Thursday, 28 April 2011

Would anyone like a lift in my direction?

With growing attention being paid to the ever greater concentration of wealth and income in western nations in the hands of a small minority of their populations, we hear less often nowadays that phrase that a rising tide lifts all boats. However, we still often hear of the numbers ‘lifted out of poverty’ in the developing nations.

A recent contributor to debate on the Guardian about the performance of the IMF told us that in the last decade something like 700 million people had been taken out of poverty by global economic growth (2010 having been ‘the second wealthiest year in human history’ and 2011 almost certain to be the record breaker, in terms of measured global GDP). Somewhere someone, probably in Geneva or New York, has numerically defined what constitutes ‘poverty’, and everywhere, from Chad to China, the statistics are diligently collected, to produce – a very round number.

What is it that makes the phrase, ‘lifted out of poverty’, with its very distinctive use of words, so attractive to those who see our present international economic order as the best available and, on the whole, a good thing for humanity?

The wording suggests that poverty is a distinct or absolute state: once people are lifted out of it the job is done; join the club; no more grounds for discontent. It also suggests that the benefit is bestowed on the erstwhile poor by an outside force or agency: it is not their own efforts that have brought them this boon.

Inescapably the phrase brings to the back of the mind the relief helicopter lifting refugees out of the floodwater. All the necessary connotations are there: the technically sophisticated intervention; the charitable intent; the complete helplessness of the victim; the rescue decisively achieved; the condition from which the victim is rescued as something malignly aberrant and unpredictable, quite unconnected to the means of rescue. To question the benefit would be inhuman or uncivilised.

As we, greater beneficiaries of the global economic order, lift these people out of their poverty, we are likely to lift them out of a good many other things besides: their cultures; their homes; their social networks; their relationship to the land. No doubt the poor long to be lifted and probably, at least at the time, would mostly accept the hoist even if they understood what else was part of the process. Yet none of us make good decisions all of the time – which is not to say that we should make the decision for these people, but rather that we should examine critically the world our ways, and still overwhelmingly our benefits, are creating.

Ruins, ancient and modern

In a recent newspaper comment article, Simon Jenkins, former trustee of the Architecture Foundation, former deputy chairman of English Heritage, current chairman of the National Trust, deplored the English ‘cult of the ruin’, which leads us to the antiseptic preservation of historical ruins, where close cropped ‘nationalised grass’ stops three inches short of the stabilised masonry – a description many will instantly recognise as characteristic of English Heritage’s wind-swept ruined choirs – whilst we dutifully reject any attempt to put our historic derelicts to any active use or, yet worse to some minds, ‘restore’ and rebuild them as the Victorians might unhesitatingly have done.

As in so many of our present cultural problems, the Victorians provide precedents for both the malaise and the solution. Simon Jenkins might have cited the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as a guide to a humane solution. Founded in 1877 by William Morris and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to oppose Victorian restoration of historic buildings to a supposed (and often spurious) ‘authentic’ state in which they were thought to have existed at some arbitrarily chosen point in their history, the society, in the spirit of ‘anti scrape’, campaigned against the destruction of those accretions of physical adaptions and maturings that embodied the history of the human use of the building over the course of its existence – the patina of buildings, one might say. It believed historic buildings should be kept in good repair, put to sympathetic use, and physically adapted if necessary, but that any additions should be frankly modern and not attempt to disguise the distinction between the new and the old. Protection, not preservation.

In this, as in his concern for the state of manufacturing, and especially for the condition of furniture making that was expressed in the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris, like Ruskin and other like-minded contemporaries, emphasised the human, not just the aesthetic aspect of the culture, art and craft of their time.

The SPAB continues to this day, still requiring each member to subscribe to Morris’s original manifesto, though at times it may seem that the humaneness of the society faces a tidal wave of professional and commercially motivated restoration experts and materials suppliers. Yet it perhaps preserves the original spirit of its foundation better than that other survival of Morris’s efforts, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which has renamed itself the Society of Designer Craftsmen, and about which I have commented somewhat critically in an earlier post.

