Mass craft: how do you
industrialise the atelier?

26th November

This week’s blog is going to have a loose theme around design for ‘prestige’ branding, considering how more everyday products can tap into a bit of the luxury category’s allure.

In the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art currently running at Tate Britain, there’s a gorgeous length of William Morris fabric, produced in the late nineteenth century. Beyond its beauty and high price tag (a result of being hand printed in many colours) it also had a political dimension; Morris believed that industrialisation was bad for workers and his championing of hand crafted ‘anti-industrial’ production methods was his reaction to this.

Jump forward to today and it’s interesting how some things never change; just as his fabric cost more because it was the product of skilled craftsmen, so a Louis Vuitton bag, Hermès scarf or David Mellor knife will cost us more for the same reason. Many of the luxury brands make great play of their ‘atelier’ standing, with websites showing us the back rooms full of real people doing real skilled work. The image above is from ‘Inside the Hermès Atelier’ exhibition that the brand ran…

All very well, but what about brands which cannot afford to hand make every item, or choose not to charge for this approach? At the risk of making Morris turn in his grave, is it possible to industrialise a craftsman-like approach? Apple is a good example, with Jonathan Ive explaining how he studied the art of Japanese sword making to learn how to produce really good thin metal. Every bevel on an Apple product is the result of a crafted approach. Of course, the design intention here does not necessarily translate to a great life for the folk in the factory, as we frequently read in the newspapers.

In truth, all industrial design is really an example of craft; it takes skill to design and make. But really, I am talking about craft that one can sense and experience as a consumer. Something that feels human and hand produced. The recent design shift from minimalist vodka design to the maximalist world of whisky and gins is a pretty good example of how craftsmanship is being used at the graphic level, which can then be printed at industrial scales. As such, I think these examples of packaging show the basic principle: invest in craft and quality at the design’s beginnings and you can reap the rewards with something visually rich and considered for years to come. It’s the difference between hiring a calligrapher, or bashing it out on a Mac. This might not give you ‘atelier’ status, but it’s not a bad start…

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