“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” — Johannes Brahms
When asked about my interest in craftsmanship, it’s often presumed that I’m some sort of luddite opposed to new technology, or a frivolous bon vivant. Besides a hint of the latter in my appreciation of good things, it’s something else that I’m attracted to, and it’s very much related to how we currently live and work. As knowledge workers, where “digital” is an important component of our jobs, we spend most of our time operating from our neck up, identifying ourselves mostly with our brain or formal intellect. We stare at screens all day long and the physicality of the tasks we do is usually limited to tapping on a piece of glass or keyboard. Work is in general a disembodied experience. We’re also disconnected from the natural cycles. Give us our laptop and good wifi and we can perform from anywhere. The seasons are no longer part of our workflow or even the food flow. We tailor our space via air-conditioning and can eat whatever we want throughout the whole year. In-person interactions have become optional as we can just email, slack or WhatsApp each other. Efficiency is the norm, or at least the desideratum.
On the other side of the spectrum, the craftsman has to apply most of its body to the task at hand. The senses are more thoroughly involved, and it’s not uncommon for highly skilled masters to use their sight and hearing to judge the right status of a material, their proprioception guiding how to properly toil away. And there’s more than that. The craftsman has to be in sync with Nature to know the right time to collect its raw materials and maintain a proper balance to assure the sustainability of the deed. They also have a more direct interaction with their community, including the social responsibility of passing on the skills onto the next generation, preserving whatever knowledge has been achieved and allowing it to thrive into the future.
My interest is not rooted in nostalgic romanticism of a bygone era but on the awarenesses that how we’re living and how we’re working is not sustainable, and its consequences are no longer subtle ones. We are now well aware of the effects of living an over-digital life and feasting in extreme consumerism, including depression, anxiety, physical illness, social unrest, and the destruction of the Earth among many other things (as if those weren’t enough). So it’s my belief that we can look at craftsmanship for insights on how to live and work better, in tune with the rest of Nature. This is the thesis behind the research for a book project I’m working on. I promise I’ll share some of my findings in future issues of this newsletter.
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
This is an anecdote that Massimo Bottura, the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, has shared often and is an example where the eye of the craftsman sees what no computer algorithm will ever see.
One day the restaurant’s sous chef, Kondo Takahiko (or just “Taka”) had prepared two lemon tarts and was ready to take them to the dining room when he accidentally dropped one of them on the kitchen counter. Taka was mortified by the mistake but Bottura saw the beauty in it. The irregular cracks, the zabaione splattered on the table, it almost looked like an abstract expressionist painting. Bottura comforted his colleague because he saw in this fortuitous accident a manifestation of poetry in everyday life, realising that part of their work as cooks was also to see the things that others couldn’t even imagine.
The smashed lemon tart went on to become an iconic dish at Osteria Francescana, considered one of the top restaurants in the world.
Learn more about Massimo Bottura in Netflix’s Chef’s Table — Season 1 | Massimo Bottura (trailer)
Kanpai London Sake Brewery & Taproom
This microbrewery in the London neighbourhood of Peckham is one of those happy surprises that the city reserves to those that venture south of the Thames. Lucy Holmes and Tom Wilson — the co-founders of Kanpai London — have officially been brewing sake since 2017. Properly known as nihonshu (literally Japanese liquor), their stable product lineup consists of three different kinds: a classic Junmai, an unfiltered Nigori and a sparkling one. They also produce a series of seasonal small batches where they experiment with different ingredients and styles. It all started several years prior as a self-taught hobby after discovering sake at a bar in Kyoto, and later tasting as much of it as possible while living in New York City. They became so enthralled by their early results that they decided to up their skills in Japan, where they spend time every year learning more.
One of the frustrations of drinking sake outside of Japan is that the prices are heavily inflated by taxes and logistics fees, as sake can be quite delicate to transport. Having a local brewery makes it possible to enjoy it at more reasonable prices and even fresh — nama or unpasteurised — at Kanpai London’s tap-room.
What’s interesting about Lucy & Tom’s approach is that, while they’re heavily influenced by traditional Japanese style nihonshu, they’re developing their own London-style, in their own words: “exploring more full-bodied flavours to suit the palates of those that love craft beers, high-botanical gins and rich red wines. The type of sakes that can stand up to a Sunday roast or enhance your curry.” Their products have began to earn international accolades, and most importantly the respect of sake lovers.
Copeland Park Peckham
133 Copeland Rd, London SE15 3SN
Book: The Story of Tools:
“You’re not a craftsman until you think with the point of your tool”.
This is a book for the tool nerd and the curious. Twenty five makers, from legendary glassblower Peter Layton to blacksmiths, clay animation model makers, gardeners, clockmakers, paper artists, leather workers, gilders, and potters, share one of their tools and their relationship with it. It’s not about traditional tools, or at least not just those, but the best instrument that each craftsman has found for a specific task.
Some you might know or even have somewhere around the house or workshop, while others are a signature item to certain domains, and have funny names. From the classic wood planes to cordless power drills, The Story of Tools also presents utensils like the spoon knife, a whalebone sculpting tool, glassmaking jacks, tickling forks, the vernier calliper, the bradawl, kolinsky sable brushes, needlepunch needles, and the ulu (a traditional all-purpose knife used by communities based close to the Arctic Circle, like the Inuit).
By describing the origin and how each maker uses their tools, the book also hints at how these people are keeping certain skills alive, often in contrast with the general throwaway and overly digital mindset we currently live in. The beautiful photography is accompanied by a short interview with each craftsman.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of the book from Pavilion Books.
The Story of Tools
A celebration of the beauty and craftsmanship behind the tools of handmade trades
Hole & Corner
Publication date: 2 May 2019
- How These Two Entrepreneurs Promote Artisans In Italy (Fortune) // Since I wrote about their work in issue 006, By Milaner (then known as Rossi & Rei) has been going from strength to strength. Congrats Elisa & Serena!
- For a Century-Old Fabric House, the Search for Design’s Next Wave (Wall Street Journal) // Another company featured in a past issue, Fortuny. This story follows Mickey and Maury Riad, the brothers behind the classic Venetian textile company
- Apple and Hermès reveal how their ultra-connected design could help us unplug // Interesting story on the relationship between Apple’s chief of design and Hermès’ artistic director, and the balance of technology and craftsmanship, here referred as technocraft
- Pine Copper Line Podcast: Craig Anczelowitz of Awagami Factory // I thoroughly enjoyed this episode about this Japanese paper mill which has been making washi for eight generations, discussing their history and artist residency initiative
- The Justyna Green podcast: Annie Warburton on craft // Interesting discussion on the resurgence of interest in materiality and craftsmanship, and Cockpit Art’s work to support 170+ makers
- An Argentine knife maker whose blades are a work of art // Beautiful short video on Guillermo Mendoza, the Argentine blacksmith that makes Damascus-steel knives by hand using some of the oldest forging techniques
- Takumi: a 60,000 hour story of the survival of human craft (trailer) // The Japanese car company Lexus has commissioned a documentary that follows four Japanesetakumi, master craftsmen that have dedicated sixty thousand hours to their crafts, and asks what will be the role of humans in a world where machines could soon surpass them
- Silk marbling: a Japanese technique rediscovered // How Hermès found an old silk printing technique in Kyoto and saved it from oblivion by bringing it into its products
- Cockpit Arts’ Summer Open Studios: Holborn, 14–16 June ; Deptford, 21–23 June// Cockpit Arts opens its two studios in London to allow the public to meet their makers in residence (weavers, jewellers, ceramicists and more), offering a series of demonstrations, workshops, and a secret postcard sale
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