“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
The Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival
When our attention is being sucked away by digital gadgets, how can you help people understand the value of well made products and create a closer connection to their makers? For the Japanese manufacturing district of Tsubame-Sanjo, the answer was rooted in the simplicity of direct human experience: to organise a festival and invite everybody to visit the factories. This was the origin of the Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival, also known as Kouba no Saiten, back in 2013.
Located in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan, the area surrounding the cities of Tsubame and Sanjo is responsible for the production of 90% of Japan’s cutlery and a vast number of different tools and products. Since the Edo period in the 1600’s, blacksmithing and metalworking craftsmen have been passing on the tradition of how to make things as varied as Japanese nails, kitchen knives, Japanese razors, kiseru tobacco pipes, and all kinds of hoes. But as in most of the industrialised world, and particularly in Japan, the craftsmen are growing older, the youths are migrating to the big cities and no one is left to take on the knowledge. Industrialisation has also meant the proliferation of lesser quality, cheaper products.
Shop Producer Yu Yamada and SPREAD, the creative studio by Hirokazu Kobayashi (Koba) and Haruna Yamada (Haru), were tasked with creating an annual gathering that would increase the awareness of local products, produce and craftsmanship from large scale industrial factories to one-person artisan workshops.
SPREAD took an unconventional approach which included adding colour to what’s per se a very grey area due to its industrial nature and harsh weather. They noticed that the colour of the fires in use was pink rather than red, and the factories themselves embodied different hues of silver, so they adopted these two colours to identify the new initiative. Haru and Koba designed a pink t-shirt and soon realised it made them feel more cheerful, creating an emotional reaction similar to that of the traditional happi, the light coat used by participants at Japanese festivals. During their own visits, they found that while factories and workshops looked quite dull and uninviting from the outside, once you stepped into them the dullness was replaced by awe. As designers, their goal became that of getting people excited about visiting the area by using a digital experience that revealed just enough to make them catch a train. Once there, they only had to open the doors and allow the guests to feel it all with their own senses, from the temperature of the ovens to the smells of the metal, from the sounds of the hammering to the light being reflected on the metallic surfaces.
To stimulate the active involvement of the local craftsmen, SPREAD created the template for an identifiable “mark” that used pink tape and cardboard boxes that each maker could assemble and pile up in front of their factories.This cheap solution using everyday products allowed visitors to find out which factories were taking part of the festival.
Kouba no Saiten’s reach is supported by exhibitions in big cities around the world, like the one held at Japan House London in late 2018. Entitled Biology of Metal, it left me with a vivid impression thanks to the broad display of products, guided tours with Yu Yamada, SPREAD, and Simon Wright, Director of Programming at Japan House London, elegantly made videos that gave a peek into the factories, and talks and meetings with the actual makers.
The Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Festival takes place in the Autumn. For more information visit kouba-fes.jp
You Just Need 1,000 True Fans
In 2008 Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, posited that to be a successful creator (a craftsman, photographer, musician, author, etc) you don’t need millions of customers but just 1,000 true fans — people that will buy anything you produce. He later revised the original essay to contemplate the development of tools like crowdfunding, social media and better online payment tools that allow creators to have a direct relationship with those that want to buy what they make.
“The takeaway: 1,000 true fans is an alternative path to success other than stardom. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans. On your way, no matter how many fans you actually succeed in gaining, you’ll be surrounded not by faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.”
Read the full essay: kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans
Anni Albers Exhibition at Tate Modern London
The Tate Modern has been hosting an excellent exhibition on the work and ideas of Anni Albers (1899–1994). Even if you don’t have a particular interest in weaving, I do recommend you check it out before it ends on January 27th, 2019.
Albers was an innovator in the modernist abstraction movement, uniting the craft of weaving with the language of modern art. Introduced to weaving while studying at the famous German art school Bauhaus, she later took a teaching position at the progressive art school Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA, where she encouraged students to experiment with different materials and textures, and developed what she called “pictorial weavings”, hand-woven pieces made be hung on walls as art. In later years she transferred the knowledge developed while weaving into print making, playing with colour, texture, pattern, and surface qualities.
She was ahead of the times in noticing that technology made us increasingly numb to our sense of touch, as it replaced the need to make things by hand. From her essay Tactile Sensibility:
“All progress, so it seems, is coupled to regression elsewhere. We have advanced in general, for instance, in regard to verbal articulation… But we certainly have grown increasingly insensitive in our perception by touch, the tactile sense… For too long we have made too little use of the medium of tactility.”
For more details: tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers
Roberto Panizza — The Pesto Prince
Back in August 2018 I interviewed Roberto Panizza, owner of Il Genovese restaurant in Genoa, Italy, for Courier Magazine Issue 25 (Courier is a new independent magazine championing stories of modern business). Roberto is a modern Pesto craftsman, a sauce that has been linked to the area surrounding Genoa for the past 500 years. While I encourage that you seek out the article in its paper form, I want to highlight two aspects from the conversation I had with Roberto. In first place, provenance of the ingredients is key to a good pesto, more than the dosage of each one of them. Authentic pesto requires the use of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo cheese, olive oil, and coarse sea salt.
“When I’m making pesto, I don’t measure the exact amount of each ingredient, as flavour depends on so many factors. And I find that often the result obtained reflects your state of mind. Say if you’re angry you can decide to make a more aggressive pesto.”
In second place, he created the Genoa Pesto World Championship 12 years ago in order to preserve pesto as part of the culture of Genoa, allowing the tradition to live on for 500 more years. Participants from all over the world challenge each other, establishing pesto as a global product and one of the key identifiers of the city.
Book: Forge & Carve
Published in late 2018, this book addresses the renewed interest in traditional crafts from new craftspeople approaching the world of making, and customers being drawn into the origin, sustainability and durability of the products they buy. It chronicles the work of 18 craftsmen (19 if you count the publisher) through blacksmithing, woodworking and other more esoteric disciplines like coracle and bow making.
“The act of engaging in craft brings all of your senses into play. What is the point of our existence if we no longer need to see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?” — Ej Osborne, designer and woodworker
What comes out of this collection of different characters is that they all marry tradition and centuries old techniques with modern technology. In fact it’s thanks to the use of online commerce and social media that they are able to sustain their businesses and tell firsthand the stories behind their work. The internet is a source of learning material through too forums and videos on YouTube, and Instagram comes on top not only as a fundamental place to promote their work but also to find inspiration from other makers.
Other common elements are the shared passion for their craft, the importance of being part of a community, making as nourishment to one’s mental-health, the role of teaching to keep the crafts alive, and the deep connection to their raw materials. Ironically, this is one of the book’s weaknesses, as many of the stories are so similar to the point of being repetitive. The second drawback is that the vast majority of the stories are about men (with a beard, but I digress).
The book also touches on two of the biggest challenges of running a sustainable crafts business. First and foremost, it can be financially difficult to get started, with lots of hard work for little gain and beginners often under-pricing the results of their labour. Most craftspeople don’t have a pension plan and there’s always the threat of an economic downturn or poor planning bringing things to a standstill. Second, modern society is accustomed to having everything supplied instantly, which is contrary to the pace that a well handcrafted product can offer.
The book is beautifully printed, features excellent photography and offers the reader the opportunity to go behind the scenes and into the makers workshops.
Forge & Carve
Heritage Crafts — The Search for Well-Being and Sustainability in the Modern World
Book courtesy of Canopy Press