As for that other English institution over which Simon Jenkins holds some sway, the National Trust, it too was founded, at the close of the nineteenth century, by people whose concern was for the well-being of people in the physical and cultural landscape, and, as such, they were the successors of Morris and his socialist-minded contemporaries. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that the Trust began to devote so much of its energies to the preservation of the English country house, with which it has come to be so much associated in the public mind. That effort, in its own way, also laid much emphasis on the preservation not only of the buildings but of the material and detritus that embodied the lives of their past occupants, regardless of high aesthetic merit – everything from the Rubens to the elephant’s foot umbrella stand. A corollary of that was the desirability of maintaining the occupants in residence where possible, even if in reduced domain – something that was, we are told, later to lead on occasion to friction between the ‘owners’ and the Trust’s professional advisors and staff. Nevertheless, on another level the contextualised preservation of the art of the past, the only realm in which the cash-strapped post-war English could compete with the purchasing power of American and other foreign public and private art buyers, did achieve remarkable professional cultural and commercial success in opposition to the isolated, anaesthetised presentation of the cultural object in a museum environment – the cult, if not of the ruin, at least of the artefact.

For the masses, for whose benefit the Trust was originally established, this country-house culture came to be expressed in the ticketed-entry, exit-through-the-gift-shop ethos – a far cry from the cultural and social concerns of the young fogeys who had ‘saved’ the country house, but an essential prop to the political and commercial well-being of the Trust today.

In our own little realm of furniture making, we have an interesting conjunction of the historic and the modern in the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers, an association active in the affairs of the industry at every level including that of the small designer-maker and bestowers of the Guildmark, something about which I have commented in a few posts on this blog. This ancient sounding company was founded in the 1950s with full subscription to the arcane trappings of the City of London Livery Company – an relationship that such groups in modern economic life as public relations practitioners, international bankers, tax advisers, management consultants and security professionals have, in recent years, been anxious to establish. Move over, cordwainers and tallow chandlers.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Less is more

Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

Andrea del Sarto, Robert Browning

One would not have thought Mies van der Rohe read much Browning, but maybe, as James Thurber indicated, quotations from nineteenth-century English poetry were, for some, common currency in Central Park (‘The hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces.’)

But certainly Mies put the word play into fashion. As Le Corbusier famously explained to the woman who complained about the lack of dado rails and fluffy pelmets in La Maison du Fada, 'Your less is my gain', although he later claimed, shortly before he died of a surfeit of seawater at the age of 77, that he had meant to say the opposite: 'My less is your pain.' Modern historians agree that he was by this time suffering from Terminal Confusion (a condition common in famous architects desirous of building airports and railway stations). Possibly he was unsettled by his apprehension of a breach of copyright suit from that young whipper-snapper ('ce jeune petit malin') Mies van der Rohe. Or it may have been his enduring bitterness at the failure of his attempt to be appointed chief urban planner to the Vichy government, thus enabling the implementation of his earlier plan to demolish central Paris north of the Seine. Or perhaps he was just troubled by his growing realisation that, after he had proclaimed 'Chairs are architecture; sofas are bourgeois', every chair he subsequently designed (not to mention his sofas) bore an uncanny resemblance to a sofa.

Meanwhile more is indeed less in modern London: the Guardian reports that a penthouse at One Hyde Park has sold, via Ukrainian lawyers, for £136 million, with a further £50 million spent on fitting out (there is no information on the furniture chosen or budgeted for). The £136 million, as is also reported, would buy 1564 houses in Burnley, Lancashire, once a thriving hub of Victorian industry.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Post-generational change

In western societies we are accustomed to regarding our own time as one of unprecedented change. In a sense it is, but, in another, the generation born early in the twentieth century, my parents’ generation, experienced far greater change in the pattern of their personal lives and society. Theirs were the lives that saw the full transformation from a rural to an urban society (in the sense that agriculture, following the Second World War, ceased to be a significant employer); that saw the flowering of mass communications and of instant personal communication; that saw the achievement of almost universal personal physical mobility; that saw a major increase in leisure and disposable income.

