The social life of your favourite things

Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter
9 min readOct 5, 2020

The Craftsman: Issue n.026 — October 2020

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Hola! I’m Gian, and in this newsletter I share stories of craftspeople, products, and reflections on craftsmanship. Here’s the archive of past issues. If you wish to support the newsletter, you can do so by buying me a virtual coffee.

As my Summer went by without much of an actual summer-vibe, I found myself — like many others — spending more time at home. It was akin to being in a spaceship like in 2001: A Space Odyssey (without the evil computer), although I felt closer the title character, a bus-driver turned spaceman, in Luis Alberto Spinetta’s song El anillo del capitán Beto.

Lockdown made me notice, or finally act upon, small things I could do to improve my home environment. As I sorted, decluttered, re-cluttered, and investigated every single corner of the flat I also came across loved objects that I had been neglecting. In the same vein that William Morris exhorted us to have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, or Marie Kondo with ther does it bring joy principle, I decided to give them a more prominent role in my everyday life. This inspired the first article in today’s newsletter.

Unohanagaki tea bowl, Mitsui Memorial Museum, Tokyo.

The Social Lives of Objects

What makes an object valuable? It could be the materials it’s made of, the fame of the maker, its relevance in a given environment, or the perceived value granted by the community. The quality and the longevity could add to it too, although these have become less important in our throwaway and fast-fashion dominated culture.

There’s another value-adding component that is likely more important to people. It’s a combination of the social bonds that the object has created during its lifetime, the meaning it carries from taking part in special occasions, and the history of the object itself. Given the endless hours I’ve spent in the last couple of months at the British Library diving into Japanese craftsmanship, I’ll refer to examples from it to talk about the social life of objects.

The Sense of Time
The famed 16th century Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyū is credited with consolidating a way of tea, wabi-cha, that emphasised the sense of time passing. During Rikyū’s tea ceremonies he would pick objects that expressed beauty through their simplicity, provided solace through their imperfections, and were attuned to the seasons and the guests gathered in the tea room. Everything that exists in the present moment is grounded in the perception of its past, which can be mythical, factual, or cultural. A tea bowl can be a functional vessel or an artistic object (or both). A typical Asian handmade bowl has no handle. You hold it in your hands, touching the same clay that the potter touched, the maker’s presence literally imprinted in it. The object’s imperfections reflecting the irregularities of our own lives. In Japanese crafts it’s readily accepted that a handmade object is infused with the creator’s spirit.

Objects With History
The history of the object is another layer that adds to its social life. Sometimes the maker is famous or belongs to a family with a long heritage. Or it can be made by an anonymous craftsman, like with the ordinary functional objects celebrated by the folk-craft or Mingei movement. The story of the objects could be rooted in troubled origins too, like the Korean potters kidnapped to work in Japan five hundred years ago by orders of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which gave birth to many revered Japanese ceramic traditions.

Chawan by Mako Nishimori (photo by Gianfranco Chicco).

Social Bonds
An object forges a relationship with the person that uses it, or even just stares at it, regularly. That’s why many give a name to their car. When I wear my late father’s watch I’m not seeking for a tool to tell the time, after all my phone can do that more efficiently, but a physical closeness that keeps the memory of a loved person alive. Some tea bowls that have been handed down through the centuries are considered National Treasures of Japan, and have been given individual names, like Unohanagaki or Kizaemon Ido, the latter being a simple Korean-made bowl currently resting in a Zen temple in Kyoto after a long life of service.

If giving loved things a name wasn’t enough to create a social bond, there’s a belief in Japanese folklore that household objects that have served their owners for 99 years are rewarded by obtaining a soul. They become a Tsukumogami (referencing the Kami spirits from Shintoism). I guess that from this point onwards you could have an actual conversation with these self-aware beings, although there’s the risk that they could turn out maleficent if treated badly, like the Bakezōri, discarded straw sandals that create a rumpus among humans. I own a fountain pen that was gifted to my grandfather in 1922. I hope I’ve treated it well enough or else I’m in for some trouble.

My trusted Hasselblad 503CX (photo by Gianfranco Chicco).

A Dependable Friendship
Maybe one of the reasons we love old analogue things is not because of nostalgia or a preference for vintage looks, but because they offer respite from the relentless speed of digital technology. They remain usable, understandable, even more reliable as time passes. My Hasselblad and Nikon cameras from the ’80s are two such objects. Their familiarity and dependability lingers on way past that of my digital cameras.

