Saturday, 2 April 2011

Where are we in the world?

I recently initiated a thread on the furniture designer-makers forum to which I subscribe trying to identify our place in the wider social and economic currents swirling around us. This, I suppose, was the heart of it:

It can hardly be denied that 'We make expensive objects that few can afford'; that even our batch produced furniture needs a more than average level of disposable income; and that many of us are uncomfortable with that - just as William Morris was all that time ago.

Long ago our society and economy got to the point where no ordinary person could afford the fruits of 'hand production', except for very small items and the repair of important technologically produced goods, like fixing our cars. Yet even there the range of those mass produced items that it is 'economic' to repair by individual labour rather than just buy a new one is, as we all notice, shrinking rapidly, and many are explicitly manufactured in a way that means it is impossible to take them apart without destroying them. (How many of us incidentally have any concern for the possibility of taking our furniture apart non-destructively in decades to come?)

And things have moved on, so that here most people cannot afford even mass-produced objects unless the relatively low labour content they still require comes from third-world workers, whom we regard with an uncomfortable mixture of guilt that we are exploiting them, and moral self-approbation that we are 'lifting them out of poverty'. (Never mind that we are also lifting them out of their own cultures, and we usually put aside the thought that once we have so lifted them the added burden on the world's resources will become truly insupportable.)

And things are moving on still further, so that the globalised economy is moving towards an end where generally labour will be unable to earn sufficient money to purchase its own product and wealth becomes increasingly invested in assets of inflating value rather than in productive industry. This is, as far as I understand it, the collapse of our economy that some people predict through a combination of simultaneous inflation in one area and deflation in another.

The one indispensible item for us all where a relatively high element of hand labour is difficult to eliminate or outsource to the third world is our houses, which have inflated to a value where they become a life-time burden on our personal earnings and a key asset prop of the whole unstable financial/economic system, ripe (or over-ripe) for corruption by those who believe they can manipulate the system for their own advantage.

My point is that, however morally aware and troubled we are, it is a difficult treadmill to step off.

You are right too that we attach tags to our furniture to redeem it. 'Green' is one of the most common, but some time ago Barnaby pointed out that the carbon footprint of a small workshop was likely to compare very unfavourably with that of larger production. So we concentrate on how sustainably we source our raw materials and gloss over the sustainability of our whole operation, let alone the fact that a large proportion of our sustainable timber ends up in the dust extractor.

'Heirloom' is perhaps safer if we just mean that we expect our furniture to out-last us and we hope it will still be valued by succeeding generations. Yet we have to steer clear of meaning 'value' in any monetary sense, because when our furniture does reach the resale market it commands pretty miserable prices, and, in the 'antique' market generally it is only a very few outstanding and 'collectible' items that attract high prices, and the vast bulk of well designed and made furniture from the past sells for low prices in the sense that no-one today could possibly make it from scratch so cheaply.

That is a reflection of the nature of the asset market that characterises the wealthiest end of our society and economy, and what is, I think, most ethically uncomfortable for us as designer-makers is a tendency to aspire in our work to the trappings of that level of luxury. Mostly the hope is vain, but it results in very expensive furniture with a very high level of finish and a sophistication verging on the absurd, a rarified claim to be taking our product to unprecedented, never before thought of heights. (And here we break ranks with our Arts and Crafts predecessors.) That sort of approach of course finds willing allies in the ranks of professional marketers and promoters, publicists and even 'critics', and maybe associations. It is inimical to any more culturally distinct or articulated characterisation of a body of craft or art work. Historically, work that has been so characterised has often met, initially, with surprise, incomprehension or hostility from the contemporary market - which is not what our new association is aiming at.