The ethics of making stuff

February 13, 2009

tord-boontje-fig-leavesSo back to the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year. Blogging away here about design and society, I feel I should explain myself as the nominatator of, arguably, the most anti-social exhibit in the show in terms of democratic access:  Tord Boontje’s limited edition armoire for Mallett. What was I thinking of? Well, here’s what I said at the time I was asked to nominate: “The inner sanctum of Mallett’s Meta collection at the Milan Furniture Fair revealed a wardrobe by Tord Boontje in the form of a tree bursting into the foliage of over 600 enamelled leaves. In the torturous semantic deliberations over design and craft, old-fashioned dignity of labour doesn’t get much of a look-in: this is an unequivocal tribute to very specialised and ancient manufacturing skills”.

On a long train ride this week I finally got to the end of Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman; not an easy read, but rewarding when you get to section 2 onwards and especially the fabulously metaphorical instructions for boning a chicken in the Persian style on page 190. Anyone who, like me, struggled to understand what Sennett was talking about in the introduction when he meets Hannah Arendt in the street and witnesses her disdain for animal laborens – ordinary working, making man – might also be pleased, like me, by the relatively simple resolution Sennett arrives at in the closing chapter on ethics. The Craftsman is complex and discursively illustrated argument for enrichment and pride in work that comes through crafstmanship. The vitrine of sample enamelled leaves on the Design Museum’s wall give an insight into this. Design has given new challenges of scale and illusion to enamellers who would otherwise be making an awful lot souvenir pill boxes.