Current times have seen a proliferation of technological devices. Now we have bread makers, espresso machines, electric tin openers, but nothing new that has so radically altered our lives as theirs were by the washing machine, the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, the motor car, the telephone and the radio, all of which became widespread in the decade after the end of the Second World War.

Today our cars can automatically adjust their seats to our body shape and sense when it is raining, features that we scarcely need, and we passively anticipate the moment when they break down and are too expensive for us to bother to have them repaired.

We live in a time of superfluous technological sophistication. On a more serious level, technological advance delivers, for example, in medicine, benefits that are applicable to, or affordable by, only a very small minority in usually western society – whilst malaria kills in Africa for the lack of mosquito nets. Or we marvel at space exploration that extends our understanding of the universe, and delivers marginal technological benefits to our consumer society.

Similarly ours is a time of superfluous, signs and information that paradoxically drive meaning out of our experience through cross referencing overload. The conflict of social and political ideals has vanished, not because one set of ideals has convinced us over another, but because all ideals have lost meaning for us. Everything now is ‘post’ – post-modern, post-structuralist, post-industrial – defined by reference to something we have not fully left behind yet cannot energise. Only cataclysmic events might restore our sense of meaning. In the US 9/11 produced such a reaction on a minor level but it quickly slipped back into the old moral, cultural and political confusion.

Meanwhile change in our time is driven by the acceleration of population growth rather than socially significant technical advance. That growth leads to the depletion of the earth’s natural resources, a process that simultaneously stimulates technological development and prevents it from transforming – or preserving – our social organisation.

Surely, one might think, computers and mobile phones contradict my view. With them, technological invention has produced something new and made it available to the mass of us at steadily decreasing price. They have certainly transformed the pattern of our lives and enabled new manners of social interaction, and social isolation, but the change has been more cultural than social or economic in broad terms. Famously, although computers made all sorts of business methods and practices newly possible, economists have been unable to trace an increase in productivity commensurate with the amount of investment in information technology except in individual cases. It has not been a new industrial revolution.

Computers give us the illusion of control. As we strike keys or click the mouse, information is instantly displayed. A further twitch of our fingers shows us in a flash the effect of changing this or that variable, but seldom is this degree of control or choice able to be transferred straightforwardly to the real world. The effects of this are seen most dramatically in the growth and near collapse of our international financial system, where computerised functioning has created a complex accelerating web of virtual activity that is entirely dysfunctional. As the survival of some of our largest and most sophisticated banks teetered on the edge the only direction in which they could turn for immediate funds was in many cases laundering the profits of organised criminal drug supply, where grubby cash changes hands for the supply of small packets of physical substances, and produces one of the largest by value and most thriving of international trades.

Pivot point

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axel-tree.

Recently a fellow furniture designer-maker commended another’s account of the development of our work for knowing ‘which pieces were pivotal’. Whilst I don’t want to dispute the ability of either of them to know what work is genuinely remarkable, I do query whether there is anything so specific, in the collective body of the current work of small furniture designer-makers, as a pivot, or whether we are actually aware of our work turning on (or ignoring) any key development.

We are in fact remarkably ill informed of what the rest of us are currently up to. Our work lacks a mode of publication and a nexus of sociability. We have the misfortune that our product is of sufficient substance to make it difficult for us to move around (we are unlikely to up sticks on a whim and go off to make furniture with our fellows in the south of France), but not of enough substance to make it impossible to ignore as hundreds troop by it on their way to work. It is insufficiently artistic, insufficiently valuable, insufficiently new to be much remarked by critics and commentators. It is too expensive to matter much to the masses. The old network of patronage that used to advance fashions in interior taste has passed away, and those who come closest nowadays to setting public taste or fashion often do so without much commissioning or patronising the work themselves.

