Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Month: August 2015

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

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Peter Korn’s Why We Making Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman is a smart and engaging bildungsroman — the story of how the pot-smoking, draft-dodging son of a lawyer and doctor became one of the country’s most acclaimed furniture designer-makers. It is no accident, in Korn’s account, that a thoughtful college kid looking for a meaningful life in the early 1970s would turn to “craft” for answers—the road had been laid in the late 19th century by John Ruskin and William Morris, the founding fathers of the British Arts and Crafts movement. “Craft” as a concept—a way of thinking and interpreting the world—arguably begins with the Arts and Crafts challenge to the Industrial Revolution (with its exploited labor, polluted cities, crass commercialism and mass-manufactured commodities). An inheritor of Ruskin and Morris’s theories, Korn draws a parallel between making furniture with “simplicity, integrity, and grace” and arriving at “a vision of how life could and should be lived.”

Peter Korn - woodworking-basics

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It is important to remember that “craft” as we understand it (artisanal, handmade, non-alienated, combining manual and intellectual labor) was invented by socialists. It was a politicized concept from the beginning. Craft became a means to designate an aesthetic and social system in radical opposition to prevailing modes of capitalist production. If the Craftsman has become a mythic, Romanticized figure—sure-of-hand, morally upright, and industrious in idyllic surrounding—that owed in large measure to the compensatory and utopian quality of the Arts and Crafts ideas about  the nature of joyful labor, the moral welfare of the worker, the health of society, and the holistic interconnectedness of those issues. As Korn observes, “Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.”

Korn’s answers to the question Why We Make Things and Why It Matters closely resemble Ruskin’s and Morris’s before him. Craft offers a practical form of building Utopia. (Utopia considered not as a static place but as a process.) One of Korn’s insights from a life of craftwork is that “a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

Exhibition Review: “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise”

paradise1The journal Contemporaneity has published my review of Regina Mamou’s haunting series of photographs, “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” (Chicago, IL — City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 2013-2014).  Using various Midwest utopian communities as her subject allowed Mamou to explore the relationship between geography and ideology — how certain utopian ideals and convictions become embedded in physical spaces . I admired the way she put pressure on photography to elicit psychological and spiritual states, something she is continuing to investigate in her new work (check out her website). It was a pleasure to reflect on her thoughtful, fascinating series.

Mist shrouds an open field; the softness suffocates. In Fieldwork (Blue) Regina Mamou stages the paradox of immanence and imminence—God always and everywhere on the verge of appearing: a stifling remoteness, an intimate distance.  The “field” could be visual, physical, conceptual; The “work” is the visual object, the photograph, or the physical work of agriculture, or the conceptual realm of the divine: God in the godliness of good works, of work accomplished in the service of collective wellbeing.

The review is available as a PDF for download through Contemporaneity’s website.