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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Craftsmanship In Modern Industry

( Originally Published 1940 )



Striking a more truly contemporary note we find that craftsmanship must not be supposed to have wholly vanished from our industrial scene, as pessimists are prone to insist. Many highly mechanized industries still have necessary and vital aspects of their work in the form of manual processes, involving the skill and judgment of an individual worker, who can, to some degree, determine the result of the process in which he is engaged. Such a man is still a craftsman and is not to be classified with the mere machine operator, however skilled.

Such elements of craft in modern industry appear to be largely confined to two phases. One of these is the work of the "industrial designer." In the strictest sense of the word this is not necessarily craftsmanship. Industrial designers are men who carry on the creative tradition of craftsmanship without its manual phase. They are architects of objects. Everything, from automobiles to ash-trays, is designed by them before it is made in the factory.

More distinctly within our field is the model-maker. It must be remembered that for every factory-made object offered for sale there had first to be created a hand-made model. Most often this was made from the exact specifications of the industrial designer. Occasionally the man who makes the original model is himself the designer. In such a case he is a full-fledged craftsman.

Die-casting and tool-making both require craftsmen to perfect their original models. No branch of industry could be more vital than the manufacture of the very machines and machine tools upon which industry is based. It has been justly said that every new machine needs still another new machine to make it. The extension of this principle is limitless and here, indeed, the craftsman is indispensable. Whereas, in an earlier day, tools for various crafts were either manufactured to specification by the blacksmith or made by the craftsman himself, today the tool and machine industry paves the road for the march of all manufactures.

A significant example of the industrial use of craftsmanship is found in the shoe industry. A modern shoe is, so to speak, cast around a wooden last. The last is now made entirely by machin ery, notwithstanding its irregular shape. But the original model of each last must be made by hand.

The need for the craftsman last-carver is characteristic of similar needs throughout many industries. It is a manual extension of the function of the industrial designer.

Some industries deliberately revert to early craft methods and charge an appropriately high price for their hand-made products. An outstanding example is the Steuben Glass Works, a subsidiary of the vast Corning Glass Works. Using the ancient, time-honored methods of hand-craftsmanship, Steuben produces magnificent and costly glass, the equal in every sense of the splendid Swedish and Danish glass. Modern chemical science here works hand in hand with the craftsman. At the Steuben Works the old craftsmanship is exalted by the availability of a chemically pure crystal glass used to realize the designs of famous American sculptors.

Beautiful hand-silversmithing is carried on today. In New York, Tommi Parzinger, an "American" craftsman, though of European origin, makes fine sterling silverware, in original modern designs, of such quality as to be regarded by many as a one-man renaissance of silversmithing. He maintains a silversmithing shop in the heart of New York where fine hand work of his design is executed by a staff of silversmiths working in a manner that differs little from the old methods.

There are also large jewellers' firms, and custom furniture builders which execute to order the finest type of hand work. Even though only the wealthy can enjoy these products the old craftsmanship is thus kept alive in channels that do not often come to our attention.

Craftsmanship is still further nurtured in the field of amateur endeavor. Such work far transcends the ordinary "hobby" status in many instances. There are men in widely divergent walks of life who, for their own pleasure and relaxation, bind their own books, make furniture, or work in various metals. One aspect of the problem of revitalizing craft today on a still wider scale will be to make available to more persons, engaged in uninspiring routine work, the time to develop and practice such occupations.

Many efforts are now being directed toward the revival of craftsmanship. These efforts spring from a variety of sources and represent both sides of the major conflicting streams of social thought. There are those who dream of the "rugged individualism" of the era of craftsmanship; and there are those who anticipate the benefits to the worker of craftsmanship as contrasted to modern, proletarianizing industrialism.

We have spoken of the greater sense of identification of the workman with his product engendered by hand-craftsmanship. The advantage of the old method was in terms of conserva tion, creative impetus, and a certain inspiration calculated to make for good citizenship. We are only too familiar with the waste, destruction, and ennui of the modern world.

We must agree that any thought of destroying the machine is ridiculous. We are, or rather could be, much the better for the relative cheapness and unimportance of many material ob jects. The loss which we have suffered is not so much in the object itself as in the feeling of creative-workmanship which glorified craft-made objects, and which is largely denied to the modern workman.

Of course not every manufacturing process is inspiring to perform. It cannot be and never has been, even with manual methods. Machine methods definitely help take the onus from many phases of manufacturing dirty-work. It is to be doubted that the old-time tanner was ever exalted by his stench-plagued chores.

But at least he owned his work. True, a personal identification simply is not always possible in terms of the work itself. In such cases the modern loss has been more in terms of inde pendence. The burden may lie just as heavily upon the workman who feels himself degraded by being a mere economic cog as upon the artisan who feels himself degraded by being a mere machine cog.

Restoring both values to the modern workman is partly a matter of labor relations and social and economic enlightenment. Though rejected by revolutionaries as a capitalist ruse, and though no doubt abused and often faked, the worker-owner, or employee-shareholder system, successfully applied in some advanced industries, is an enormous step in the right direction. The direction is away from the mercilessly "efficient" industrial regimentation of totalitarianism in which the worker works for the state and the state is held greater than the worker.

Giving the workman a "stake" in his work, together with proper conditions of work, promises the ultimate answer to the psychological problem of the workman, in whose case literal crafts, arts, or special skills are not involved. The modern workman, like the old craftsman, must be allowed to "work for himself" in a more ennobling sense than mere subsistence breadwinning. He must feel some ownership of his tools, some security of employment, and some, even though remote, control over his production.

The problem of craft today is so complex that its answer will be found at the root of our whole social structure: our social structure now threatened by an appalling retrograde movement sweeping toward us from Europe and perhaps also from the Orient. If solved it must be solved as part of the problem of the whole and become an aspect of the joint task of workman, employer, artisan, artist, scientist, and statesman. Craftsmanship has a stake in Democracy, Democracy has a stake in craftsmanship.



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