Craft in Translation

Vase by Janet Leach, c. 1980

by Peter Betjemann

Consider what comes first to mind when one thinks about handcrafted ceramics. I myself would venture that many people’s initial vision of a handmade vase would involve some aspect of irregularity: perhaps a bold one-of-a-kind design, an imperfectly round rim, a slight asymmetry in the body, or a glaze that acts unpredictably in the kiln. The kinds of ceramic objects that don’t immediately leap to mind, as typifying the handcrafted, are those in which the craftsperson was responsible for making objects to type, and conforming to a standard of symmetry and design. Delftware, for instance, represents an advanced craft that is best known as a set of reproducible conventions: blue and white glazing, repeating or pictorial designs, and (in some examples) chinoiserie.

Delftware, 17th century

Josiah Wedgwood’s eighteenth-century neoclassical pottery offers another example. While it is true that Wedgwood industrialized his operation in some ways, his craftsmanship was nonetheless impeccable. Wedgwood’s copy of the ancient Roman Portland Vase took him four years to perfect and represents an apex of the artisanal understood not in terms of irregularity but as the ability to achieve a certain result projected and prototyped in advance.

Josiah Wedgwood, Portland Vase, 1790

A similar pattern holds for furniture. Handcrafted woodworking suggests something singular: a richly detailed Morris & Co. piece, say, or even a simple Gustav Stickley table in which the design was standardized but the striking wood grain draws the eye to the piece’s distinction and uniqueness.

In the past three decades, exotic woods with very striking and often irregular grain have become the virtual sine qua non for objects sold at craft fairs: a jewelry holder, for instance, might mix spalted maple with purpleheart and mahogany burl. What one does not immediately remember, as supreme instances of handcrafted furniture, are styles predicated on repetition, regularity and details so difficult that they take a lifetime of working in a single form to master. Eighteenth-century furniture, like eighteenth-century pottery, offers a prime example. A Chippendale étagère with fine seashell carving somehow seems less handcrafted than a rustic Adirondack chair built with peeled birch boughs. But the skills involved in making the former piece, historically speaking, represent the zenith of artisanship in wood.

Harvey Ellis, designer; for Gustav Stickley, c. 1904. Stickley preferred quartersawn white oak, a material that presents straight grain overlaid with bold flecks called medullary rays; those rays appear in the sideboard below as the bright, shiny areas on the doors and the lower apron.

My book, Talking Shop: The Language of Craft in an Age of Consumption details the evolution of a mainstream language of workmanship. Using media ranging from novels to furnishings catalogs, it charts the historical developments, originating in the 1830s, that brought us to the cultural pass where the “handcrafted” refers to style as much as to mode of production, and where the adjective “artisanal” tags everything from frappuccinos to supermarket pane rustica. But while the book is focused on the print media of craft’s renascence (and, correlatively, on how crafted things were understood as communicating their meaning in ways that could be easily translated into catalog copy), it originated in observations that had nothing to do with language. Those observations, instead, were visual: the roots of the book lie in the aesthetics of craft as they have developed in the past two centuries.

There are a host of historical and cultural forces behind the rise of irregularity as the sign of craft, and the negative implications of the same for workers in trades predicated on reproducibility. This is the subject not of Talking Shop but of my current research. Still, ruminations along these lines launched Talking Shop to the degree that my major concern in the history of craft involves the forces tending to suppress routine, sequence, regularity, habit, consistency and repetition as artisanal values.

Language, to come back to what is the book’s subject, seems very much like one of those forces. For the steadiness of the shop, the practiced rhythm that gets things done and done well would hardly seem to make for scintillating reading. Take the case of fiction. Virtually everyone who writes about the relations of labor and literature, from Walter Benjamin to Michael Denning, makes some version of this point: that manual work translates poorly to the page because the discipline of handicraft does not match with the exceptional experiences that define good stories. Waking up as a cockroach or falling in love with someone other than one’s betrothed are obviously more compelling narratives than paring a joint perfectly flush or freehand sharpening a plane iron to a precise thirty-two degree bevel. (Benjamin takes the presumed incompatibility of literature and labor to the extreme, arguing that the rise of the published novel in the eighteenth century marked the historical rupture of story and narrative; he asserts that the novel’s investments in narrating a unique protagonist’s life represented the death knell of an oral storytelling tradition focused on conventional tales and practiced by journeymen artisans as they moved from workshop to workshop.)

Moreover, if the poor compatibility of fiction’s appeal with the everyday practice of artisans marks one strike against a compelling language of handicraft, the idealization of artisans themselves as doers rather than sayers – and their processes as unteachable through words – marks another. Theorists of craft from Plato to Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett have described how most artisans cannot exactly explain how they do what they do, how artisanship is learned by example and practice rather than through texts or oral instruction alone, how artisanship must be situated in an adaptive physical relation with things rather than in printed directions, and how “tacit knowledge” (a common phrase in contemporary crafts theory) accrues over a life of specialization. All of this thinking, about the workshop as a poor literary theme and about craft as a practice that cannot be standardized or channeled into a procedural discourse, has the important value of defending the artisan as a person with a uniquely embodied, useful, and unabstractable set of skills. Posing artisanship as untranslatable, as immune from transformation into forms other than experienced by the artisan him or herself, offers a line of defense against a modern economy that has tended to minimize applied labor and to maximize managerial prowess.