So how is new work communicated, even amongst ourselves? We might expect to see our fellows’ work at exhibitions, but furniture exhibitions are in notoriously short supply, unprofitable for their organisers and not always well supported by exhibitors with their best and newest work. Nearly all of us have websites, but few are good at updating them with their latest work. We could in fact quite easily do more than we do to communicate our newest ideas and designs: our association could easily – but does not – have a place in the members’ section of its website specifically for such communication.

I believe we don’t do more to communicate our latest work because we do not want to. We do not want to partly for our own reasons of ‘commercial confidentiality’ (I have more often seen members fret about plagiarism than enthuse that others are developing similar ideas to their own), and partly because we simply do not have much in the way of ideas to communicate.

Having claimed that our work collectively lacks particular direction or sense of purpose, I will now contradict myself (up to a point) by trying to identify some common elements in the most noticed furniture.

One recently discernible is the creation, almost the imposition of textured effects on timber surfaces. Pieces of furniture with this characteristic have been the leading items in several recent group exhibitions in London associated with DMOU. Sometimes, not always, rather than exploiting texture inherent in the material, the surface effects are created with techniques similar to those needed to produce the dead-smooth, high-finish surfaces of the ‘I can’t believe it’s not plastic’ type that many have come inescapably to associate with expensive ‘bespoke’ furniture. Sometimes in these pieces, also, the surface texture is the focus to the noticeable neglect of interest in underlying form.

In that respect it may possibly be a parallel to Martin Grierson’s belief that ‘the success and beauty of a design lie as much in the quality of detail and choice of materials as in the overall concept’. I don’t entirely disagree with that, but I do think it may beg the question whether there is a stable and mature vocabulary of form on which the designer-maker draws. Yet perhaps that is what Martin encompasses in his reference to ‘proper pieces of furniture that exploit traditional forms’.

So, if that is the garlic, where are the sapphires? Elsewhere in these London exhibitions an interest in differentiation by conspicuous form still thrives, with, sometimes, a virtuoso predilection for forms that dramatically challenge methods of timber construction and making ability. A delight in pushing things to extremes – in construction, detailing, refinement, and, in consequence, probably cost – has something to be said for it, and something against. It could be seen as part of the overloading of our culture with a multitude of signs. It can hardly form the basis for a movement – flux perhaps but not a movement in any direction. It cannot be that ‘pivot point’ we seek.

It is, however, what frequently receives the prizes and guildmarks for ‘bespoke’ furniture, although, ironically, the particular pieces that receive these accolades are sometimes not bespoken at all but are instead deliberate speculative punts at awards by designer-makers, and, even so decorated, they may struggle to find purchasers thereafter.

Whether any of this can amount to a continuation of the Arts and Crafts ‘legacy’ (the theme of these exhibitions), beyond a degree of self-regard in our work as furniture designer-makers, I personally doubt. It certainly does not constitute ‘wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind’, to use Ernest Gimson’s description of WR Lethaby’s furniture in the 1890 Arts and Crafts exhibition.

What exactly is meant by that phrase is a little problematic. It perhaps applies more to Gimson’s work than Lethaby’s. Lethaby did not actually design much furniture (or architecture come to that) and some of it might not universally be regarded as commonplace. Nor is it without decoration. But perhaps this is a subject to which I might return.

A brand too far

Furniture designer-makers – well, British ones, mostly – well, some of them – have been busily changing their association into something more ‘outward-looking’ that will make them much better known, and much better off. DMOU becomes FDMA. It has taken more than two years of discussion and debate and some people – well, me anyway – regret that the open and fluid character of the old association will be lost for no actual gain. So this is a post only for furniture designer-makers and those with a direct interest in such things.

