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Design
Craftsmanship: The Pursuit of Excellence

Craftsmanship: The Pursuit of Excellence

By Von Chua


The Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture's Strawberry Table*, an annual tradition at the graduation ceremony to hold a buffet of strawberries for attendees. Image by Von Chua who also participated in the making of the strawberry table with Diploma 3 in 2014.

With mass production and the increased ease of transportation of goods across the world in recent decades, consumers are presented with numerous options when making any purchases. As consumers, we are spoilt by variety, from price to quality, and even spoilt by the convenience provided by online shopping today. On the opposite spectrum of mass production, we have craft that is increasingly viewed as synonymous with luxury, high-end, opulent, etc. But that was not necessarily the case across the fields that are heavy in the making, eg. architecture, furniture and fashion to name a few. According to Cambridge's dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/craft), the meaning of craft is:

skill and experience, especially in relation to making objects; a job or activity that needs skill and experience, or something produced using skill and experience:


Losing Craft

In the late 1800s, everything that one owns was made by an individual, more importantly, by hand. There was no machinery for mass production and certainly no assembly lines like the ones we are familiar with today. As the industrial revolution came about, the process of crafting something by hand was then replaced whenever possible with manufacturing by machines in an assembly line. Companies were able to manufacture quickly and sell fast with increasing efficiency. The success of these mass-produced items is largely driven by cheaper price and the option to take something home immediately, all of which convinced consumers all over the world to forego some quality. With this, the importance of craftsmanship was suddenly less significant; many trades lost the next generation of willing apprentices to pass on the skills that took years to hone. 


Revival of the Craft

During John Ruskin and William Morris’ heyday in England around the 1860s, they introduced the Arts and Craft Movement where craft is seen as an alternative method to produce an item. To provide some context, John Ruskin wrote a book titled The Stones of Venice (1853) which discussed the connection between nature, art and morality. It was said that good moral art was nature expressed through man. With the use of machines, the person is removed from the process; it was said that the machine dehumanised the person because he or she was removed from the process of making. As a result, it was said that man was removed from nature. A direct quote from John Ruskin:

“all cast for the machine is bad, as work it is dishonest”

So to encourage a more engaging manufacturing process - one that fully engages the “head and hands” as William Morris would say, the Arts and Craft Movement removed machines from the process. Through time, they changed the meaning of the word "craft" which was different to the definition found in today’s Cambridge dictionary. Craft used to be understood as "an ability to manipulate situations" such as in witchcraft. This was an important change in our view of craft today. In general, when we say a crafted item today, we mean an item that is made by the hands of a craftsman. The craftsmanship showcases the hours of training, practise, refinement and philosophies to result in the item that is now in your hands. In my view, a well-crafted item does not shout opulence or luxury, but rather, something made only possible with thousands of hours of practise and a deep understanding of the material(s) used. It’s understated but one can feel it in a silent way that almost demands respect. 


Appreciation of Craft 

Fast forward to the current decade, in 2016, Jonathan Anderson conceived the LOEWE Craft Prize to acknowledge the importance of craft in today’s culture and recognise artisans whose talent, vision and will to innovate will set a standard for the future. As I follow the annual shortlists and winners of the Craft Prize, I must say that having the access to hear these craftsmen describe their work in detail, show us their studio, where they work and how they work, have instilled a deeper sense of appreciation of each of the artist's craft. As consumers, we are often so detached from how a product is made or why it is made in a certain way. 

As the fashion industry has become globalised and often so accessible, especially with the rapid growth of e-commerce and online marketplaces, few luxury fashion brands cannot be bought on the high streets of major cities or ordered to your doorstep. When a brand is so easily accessed, luxury fashion brand's exclusivity is somewhat lost. Jonathan Anderson’s introduction of the LOEWE Craft Prize was introduced three years after the designer joined Loewe, further emphasizing his views on craft and craftsmanship's place within a luxury brand like Loewe. Although the LOEWE Craft Prize celebrates excellence outside the realms of fashion - the prizes are awarded to works that fall within an area of “applied arts, such as ceramics, bookbinding, enamelwork, jewellery, lacquer, metal, furniture, leather, textiles, glass, paper, wood, etc.”, the support of craft through the prize reiterates the Loewe brand's pursuance of craft in the luxury goods that they produce. 

There's something about a deep understanding in the process to make an item, an item that is made in an honest way, and that is made only possible by a specific individual's specialism, geography, material understanding, etc. This type of craftsmanship is increasingly rare, as there are not many people who pursue the traditional apprenticeship system which passes down a craft from one generation to another. The continuous refinement and relentless pursuit of precision are what makes these craftsmen or craftswomen knowledgeable in dealing with the challenges within each field. From fashion to interiors, authenticity is frequently brought up in wider discussions. In many ways, a craftsman produces authentically because of his or her desire to continue the art of creating by hand, to learn and continue to practise the craft, and to continue understanding their craft. Perhaps it is also knowing about the person who crafts the item, knowing that he or she spent hours creating it and that there can only be a limited amount crafted by a craftsman or craftswoman throughout his or her life. 


Modern Craftsmanship

The essence of craftsmanship, to me, is an attitude towards excellence. Whether it is making a piece of furniture or cooking a dish, when the maker achieves excellence and consistency in delivering whatever they make to represent the best way they believe a material or an ingredient, they are operating in the realms of craft. To achieve this requires skill and experience, a commitment to quality, and an unrivalled understanding of the material and tools to work with. Indeed, what is the common standard in every industry was paved by a craftsman or craftswoman who followed the path towards excellence in what they do. 

Often, the in-depth understanding of a craftsman or craftswoman also pushes boundaries to set innovative techniques to further the craft. Modern craftsmanship today may be less onerous about the making by hand, but this attitude towards excellence is also a will to the continuous advancement of craft - innovation. There are new inventions of technology, equipment, manufacturing processes and more that were not available in previous decades, I believe that these new inventions are a playground to push the boundaries of the craft that we know of today. The mix of traditional craftsmanship with a new invention, perhaps even with newly invented materials, will go hand-in-hand to drive modern craftsmanship; how we associate craftsmanship will change over time with the merging of traditional artistry with the latest technology, setting new industry standards. 

In the world of Apple, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac and Apple TV, the work by the late Steve Jobs was infilled with a core understanding of craftsmanship that he understood from his father:

"When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You'll know it's there, so you're going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through." 

And those words, ingrained in Steve Jobs way of thinking influenced how he led the team to craft many of Apple's iconic products, steeped with craftsmanship from its circuit boards to the aluminium on the Apple laptop which I am writing this piece.

*Note about the AA's Strawberry Table: 

The AA Archive has written a blog post on the annual tradition of strawberry tables at graduation. At the ceremony each year a Unit tutor and their students are enlisted to design and create a strawberry table to hold a buffet of strawberries for attendees. Designs are experimental, ephemeral and ambitious. 


The AA Photo Library holds photographs of jubilant students, staff, family and guests, standing by (rapidly emptying) strawberry tables, champagne in hand. Photographs of strawberry tables from the 1980s and 1990s were in Chings Yard, where they historically resided during the Projects Review, but also photographs of more recent tables from the 2000s onwards looking resplendent in sunny Bedford Square.

Link to the AA's blog on Strawberry Table: http://collectionsblog.aaschool.ac.uk/strawberries-in-summer/?fbclid=IwAR1VFHoz72ItWI8cs20OB-o04-xgfPWlBbjubxq0AQqkbnCzGbHrrNYluDg

First published on ADF Web Magazine on 01/04/2021. If you have any questions or simply to share information on craftsmanship, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com


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