What happens, however, when we shift our attention from the contained scene of the artisan’s labor – the workshop itself – to the vast, polyvocal discourse of craft as it developed from the 1830s onward? This discourse has brought the craftsperson’s life to cultural prominence through texts ranging from Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography (composed in the sixteenth century but only popularized in the nineteenth) to Gustav Stickley’s activist magazine The Craftsman. It flowed through such popular forms as the Sears catalog and such elite fiction – loaded with crafts objects – as that by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. The most important interpretive questions in Talking Shop are these: is this whole discourse an enormous sham on craft’s true interests of silence and self-containment? Does the actually quotidian routine of the shop have no viable textual outlets? Historically speaking, is the longstanding print discourse idealizing craft a force that (like the prominence of irregularity in the aesthetic development of what figures as “handcrafted”) undersells the values of regularity, invariability, and specialization that should appear central to our notions of artisanal skill?

I do not aim to answer these questions unequivocally, for different aspects of the print discourse studied in the book offer different levels of compatibility with the physical practice through which artisanal skill is developed. (An instructional article on cutting dovetail joints in an early twentieth century woodworking textbook, for instance, obviously has a great deal more to do with artisanal training than the tagging of factory-made furniture as “handcrafted style.”) But the my finding is that a language of craft in the industrial era could not have become so viable, so vigorous, without at least hinting at certain connections back to practical artisanship and to the concrete, quotidian, and physical processes of the shop. Centering on the language of craft between 1830 and 1925, I aim to show how fiction writers, essayists, advertisers, and craft reformers tried, in various ways that are the subjects of the book’s close analysis, to accommodate their texts to the routines of the craftsperson’s labor.

A simple example is afforded by the famous last words of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter: “on a field, sable, the letter A, gules.” These words are of course a herald’s code, and in the context of the craft to which they are most pointedly relevant (engraving, for Hawthorne is using them to describe the appearance of the letter on Hester Pyrnne’s gravestone) they indicated how the artisan would cut the letter on the stone: convention holds that engravers represent red, “gules,” with parallel vertical incisions and black, “sable,” with cross-hatching. Many readers have remarked that the last words of the novel are esoteric and, in their gothic reverberations, hauntingly obscure. But when understood as a language of craft, they in fact monumentalize the final appearance of the letter within a conventional artisanal system that allows its reproduction even after the original engraving has completely faded (as Hawthorne tells us it is about to do). The scarlet letter itself, as said to have been embroidered by Hester Prynne in the seventeenth century, is one of the great literary examples of superior artisanship: made using a stitch so complex and so durable that it cannot be picked out two centuries later, it is contrasted in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter with the vaporous, insubstantial, and hastily made commodities of Hawthorne’s day. The final words of the novel are really part of this argument. They represent a literary defense of craft as reproducibility as much as they feature as a sign of the romantic author’s Gothicizing and obfuscating imagination.

There are a host of additional reasons to read Hawthorne’s fictional works as tending not to etherealize things – the most commonly discussed aspect of his literary practice – but to monumentalize them through the daily practices of craft. Hawthorne is the central subject of only one chapter of Talking Shop, but he makes supporting appearances in several chapters not his own because his literary concerns so nearly reflect the aesthetic questions I have described as the deepest origin of my research. A romantic writer devoted to irregularity, to the singular and irreproducible, he packs his fiction with esoteric crafted objects that are so totally one-of-a-kind that they threaten to vanish (like the gravestone engraving) or to be lost to a history that can never rebuild them (like a delicate mechanical butterfly, crafted over many years by a watchmaker but destroyed in an instant by the ham-fisted grip of a blacksmith’s young son). But running through Hawthorne’s corpus we can also discover, at times in the very sentences describing singular or apparently irreplaceable crafts, a language of artisanship devoted to reproducibility, to those habitual processes and honed, conventional skills that allow things to be built the same way time and time again.

Historicized through such instances, the vast, multimodal, and ultimately very commercial print discourse of craft that developed between 1840 and 1925 does not appear as a hoax on the embodied nature of craft. Instead, it prospered as a complex and often equivocal attempt to incorporate embodiment and physical practice into the textual medium. I am considerably less sure that the mainstream language of craft in our own era is as nuanced (although an epilogue to Talking Shop turns to such sources as the Pottery Barn catalog and Martha Stewart’s 1983 book Entertaining, a text everywhere saturated with artisanal language, to mine those correlations that do exist between the earlier and the present cases). Wherever we want to locate the actual workshop’s evaporation into an ersatz language of the “artisanal,” however, I find myself politically committed to looking, at least, for the values of reproducibility and repeatability in the history of craft. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, Thorstein Veblen pilloried what he saw as the “exaltation of the defective” – bumpy pottery and irregular edges – in the crafts aesthetic as descended from Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement. I share his skepticism, not because I don’t feel the beauty of many such pieces, but because I worry about the implications of western culture’s moving too far towards a view of the handcrafted that minimizes repeatable skills. When it comes down to it, I do not see anything more fundamentally artisan-like about throwing deformed pots or building with exotic burls than about hanging rafters, levelling a concrete pad or skim-coating a plaster wall. Even where we might least expect it, in the history of a language of craft that seems to have fully escaped the actual workshop, the authors and promoters of that language tried to gather up the threads of craft’s daily rhythms and its unexceptional routines.

About the Author:

Peter Betjemann is Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University. Peter teaches American literature from its origins to the present, while specializing as a researcher in the period between 1840 and 1925. His work as a cabinetmaker’s assistant during his years as a student sparked his academic interest in the lexicons of the “artisanal” – today a familiar way of talking about everything from cheeses and coffee to mass-marketed decorative styles – as they developed in the nineteenth century. He is the author of Talking Shop: The Language of Craft in an Age of Consumption.