The association will certainly have to change the ‘About Us’ page on its website.

Now we have a committee, whereas before we prided ourselves that we did not, and it takes its first small steps into brand definition with a quest for a Iogo. To what extent, I wonder, is it possible to advance the interests of all members by the promotion of a single FDMA ‘brand’?

Members get touchy at being differentiated from other members, at least at the upper end of the spectrum, but we cannot sensibly ignore the fact that, having already taken our association down the road of ‘inclusiveness’, our membership embraces a very wide range of work.

Of course the FDMA can say, ‘At whatever level you wish to acquire a piece of furniture you can find a small independent designer-maker who can provide you with something individual and satisfying.’ But that’s hardly compulsive promotion. As soon as the promotion tries to be more effective it has to concentrate on some differentiated particulars. Can we really advance the fortunes of --- --- and --- --- in a single breath? Do we all sell to the same market? I think it is difficult to answer ‘yes’; the membership as a whole just does not constitute, in a commercially meaningful sense, a single ‘brand’. We do have a, rather frayed, ‘philosophical’ identity as ‘designer-makers’, but, although that is real, I do not think it will be much called upon in commercial promotion: it is sometimes difficult to get our membership to understand it, let alone the buying public.

There are some members scarcely involved in one-off commissions; there are great disparities of scale (some members head companies that employ around 40 people, others are one-person, or even half-person bands); enormous variation in the character of ‘artistic’ approach; there are members concentrating just on particular types of furniture; and so on. But the most obvious disparity is in – I struggle to find a word that expresses what we all recognise without giving offence – ‘sophistication’? ‘refinement’? ‘originality’? maybe just ‘expense’. Not all our members can meaningfully offer to inlay their client’s coat of arms into their purchase. A few of our members have achieved almost ‘heritage’ status, actively admired by a section of the public who cannot possibly aspire to own a piece of it. You have only to look at the published results of successful PR about our work, with that vulgar or pretentious vacuousness that so often characterises it, to see that we cannot blithely ignore unwanted externalities in constructing our promotion. These are marketing facts. The world is not about to change, even if we are.

So, ill equipped as we are to direct the public attention with any developed distinguishing discourse of our own about our work, we focus it (or allow it to be focussed) on the small group of individuals whose work we know, from experience, provokes the readiest response, a small group selected by the even smaller group that runs the project, one perhaps not completely distinct from our (non)-executive committee. So FDMA becomes a successful public brand; we have created stars, or at least buffed up our existing ones – but is it a successful association?

Once an identity of structure and an identity of brand are adopted they require, for their effective functioning, an identity of membership, and one will be acquired and imposed by process and practice if it is not chosen by discussion and consensus.

The question of our identity needs answering not only in deciding what to do in defining FDMA as such, but also in forming the relationship between individual projects and the FDMA ‘brand’. It is difficult to see that most marketing or promotional projects will not be slanted towards the ‘upper’ echelons of one-off commission work. I don’t mean exclusively so, but, given our inability to select or characterise our work by any criterion beyond a general and unarticulated notion of excellence or expressiveness (to award it a Guildmark so to speak), it seems all the more likely. That is the easiest sector to promote; those are the members most likely to have the resources, the time, the money and the appetite to support projects; that is the territory from which the FDMA idea sprang and it is quite prominent in the committee make-up.

In that way FDMA will become ‘aspirational’: with people joining expecting to serve a long apprenticeship before they can hope to participate fully in the tangible benefits of membership. That is not how DMOU/FDMA has presented itself to designer-makers hitherto, and it is not, in my view, a sustainable format for the association.

I am not suggesting there are dark forces at work here, or that this is the exclusive character of FDMA’s likely development, but I do think it is a real danger that, over time, after the initial enthusiasm, a significant body of members (including some who voted for FDMA) will come to see FDMA (with some justification) as benefiting mainly those ‘upper echelons’, those who, to their minds, least need it.