In a video linked in the “Watch” section below, antique dealer Max Rollitt defines his restoration work as dealing with things that have developed “a character over time. You have the original piece and with time it’s had a life, it’s lived in the sun, it’s lived in damp, it’s been handled, it’s been loved, and it’s been used.”

Things are not valuable to us because they are expensive, but because we have built a social relationship with them through our life together. On December 2018 I was in New York on a business trip. Just before heading back to the airport I went to a tea house for a comforting bowl of matcha. You could have it prepared in any of the vessels exhibited by the front window, and I picked one by New York-based Japanese potter Mako Nishimori. It had a rough surface, a milky white colour that would allow the matcha’s bright green to stand out, and it sat in my hand with a comforting gentleness. On its bottom, the clay had cracked in the shape of an Ura Manji cross, an important symbol in Buddhism. The tea prepared by Tea Master Souheki Mori, the peaceful atmosphere of the place, and the conversation I had with another customer on the tatami all made this moment memorable, so much so that I decided to bring the tea bowl back home with me. I haven’t given it a name yet. However, whenever I use it, I’m transported to that moment and place in time, and a smile lights up my face.

What objects have you created special social bonds with? Reply to this email or tweet me at @gchicco.

Handmade in Japan by Gestalten (photo by Gianfranco Chicco).

Handmade in Japan

This big, fat tome offers an intimate peek into the life of Japanese craftspeople through the lens of Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong. It’s like travelling without moving, a pause from the feeling of stuck-ness inflicted by the global pandemic. The photos allow you to walk into the artisans’ workshops, where you’ll often find them clad in blue samue workwear, sitting low on the ground, bent over their work.

The book has been divided into geographical sections representing most of Japan (strangely not Okinawa, which has a rich artisan culture too), and showcases a diverse array of crafts. You’ll find famous ones like pottery and the making of katana swords, and niche ones like the production of specialty brushes and boatbuilding for cormorant fishing. The photographer gets close enough to show the unique texture of the materials and the ability involved in the techniques.

Photos courtesy of Gestalten.

The essays on each artisan are informative, and there’s a series of interstitials focusing on specific materials like bamboo, paper, ceramics, and lacquer. A common thread is how many of these crafts are at risk of disappearing either by lack of substantial demand or because the holders of the knowledge are old, and new apprentices are nowhere to be found. You’ll learn how on numerous occasions craftspeople have survived by transitioning from making what were once common household items to objects more readily classified as art or ‘high design’. And you’ll meet a wave of younger artisans from outside of the traditional families, who have brought new energy and are less attached to the tropes of the past. The book makes evident that the only way to guarantee the continuity of simple, but extremely well made and long-lasting items, is that we — regular consumers — have to prefer them instead of cheaper mass-produced objects.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of the book by Gestalten.

Handmade in Japan
The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts
Published by Gestalten on September 1, 2020

Check Out

  • Homo Faber Guide: Developed by the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, this is an amazing online guide to discover the work of artisans, visit museums, and find courses and events related to craft all throughout Europe. There’s lots and lots of useful information in here!
  • The prolific writer Katie Treggiden has a new book coming out on October 8th called Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (she also has a new podcast, see below).
  • Craftivist Collective Handbook: Sarah Corbett has just launched the crowdfunding for her next book, featuring twenty craft projects to help you make a positive difference in our world.
  • The Manor Farm Charitable Trust in North Nottinghamshire (UK) provides sanctuary to more than 170 farm animals with special needs. They produce the artisan Hooligan Yarns from individual sheep fleece to promote their high welfare message.


  • Handmade in Africa: A documentary series by BBC Four exploring inherited knowledge and the meaning of tradition, master craftsmanship and artistic processes in three African cultures.
  • Rising Artist: Parsons School of Design’s Sagarika Sundaram. My friend Sagarika makes incredible abstract paintings and sculptures using felted wool.
  • LEGO-TSUGI: Like kintsugi but with LEGO.
  • United States of Letterpress: For its latest limited edition of notebooks, Field Notes has created this beautiful 12-minute documentary that’s an ode to independent letterpress shops from around the USA.
  • The Art of the Potter: Free to watch until November 1st, it’s the final film in a series dedicated to the lives and work of the founders of the Leach Pottery, Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada.
  • Digital Talk: Craft Matters at Cox London. From London Craft Week 2020, a conversation between antique dealer and interior designer Max Rollitt, and design maker Chris Cox.



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Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter

Curator of The Craftsman Newsletter. Conference director for hire, digital-physical experiences, marketing & storytelling. Japanophile. ✌