The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.
– John Ruskin
I sometimes think that I was born in the wrong century. Modern life feels to be – in some ways – too fast-paced, too complicated, too removed from nature, too fake. In such moments I dream that I lived centuries ago, maybe as a blacksmith or a carpenter or a potter, crafting beautiful objects that would be bought and carried and sold by merchants in a caravan along the Silk Road…
In real life I am a Design & Technology teacher. I teach classes that give students the opportunity to use their hands, to design and to make, to be creative and to be practical. I often love what I do. But at times I also feel saddened by technology. I don’t particularly like plastics of any kind. I don’t like the fact that 3D printers and laser cutters make it possible for students to go through the entire process of designing and making products by doing little more than pressing buttons.
On the other hand I love working with wood. I love the look of wood grain, the feeling of shaping and manipulating it, the smell of the forest. It is a material, which unlike plastic or MDF or chipboard has beauty and soul. But in this modern world I sometimes wonder if there is much of a place left for such craft work.
Since I can’t go back in time, I console myself with history. One historical movement that has encouraged me on more than one occasion is the Arts and Crafts Movement. In a reaction to industrialisation and massed-produced products of the Victorian era, the movement stood for craftsmanship, simplicity and beauty.
Recently I came across a BBC 2 programme called The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts. Presenter Anita Rani is joined by six modern day craftspeople who create products using inspiration techniques from the Arts and Crafts Movement era. I loved the show, and it reminded me that my occasional reactions to the modern world are nothing new. Maybe it is not so much advances in technology that I react to after all, but the way in which technology is used.
One of my favourite projects by a student took inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement. This student designed and created a small end table in the style of the movement. It was made almost entirely by hand, and was simple yet sturdy and well-proportioned. In a final decorative step, this student used the laser cutter to engrave an Arts and Crafts style motif on a lower shelf.
It was beautiful. And it reminded me that modern equipment doesn’t have to replace craft skills. If used well, it can compliment them.