Back To Craftsmanship: Lessons from the Arts and Crafts Movement

Craftsmanship is making a huge comeback these days. Consumers are tired of the cheap throwaway products of the Fordist era and seek increased authenticity, uniqueness, durability, originality and personalisation. They want quality stuff made just for them. Luckily, that’s what the digital economy is all about: producing a high-quality and personalised customer experience… at scale.

Workers too are tired of the meaningless, repetitive and alienating work model of the Fordist era. They don’t want to repeat a “one best way” over and over again. They want to invent their own way, be more creative, feel they have an impact and find meaning in their work. They don’t want to be managed: they want to manage themselves. That’s one of the reasons why an increasing number of workers choose to become freelancers.

Some consumers and workers go as far as to actually become craftsmen / craftswomen, carpenters, plumbers, bakers, cheese makers… to make things with their own hands, leave a mark on the world by producing something unique. In fact, so many people want to MAKE things with their own hands that there could lie the whole future of consumption (many consumers will become makers). The success of the maker movement all over the world testifies to that idea.

For everybody else the values and principles of craftsmanship — autonomy, responsibility and creativity — are transforming work and management as we know it. In many ways, that’s what the future of work will be all about.


Why routine work is not the future of work

When you imagine the future of work, you tend to imagine a future made of robots on one side and alienated human workers on the other. The future of work is very often pictured as a negative dystopia with either no work at all — the end of work is another common trope — or more debilitating work, as humans become slaves to the machines.

Over the past half century an increasing number of alienating routine tasks have been automated. First the repetitive one-best-way Chaplin-like factory moves have all been automated — in factories, most of the work that used to be performed by humans is now performed by sophisticated robots.

Then artificial intelligence began to make it possible to automate what used to be highly-qualified routine tasks — when IBM sold massive computers to NASA in the early sixties, these machines automated the calculating work performed by human calculators (often women), most of whom turned to programming the computers instead. (I recommend the film Hidden Figures to learn more about the female calculators who helped send the first man to the moon. After the installation of the gigantic IBM machines, they learned to programme the computers to stay relevant).

Today a lot of the tasks that used to require vast knowledge (jurisprudence, for example) or calculating and processing power can be automated by software or crowdsourced on the Internet. Even accounting can be partially automated by increasingly sophisticated software-as-a-service applications. The common thread to automation is that everything routine, everything that can be modelled, framed, repeated and mapped, can be automated. Everything machine-like about what we do can be automated.

But all this means that human work will produce value when it’s not machine-like and that artisanal work can be expected to thrive. Routine work is essentially alienating work whose automation or crowdsourcing is a liberating phenomenon. As with previous technological revolutions, automation will cause sometimes painful shifts and transformations (some people will lose their jobs) but it won’t mean the end of work.

Note that routine work is not systematically automated because the labour force that performs such tasks has become a commodity often cheaper than the machines that can replace it. This “productivity paradox” is not good news because it marks the increasing pauperisation of a chunk of the work force and delays its liberation and its switch to different work models.

We often underestimate the work that cannot (yet) be automated: home services and personal care, for example, are not convincingly automatable. And that type of work is not about to disappear any time soon! Our ability to create the social models to finance it will largely determine the future of human work in the next decades. Like the work of artisans making personalised items with whatever material they have, home services and personal care can be (and should be) performed in an artisanal way. Frédéric Laloux made a convincing case for it in his book Reinventing Organizations when he wrote about the Dutch home health care firm Buurtzorg that has independent artisan-nurses providing higher-quality care to their patients.

The idea that by and large the work that will remain and the work we will invent will be non-routine non-machine work that resembles the work of artisans isn’t new. An artist/artisan/poet of the 19th century wrote at length about it 150 years ago… It turns out his ideas can provide valuable inspiration for today.


How the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement can still inspire us today

In the late 19th century, Britain was already heavily industrialised and “alienated”. A movement of artists, “makers” and philosophers emerged to criticise industrialisation and offer an alternative to the standardised products churned out by British factories. Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement was both an artistic and a political movement, which flourished in Europe and North America between 1880 and 1910. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform that was essentially anti-industrial.

To this day the movement continues to influence many craft makers, designers, and town planners. Its thinkers, chief among them William Morris (1834–1896), enjoy revived fame today.

A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. (William Morris)

The utopia Morris published in 1890, News from Nowhere, is now a classic. It combines utopian socialism and soft science fiction. In the novel, the narrator, William Guest, falls asleep after returning from a meeting of the Socialist League and awakes to find himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. In this utopian society there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no monetary system, no divorce, no courts, no prisons, and no class systems. The people find pleasure in nature, and in their work. Nobody is anybody else’s master:

No man is good enough to be another’s master. (William Morris)

William Morris was convinced that craftsmanship was the only way to restore the workers’ lost dignity and wholeness. By making things both beautiful and useful, workers could express their unique personalities and find meaning in what they did. The mark they left provided ample satisfaction and inspiration. In other words art and craftsmanship were the only way out of alienation.

Our relationship to work and identity are changing fast. We are in the process of completely redefining work. William Morris did not have modern robots and artificial intelligence in mind when he wrote his vision of the future of work. But strangely enough, his vision could very well find increased relevance today. Human work is what we will make of it. What if we chose to make it more artisanal and fulfilling?