A few months ago, Rudy Christian, in his blog A Place For Trades, asked the question, "Can we even comprehend craftsmanship today?" He has some insightful thoughts on our declining ability to value goods based on craftsmanship. He also talks about how the world economy has shaped the marketability of products and our own buying habits.
Mr. Christian argues the need for cultural and educational changes with respect to the building trades and also its patrons. I encourage you to read his post. His analysis is broader than mine. He's a thought leader in historic conservation, and he's been writing, teaching and speaking on these matters for years.
What's The Diff?
So, do we understand craftsmanship today? I think the short answer is "no." I started to leave a quick comment to that effect on Mr. Christian's blog. As it turns out, I couldn't fit everything I wanted to say into a comment field.
I've noticed that the words "handcrafted" and "artisan" have been co-opted by fast food advertisers, among other brands, big and small. L'Oreal is promoting custom designed hair color. Tostitos has an artisan recipe tortilla chip. Popeyes is hand crafting their chicken tenders - just to name a few that are top of mind. See, their ads are working!
These words resonate with people, because they have a history behind them. They imply that the product is of higher quality, and consumers make those associations, however superficial.
Who remembers when a coffee maker was something you could hand down to your children? Our dear friend, an eco-minded, 50-something Southerner, still uses the Sunbeam toaster she grew up with as a child.
People of a certain age remember when manufactured products would last for decades. A guy down the street could actually fix them for you. Seriously. They may have known someone who worked with their hands. They were familiar with the schooling and skills required to get the job done.
These ads must be working because they seem to be everywhere. I'm guessing they appeal to an older demographic. Though, younger consumers with different life experiences will likely have a different understanding of words like "artisanship." Advertisers and a new generation of buyers are redefining not only what "artisan" means, but the very idea of what an artisan is.
Trading Up To True Craftsmanship
Unfortunately, products that are truly hand-built have been cheapened by the marketing hyperbole of completely unrelated, mass-produced goods. Hand-built products have years of skill and training behind them - and hours, days, months, and sometimes years of time in them.
"It's harder to discern quality stonework, because people expect it to look rugged rather than refined. Unfortunately for the public, it's easier to pass off sub-par work too."
So, someone please tell me how much training and effort goes into making a fast food salad? You can see for yourself. Watch the video at top titled 'Happily Handcrafted Salads' with Will, an artist of salads.
In response to a changing marketplace, I take care to show my customers, both online and in-person, what the components of quality craftsmanship look like. I explain how natural stone compares to other products. There is detailed information available on this blog about our construction practices.
Along with shifting buying habits, our expectations about time have shifted too. Big-box ads and cable TV shows have left an enduring impression that just about any home improvement project can be done in one whirlwind weekend. Bless their hearts. Yet, there are a dozen other reasons why modern life has left us all with the attention span of ants.
Yes, I do believe that recognizing quality workmanship has gotten more complicated over the last couple of generations or during my lifetime. We are losing the ability to appreciate what we're seeing in the building trades.
"Go out now and find me two guys that can put decent grout around your bathtub," Tony laments.
Most people in Raleigh aren't directly touched by traditional crafts and trades. Raleigh's history is different than other metro areas where trade schools and manufacturing jobs were part of the fabric of the community.
Homeowners don't necessarily understand that quality workmanship takes longer. They may not even be willing to wait longer for it. It's particularly hard to discern quality stonework, because people expect it to look rugged rather than refined. Unfortunately for the public, it's easier to get away with sub-par work too.
The Sopranos On Stonework
A scene from 'The Sopranos' pilot episode comes to mind. Tony (R.I.P.) ushers his daughter, Meadow, into a church that his grandfather and great uncle helped build - first generation Americans and stonemasons from Italy.
There's a moment of familial pride when he shows her the ornate stonework over the altar. Meadow glazes over like impatient teens do.
"They didn't design it, but they knew how to build it," he tells Meadow. Then, he realizes that that level of workmanship is a thing of the past. "Go out now and find me two guys that can put decent grout around your bathtub," he laments. God forbid, Tony was right. Our tub needs some serious work.
If you haven't glazed over by now, please feel free to leave your comments below.
Originally posted May 6, 2013