They will say nothing at first and so, in that sense, the association and its discussion forum will appear undivided. But the resentment will grow, and from time to time break out in fractious and slightly them-and-us. This is the classic path of broad-based but formalised ‘professional’ associations, especially those (and FDMA is quite likely to join their ranks) where membership is seen as essential for professional advancement.

All the talk now of course is of success, democracy and solidarity, but this minority will feel more and more ignored and become less and less inclined to take any part in the association, and so sets in its slow decline, or else its conversion into (or supplanting by) a more frankly selective and ‘aspirational’ body.

The more our committee tries to define the single FDMA ‘brand’, moving on past logos, thinking they are being ‘inclusive’, the worse it will become, because it can only be a pretence that all our interests are served by a single kind of promotion and FDMA will become effectively identified with the kind of work that is easiest to promote. It is our own backyard globalisation, our surrender to the deracinated concept of the ‘world-class’, where creativity is validated not by the individual, rooted imagination but by general commercial endorsement – a concentration on the kind of furniture whose market depends upon a globalised, high-input, low resource-cost, high wealth-polarisation economy, which, it seems to me is what the Guildmark culture links into. We are in danger of adopting a cult of mindless excellence, complete with its own external identifiers. DMOU/FDMA, despite in practice always veering towards inclusiveness over any individual membership application, has already, in its outward pronouncements, begun slipping down that slope by putting first, in its list of indicators for potential members to use in pre-assessing themselves, awards, selection for particular exhibitions, and membership of other groups.

Maybe it won’t be as bad as I fear; maybe we’ll just rub along with nothing terribly remarkable being achieved for any of us. So that we all stay a little disappointed, but no-one gets resentful of others. I doubt it, but, if we want to maintain a broad association more than we want to achieve substantial advantage for just a section of it, that may be the best we can hope for, unless we take radical and determined steps to disaggregate the FDMA commercial ‘brand’ and get back to our original vision.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Why are we so nice about furniture?

‘Why are we so nice about furniture?’ a colleague recently asked. Where is the cut and thrust of analytical criticism amongst us?

Could it be that, culturally, furniture doesn’t actually matter so much? So we are complimentary about other peoples’ creations much as we might be about a meal they served us – it would be pointlessly bad form to be otherwise. John Makepeace recently claimed that furniture was the most important art form in our society today, but I think it would require some rigorous argument to carry that case.

However it might be, I think we are nice because we lack the conviction of our own tastes and creative preoccupations to be meaningfully critical (or nasty) of other work.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Is this a juggernaut I see before me?

Sources of information: blogs versus politicians

Is it all we can do was to lie down before the approaching juggernaut of economic and social collapse?

'Juggernaut' comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'lord of the universe' and is one of the forms of Krishna. At one temple devotees were thought to cast themselves under the wheels of a massive chariot carrying statues of Krishna as a deliberate act of devotion. Or perhaps they just slipped.

I am no kind of expert at all, but judgement is always about ranking opinions more knowledgeable than one’s own, and, sometimes, one has to nail one’s colours to the mast if only to allow others to steer clear.

The sources of information now are numerous and range from blogs to politicians. At one extreme many blogs, though of independent mind, are so overwhelmingly concerned to complete their own interpretive scheme that they are sometimes little concerned to identify which specific triggers of change are likely to occur first. Yet, in their defence, one must recognise that there is too much variability in the world, too many possibilities of both negative and positive feedback, too much irrational behaviour, and then the occasional small piece of enlightened rationality, too many unforeseen circumstances both benign and malignant, too complex a web of inter-connectedness in the political-economic structure we have erected, for anyone to know exactly what is going to happen and when.

On the other hand, information from those actually involved in trying to move the levers of power is highly compromised. Is ever a politician willing to lose office for the sake of telling the electorate something it needs to know, or do they all, like Vince Cable, believe that the marginal results they personally achieve in office completely outweigh public understanding?

