craft and craftsmanship

I’ve been thinking lately about craft, craftsmanship and the craftsmen/craftswomen of days-gone-bye. It seems that we have all but lost this virtue in much of what we have in America today. Everybody wants everything instantly without caring how well it is made, nor do we want to spend for it. When we see great craft we are often amazed and assume how “expensive” that well crafted thing must be. So before I digress into a rant or tirade, let me say “thank you” to those few crafts-people that still exist. I appreciate your attitude in addition to you taking the appropriate time and care to make the things you make. You are a dying breed.

“There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”  ~Emile Zola

Good craft, we may notice this when we run our hand across the smooth surface of a real wooden table, or notice the elegant design of our German engineered automobile or the perfect stitching on our designer label clothing. However at this point, I’d be happy to have the fast food sandwich I ordered look like the picture on the menu. We have accepted mediocrity as the norm in this country and are beginning to reap the seeds we’ve sown.

I’ve been told in the past, it was common for someone to pour themselves into whatever they made whether it was furniture or food. One’s name was associated with their craft and since they valued their family name, they made sure they never brought disgrace to it. Therefore, one would work especially hard to make the best <insert object> that they could each and every time. After all, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That is a virtue instilled in me by my late mother.

When it comes to architecture and construction, I am often frustrated and disappointed with what is considered acceptable craft by many construction workers. Yes, I can boast of several contractors that take great pride in their work. They have told me of the series of people they have fired because they didn’t match up to their standards. Yet we still hear too many stories of someone hiring a contractor only to get shoddy work. Half of the reason building codes were written was to prevent these situations from happening. We wonder why the International Residential Code (let alone the International Building Code) is thicker than “Gone with the Wind”, “War and Peace”, and any Steven King novel combined. As architects we write lengthy specifications to set up the standard of quality required on the project. We use phrases like “workmanlike manner” and have to reference a dozen ASTM standards to endeavor to get the intended result. Shouldn’t top notch quality BE the standard? Why do I have to ask for it?

I’ve encountered situations when someone tried to charge MORE for good quality. “Oh you wanted it done that way. Ah, that will cost you more.” Why should good or great quality cost more? Shouldn’t that be the base line for which we set our pricing? Maybe that is why we think so many good quality things are expensive (see earlier post on that rant). One theory of mine (this will get you going), is that if someone doesn’t have something of that degree of quality in their house/car/whatever, they don’t think anyone else should. I actually overheard a painting contractor say to his employee something like “this place isn’t the Ritz, so don’t take too long in doing it.” I don’t care if it’s an outhouse, paint it right.

When we ask for food in a restaurant, do we have to ask that the produce be fresh or the seafood be fresh? Should we ask for the paint on our new automobile not be scratched or the tires be fully inflated? I hope we don’t have to pay more for a chair that isn’t wobbly.

My favorite trick is when drywall contractors want to “texture” the ceiling as a “design” element. Don’t try that stunt on me. I hate textured ceilings. It’s simply a way for them to hide the imperfections in the finish. Maybe it’s the rough framer’s fault too, or the carpenter for accepting low quality lumber rather than straight lumber. In my specs, the drywall or plaster is always smooth and somebody better see that whatever has to occur to accomplish it happens.

What happened to the days when someone set out to make something, anything, and at the end of the day could stand back and with great pride look at the thing they made, something they made with their own hands. It’s something we shouldn’t have to pay more for to get. It should be the standard, don’t you think?

top photo is from bigcityal’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

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craft and craftsmanship

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