Foreword, The Value of Making, September 2018 

Book photography by Yeshen Venema

Book photography by Yeshen Venema

Emily Jo Gibbs invited me to write the foreword to her book, The Value of Making, written to accompany an exhibition of the same name at Contemporary Applied Arts. All copy as provided to the publication. ‘I’m really delighted - I feel you have made my book so much more intelligent!’ – Emily Jo Gibbs.

This series of portraits is a response to what Emily Jo Gibbs describes as ‘the lack of value placed on making by our society’. Given that both the process of making and the handmade objects that result bring so much joy, why are craft skills undervalued at every level of society from education to employment and commerce?

The answer, as with so many things, lies with the ancient Greeks, who believed sight to be the noblest of our five senses. ‘The eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears,’ wrote Heraclitus, while Aristotle claimed that sight ‘approximates the intellect most closely’[1] making a link between vision and knowledge, understanding and truth. This reverence for sight was reflected in an emerging hierarchy between vocations:

‘We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons for the things which are done.’[2] 

As well as demoting those who make below those who design, Aristotle uses the word cheirotechnon to describe them, which, directly translated, simply means ‘handworker’, in contrast to the earlier demioergos – a combination of the words ‘public’ and ‘productive’ that implies a greater value to society.[3]

By the Renaissance, sight (associated with fire and light) sat at the top of a strict hierarchy of senses, with touch (associated with earth) relegated to the bottom. It follows then that thinking and drawing (associated with the eyes) became prized above making (associated with the hands).

Sir Joshua Reynolds became the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and argued that an artist might start his training with manual skills but would only graduate once he had mastered ‘the grandeur of his ideas.’[4]  Thomas Chippendale’s ‘pattern books’ took design out of the hands of makers and into the heads of draughtsmen and by the end of the century craftspeople were simply ‘called upon to fill the gap between sketch and product.’4  

The 19th century brought with it the Industrial Revolution and further division of labour between head and hand. Inspired by a romanticised vision of the artisan’s role in 12th-century cathedral construction, and profoundly influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin, William Morris led the Arts and Crafts movement in proposing a return to hand-craftsmanship, which would return artisans to the status of artists. Although the movement failed to fulfil many of its aims, craft theorist Glenn Adamson argues that it was in this era that craft was truly invented – in opposition to industry.[5]

Today we face a different set of challenges and a revolution of our own. The myth of the hierarchy of the senses is being exacerbated by technology – while haptic feedback is now programmed into our smartphones to reassurance us that our commands are being received, their ubiquitous screens serve up predominantly sight and sound while taunting us with images that exude tactility, taste and scent. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes the resulting status of those ‘other three senses’ as ‘archaic sensory remnants with merely a private function.’[6] No wonder skills of the hard aren’t prioritised in schools.

And yet change is in the air. Adamson argues that the digital revolution is just as traumatic as its industrial predecessor, describing craft as ‘an understandable response to the crises of modernity.’[7] When ceramic artist and author Edmund de Waal talks about ‘returning to earth’ he is of course referring to clay, and yet he might also be referring to a return to the sense of touch. From trend forecaster Li Edelkort predicting that ‘super technology is going to ask for super tactility’[8] in 2012 and Design Academy Eindhoven creative director Thomas Widdershoven describing tactility as ‘a political statement, a social statement, a human statement’ in 2015[9] to the current surge in demand for all things handmade, it seems the value of making is finally being recognised. Looking at Emily Jo Gibbs’ exquisite works in this book, you start to understand why. The connection Emily has formed with her fellow makers is more than evident in the portraits she has made of them, and yet there are things Emily is able to articulate through the physically invested work of stitching, and through her instinct to focus not on the makers but their tools, that might elude both writers and photographers. In the texture and tactility of these portraits, in every hand-stitched detail, every silken shadow, Emily captures and celebrates the value of making – both that of her subjects and her own.

[1] Pallasmaa, J. (2012) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons [2] Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books [3] Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books [4] Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking through craft. London / New York: Berg [5] Adamson, G. (2013) The invention of craft. London / New York: Bloomsbury Academic [6] Pallasmaa, J. (2012) The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses. London: Wiley & Sons. [7] Adamson, G. (2013) The invention of craft. London / New York: Bloomsbury Academic [8] Etherington, R. (2012) "Super technology is going to ask for super tactility" - Li Edelkoort at Dezeen Live. London: Dezeen. Available online: https://www.dezeen.com/2012/12/28/super-technology-is-going-to-ask-for-super-tactility-li-edelkoort-at-dezeen-live/ [9] Widdershoven, T. (2015) Press conference, Design Academy Eindhoven graduate show, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.