Underlying instabilities

Beneath it all, at the level of historical perspective, it is not difficult to identify major and largely inexorable trends that threaten our current way of life: climate change; environmental degradation; population increase; natural resource depletion; increase of social/economic complexity; decline of state competence; decline of democratic control. Our cleverness, busy-ness and short-sightedness in coping with the here and now give us an amazing capacity for ignoring the ground beneath our feet and also for maintaining our balance, but there are good reasons for thinking it cannot go on much longer.

Which of these instabilities is most likely to hit us first, if not hardest? In my view it is the increase in social/economic complexity and more specifically the implosion of our financial system.

The only system that works?

When one posits a financial or economic collapse people tend to react that capitalism will go on for ever, that it is the only system that ‘works’, that there is no alternative system. Whether or not it is the only system that works is hardly worth debating. There certainly have been and are other social economic systems, but nothing to rival the scale of capitalism. Capitalism certainly works in its way, and it has a unique capacity to facilitate and accelerate economic growth. In our lifetimes it has produced unprecedented economic growth. People nowadays, in claiming that capitalism will go on and on, mostly identify it with precisely that phase that we have recently experienced. Capitalism inherently requires constant expansion. It is a pyramid structure, subject always to periodic collapse. It can restart after collapse, but there is no inevitability that it will regain the former level of activity and prosperity.

The collapse of capitalism? The view from the top of our pyramid

There have been capitalist booms and busts in the past, and there are always minor fluctuations in the ascents and even descents. Yet it is clear that we now stand at the peak of an economic pyramid whose summit is of historically unprecedented height.

The foundations of our pyramid were laid in the industrial revolution. It was thereafter fuelled by the western world’s colonial expansion or its settlement of new continents and dispossession of the native inhabitants. After 1930 it was further boosted by an exploitation of the earth’s material resources on a scale and with a rapidity totally unprecedented. Things were flagging a little by the time of World War 2, but reconstruction helped, and when, in the 1970s, resource limitations were beginning to be felt, trade globalization achieved essentially a recreation of the benefits of imperialism for the developed economies without the necessity for legal or physical occupation. However the engines were essentially decelerating and the final, brilliant boost from the 1980s onwards was the development of massive international financial expansion and deregulation.

That financial turbo-charging of our economy is what tottered in 2008 and is still threatening to collapse. In fact it cannot avoid collapse.

Financial instability and collapse

In the past few decades financial transactions internationally have outgrown trade in physical goods and services by several orders of magnitude. For banks the financing of trade and industry is now a very minor part of their activity and profit generation. Even a manufacturing company, such as Porsche, may make more money from financial transactions than physical production. Such financial transactions are ‘rent seeking’ activities that draw money out of the productive economy without generating wealth.

Such activity requires constant acceleration to avoid collapse. It is achieved by private finance’s destruction of state regulation, escape from state taxation and by a constant expansion of debt-based trading. Because financial trading has so enormously outstripped economic growth, this debt is backed by vastly overvalued assets (see sub-prime etc) and complicated financial insurance (see AIG etc) for which there are insufficient funds to meet eventual claims. Because the financial system is so complexly and inextricably inter-connected, financial trading insurance is far riskier than insuring casual risks such as theft or illness. In fact it is inherently unsustainable, but it is intended to underwrite the whole international financial edifice.

Banks are uniquely allowed to fictionalise their accounts. Governments, spurred on by the big international accounting firms, have recently allowed them to value their assets not according to what they might fetch on the open market (‘mark to market’), but according to what their computer models value them at if certain inconveniences and ‘disruptions’ to the market were removed – such as the fact that there are no willing buyers for their assets (‘mark to model’). Add to that all banks’ use of complicated corporate structures in tax havens, and their accounts become totally opaque.

