manufacturing tools is the special thing that you buy very occasionally, but you cherish much more, because you did have to spend some time saving up for it. It’s something that you value; it isn’t ‘just there’.

“I’m sure Ruskin was trying to say that everything should be made in this particular way, but I don’t think the new maker movement has to make that claim.”

The Lamp of Truth

Dean Brown’s “Lamp of Truth”. Photograph: Shek Po Kwan / Fabrica

Ruskin was deeply concerned with authenticity. He considered ‘cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind’ to be an ‘architectural deceit’. This slippery concept continues to trouble us today, but we’ve had well over a century of machine manufacture to get used to the that the use of a mechanised process isn’t some kind of manufacturing trompe-l’œil.

“You can bring together these ideas of craft and machine production. And the place they come together is in the design and making of tooling and factories, and industrial processes,” says Brown.

When you buy a can of Coke or an iPhone, the hand of the craftsman isn’t directly on the object, but it is on the tools that made that object. There is craft in a manufactured object; it’s just one step removed.

Brown points to Jony Ive earnestly referencing craft in his product videos and interviews. In an interview with Vogue, Ive (with Marc Newson) draws a line joining the hand tools of a craftsman and the machines of modern manufacture.

“It’s not so much about things being touched personally — there are many ways to craft something. It’s easy to assume that just because you make something in small volumes, not using many tools, that there is integrity and care — that is a false assumption.”

“Machines for us are like tools for the craftsman,” Newson agreed. “We all use something — you can’t drill holes with your fingers. Whether it’s a knife, a needle or a machine, we all need the help of a device.””

Brown agrees: “That’s a good example of the enduring relevance of craft that’s been translated. Maybe as a designer it’s not about designing the final object, but about designing the system that allows the object to be made. There’s definitely nothing un-crafted about mass manufacture, it’s just that its an easier place to find bad examples.”

Understanding that design operates within systems helps makers maintain more control over the politics of the objects they make. For example, a system that allows an Android phone or free social network to be made, also condemns it to be a data harvesting object. Designers who don’t want to make such objects, need to design systems that allow different kinds of devices or platforms to be made.

Instead of focusing on handwork, a modern understanding of authenticity often refers to materials, an idea that Ruskin was also concerned with. As Brown says: “The Lamp of Truth is a very contemporary idea, and it seems quite fresh that he’s talking about that in 1849. It makes a lot of sense to the maker movement as well. If you go into a hackerspace, everything is very truthful, and pared down, it has a kind of prototype quality, it has an Arduino hanging out the back of it. That is very much the aesthetic of hackerspaces and what’s made there. They tend to be truthful. … But they’re also a bit wonky, you know.”

7 Lamps in the Hackerspace

Brown believes Ruskin’s text continues to be relevant today. As people continue to draw parallels between the Arts and Crafts Movement and today’s Maker Movement, he says, “the 7 Lamps project was a good vehicle to put that into practice, and see what happens.”

“I find it very rich, in terms of a personal design exercise. I’m still grappling with what it gives to the bigger maker community. What I hope people will take away from it, which maybe the maker movement is lacking, is strong themes and strong metaphors to ground your work in.

“I don’t think the maker movement needs a manifesto, … but I think what Ruskin’s principles can give you guiding principles to get to the essence of why you are doing something.”

For their flaws, Ruskin’s metaphorical lamps continue to help makers work with intention:

“Whether you like it or not, when you make a thing, it has a mood, no matter what. If you make a cake at home, it has a certain mood, and if you try to make a drone in a hackerspace, it has a mood, it has a feeling. I think makers would benefit from understanding that, and having some guiding principles to control what that mood is.

“Maybe as a designer, that’s a large part of the skillset: being aware of what you’re trying to communicate in the form and functionality of an object, and fine-tuning all the elements to be in harmony with each other. When you go into a hackerspace and see some of what’s being made, it’s — respectfully — not fine-tuned and in harmony. It’s a mood that hasn’t been cultivated or curated. It’s something that’s just come about by happenstance. And that’s a mood in itself; that is a valid aesthetic. I think it’s worth acknowledging that is something you can strive for.

“Ruskin’s principles to a large extent put that into writing. If you want it to be truthful, here’s the ways to do it, and if you want it to be beautiful, then here’s the ways to do it; if you want it to be powerful, then here’s the ways to do it.

“That could help people, I would imagine. If those things were written on the wall of a hackerspace, things would change, and they’d probably change for the better. It would feel a bit more purposeful in how making looks and how it’s done.”

Dean Brown will be speaking at Maker Assembly, a 1-day symposium on contemporary maker culture at the V&A Museum, London on 24th October.

A version of this article was first published at Lighthouse.



Critical reflections on maker culture.

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