‘Hands can save us’, proclaims Richard Senner of the London School of Economics. Senner knows how to overcome the economic crisis: by using our hands. ‘My students do not want to work in banking anymore’, says Stefano Micelli, Associate Professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and author of ‘Futuro Artigiano’ (Artisan of Tomorrow, Marsilio, 2015). ‘They all dream about selling handmade bicycles online. They want to use their hands’.
The concept of the artisan is a fast changing one. Already, far from the old fashioned image of a man in his little dusty shop, the artisanal today has taken on a whole new level of trendy, even fashionable. This resurgence, this re-discoverery, is thought to be for two main reasons: the economic crisis and the increasing rejection of mass production.
‘The consumer world we have got used to is just no longer sustainable’, Micelli continues. ‘In Western Europe people now want something unique, different. The idea of standardization remains strong only in the Far East, where everyone wants the same brands’.
So far as Italy is concerned, it already has a powerful heritage to draw from. ‘We had the Renaissance, the cradle of uniqueness, which taught us the idea of the ‘well made’ and that’s why we can step forward’, Micelli points out. ‘We have to keep up our genetic ability to produce beautiful objects to build a more contemporary vision, without turning them into industrial products, which would ruin them completely. The future is not the Renaissance ‘bottega’, but a workshop turned into a 21st century firm’.
Furthermore, Micelli is a strong believer that manual work is no longer a ‘second rate’ job. ‘Nowadays, clerical work is really alienating; doing the same thing all day long behind a computer screen is tiring and goes nowhere. We have overvalued our brains for too long and now we have discovered that we have hands and using them can be satisfactory, meaningful, fulfilling, and makes us intelligent.
Many European countries have already re-discovered craftsmanship: Denmark, Holland, Sweden, the UK, all have done a lot to support vocational schools, and moreover culture has turned towards craftsmanship. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has done a great job in this sense.’ Since its founding in 1852, the Victoria & Albert Museum has done a great deal in elevating craft to the same level as the ‘Fine Arts’, having significant collections of fashion, glassware, furniture, and many others.
The importance of putting one’s heart in a job is vital. ‘Until recently, we thought that intangibility was important’, concludes Micelli. ‘Now we have discovered that the language of hands and of objects is far more interesting’.
Politically, Italy has not yet fully committed to going down this road but in the private sector there are some promising case studies. Brunello Cucinelli has opened a tailoring school, as has Fendi with its Tailoring Academy. Both the Fondazione Cologni in Milan and the School of Mosaic of Spilimbergo count a lot of passionate students amongst their ranks.
Design schools also always stress the importance of more practical subjects. ‘Design schools have never given up teaching manual work’, says Emanuele Soldini, head of the European Institute of Design (IED) in Milan. ‘We must touch, smell, and feel the materials in order to be able to work with them. Even in a time when digital is so important, when everything seems incorporeal, the most appreciated subjects in our schools are the ones where there is manual work involved. Design schools have always had this kind of approach. Technology helps a lot with the developing of prototypes but at the same time confirms the importance of manual work and of an artisanal attitude. The quality of craftsmanship and of materials has always been a characteristic of being ‘Made in Italy’ and designers simply cannot do without it’.
It is important, however, to disassociate craftsmanship with ‘small industry’, as craft can be found in big companies as well. Look at Bottega Veneta or Cucinelli. These are big companies with huge turnovers, but they work with the attention and precision that previously only a small atelier could afford.
Being ‘Made in Italy’ still has tremendous value but we have to acknowledge that mass produced products from Asia can also be very well made and cost a fraction of the price. ‘They are good producers of mass products, but these objects are not fashionable anymore in Western Europe. What people want here is variety, uniqueness and tailor-made objects’, Micelli continues. ‘If we want to attract international clientele, we need to become ‘artisan-managers’; we cannot stick to the ‘bottega’. We must use technology to make our products known all over the world, without compromising the quality. And we have to put the man and his work at the centre of the productive process. I refer to Cucinelli again; he sends everyone home at five, because his products are important but his workers even more so. The focal point of a well made object is the man behind it, not the machine, not the technology’.