Handmade as a Fine Art

A hand letterpressed poster from a visiting artist at The Mill Paper and Book Arts.
A hand letterpressed poster from visiting artist Sarah Esgro at The Mill Paper and Book Arts.


DIY. Good or Bad?

There are pundits on both sides of the DIY movement, now well ensconced in our culture. For some it is a welcome opportunity to add new processes and voices to the visual dialogue that may previously have had no or little avenue of entry, as well as a means to connect the creative process and subsequently the visual message back to our common humanity, breaking the sterility of an end-to-end digital process. For others it is the bane of our visual culture which results in the dumbing down of the skill, dedication, and hard work of trained professionals. I can spot someone in the latter camp right away by their subconscious cringe when I mention the need for a return to the incorporation of handmade processes in the creation of visual messages (see the previous article in this series for a discussion about the origins of the recent interest in and the need for handmade). So, before I dive into the more pragmatic part of this series, I thought I should take some time to address this valid concern. It is possible to have, and there are way too many examples of, poorly made items that are being touted as fine examples of DIY and as representational of the handmade aesthetic or the aesthetic of imperfection. Let me assure you that this is not what we’re talking about or what handmade has to represent.

The Aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi

Unlike in Western culture where the singular term “beautiful” can be used to describe anything from a sunset to a gilded, overly ornate chandelier, in Japanese aesthetics there are several words for beauty depending on the type of beauty. One of the most revered, if not the most revered forms of beauty in Japanese aesthetics is the aesthetic of wabi-sabi. According to Leonard Koren in his book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, the closest Western concept to wabi-sabi is the concept of “rustic”— which is defined in part as simple, unsophisticated and with rough or irregular surfaces.

Rustic items which bear the patina of having a history of use and interaction with the hand are distinctively wabi-sabi.
Rustic items which bear the patina of having a history of use and interaction with the hand are distinctively wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi has been widely adopted by the DIY culture and was, and still tends to be, discussed when talking about the humanity and “simplicity” of handmade and the handmade aesthetic. Unfortunately most Western interpretations of the concept fail to paint the whole picture or simply get it wrong, going as far as saying that you can decorate your house in a wabi aesthetic by simply finding discarded items on the curbside. Wabi-sabi does not mean discarded junk. Similarly, handmade does not mean poorly executed. What both of these mis-interpretations fail to include is what Kimiko Gunji refers to in her article Japanese Aesthetics From Maximum Art to Minimum Art: The Passage From the Opulent to the Simple when she writes this about wabi-sabi: “…wabi is a kind of beauty, which stores nobility, richness, spirit, and purity within what may appear to be a rough exterior. …It is a beauty of great depth, which finds its expression in simple and unpretentious terms. Wabi is thus an aesthetic of unequal composition in which the more important component lies within that which is being overtly expressed; the internal element is superior to the external.” In short, wabi becomes an expression of humanity and its wonderfully and seemingly imperfect complexities—it celebrates these “imperfections” as perfection attainable only through the very act of being human or having interacted with humanity. As such it also bears a “richness” that goes beyond simply being imperfect or flawed. Successful expressions of handmade aesthetics should also then not be mere visual “trash” left on the curb, but should contain more. That more comes from refinement, repeated process, and the application of craft and skill—the pouring of humanity—of one’s self into a piece or work. Handmade does not simply equal poorly or imperfectly made in the same way wabi-sabi does not equal broken, flawed or discarded.

When teaching her course on Japanese Aesthetics, Gunji Sensei often refers to certain elements of aesthetics as, “awesomely simple”. Extending this analogy to handmade, what we as designers and marketers should strive for with the inclusion of handmade into the process or work we produce, when appropriate, should be “perfectly imperfect.” This is work that bears the mark of the human touch, causing it to resonate and connect more deeply with our human audiences and breaking the high-stress, plastic perfection and visual same-ness of much of the designed environment we live in today. There is no room for bad craft in the fine art of handmade or in the humanistic aesthetic or the aesthetic of imperfection. It should be perfectly imperfect.

Professional Development and the Study of Craft

So, does this mean that, if we want to produce quality work for our clients that incorporates the aesthetics of handmade or imperfection that we must all go be master crafts people? Not at all. There are a number of very effective and approachable ways to incorporate these elements into an everyday workflow. However, it does mean a couple of things that one needs to bear in mind or consider as we proceed in this series: First, just as with any creative process, the first version is never as good as the second, third, fourth or twentieth—process always yields better results. Second, in the same way we place value in the form of professional development on the latest social media trends, or the latest piece of production software, perhaps we should carve out professional development resources for the study of hand skills and fine craft.

In the next article in this series we will examine specific techniques and processes that can be leveraged effectively and affordably to incorporate more humanistic elements in our work. In concluding, do you think there is enough value placed on professional development in hand skills? Do you think this is something firms should consider devoting more resources to? Feel free to comment below!

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