The credit crunch was the panicked recognition of all banks that not even they could trust the solvency of their fellows. The immediate crisis was averted by state intervention but virtually every bank remains insolvent if any half-realistic valuation is placed on its assets. Since the credit crunch we have seen a series of government sponsored ‘stress tests’ applied to the commercial banks. These they have all passed, but in some cases (see Ireland) only weeks later they have required massive further state support.

Reactions and remedies

State governments have not only lost control of the financial system but their own financial ministries and advisers have become completely infiltrated by the financial classes (‘regulatory capture’). Nevertheless there is genuine alarm, even panic, at the instability of the financial system. (That is what explains the complete capitulation of the Liberal Democrats to the expenditure cutting agenda once they were admitted to coalition government.)

Governments seek to shore up the financial system by a combination of not always compatible measures.

The immediate reaction has been, and still is, to transfer the liability for much commercial bank debt via government to the tax-payer, either by guarantee or by buying bank debt at optimistic valuations. Quantitative easing injects massive amounts of liquidity into the economy through the banks, where it almost entirely remains, used not for productive investment, but for commodity speculation (see food prices and Middle East unrest). Regulatory control is fiercely resisted but governments are trying to impose higher liquidity requirements on the banks, which will make them ‘safer’, but will also reduce both their profitability and their lending capacity.

These measures may help shore up the financial system but they do nothing for the productive economy, whose fortunes come a very poor second in government priorities (see ‘Main Street’ versus ‘Wall Street’). Our economic system, as David Cameron might like to put it, is broken – and no-one knows how to fix it. It is all too complex and inter-connected. China is not the new economic paradigm; it is the last gasp of the old one.

Public burdens

Ironically, as globalisation fails, because third-world countries begin to resist the imposition of exploitative terms of trade upon them, the burdens imposed by non-democratic institutions such as the IMF and central banks are increasingly directed at first-world publics. Commercial bank debts are transferred to governments, who must then cut public spending, increase taxation or transfer it from corporations to individuals (see VAT increase and ‘internationally competitive’ corporation tax) and suppress wages and labour negotiating rights (see Wisconsin). When nations are severely distressed financially, many of these measures are effectively dictated by the IMF and other funding governments in contradiction to the inclinations and commitments of the democratically elected government. The IMF has an explicit policy of reducing labour costs in all European countries.

‘Rescue packages’, as in Greece and Ireland, are designed not to benefit the national economies directly, but first to save banks from collapse. Despite widespread public opposition to 'bailing out' 'lazy' PIGS in Germany, where Angela Merkel is caught in approaching election trap, several German banks have had highly improvident involvement with Irish banks (where regulation was lax even within its own legal requirements) and the German banks are likely to become insolvent if Ireland and/or Greece default. The Irish banks have just failed another stress test (is it the fourth?). How is it that every time these wise (and highly paid) financial people look at the Irish banks they find they missed a few score billions last time? Is it that there’s a hole in the bucket and the banks are even now creating new losses? Everyone knows Ireland will default: it is just a question of how long Germany and France can delay the inevitable. Some British banks are likely to be affected also. (Why else did UK extend its own individual loan to Ireland with money 'it did not have', even given that we're making a profit on the deal?)

European PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) can now borrow to fund their deficits, either from private bond investors or from national or international ‘rescuers’ only at rates well above even optimistic forecasts of growth in their economy. Their debts can only get worse, cuts deeper, public unrest more vociferous. The European Central Bank has signalled a forthcoming rise in interest rates (probably now slightly delayed by the Japanese disaster). European banks have total claims on Portuguese, Irish, Italian, Greek and Spanish debt of 2.4 trillion dollars. Do they really think they're going to get it all back?

In the US the housing market is in continuing decline, and the solvency of major and minor US banks still depends on overvalued mortgage-backed securities. Rising interest rates are possible (or yet more quantitative easing further increasing US debt, except that it's just again breached the congressionally approved limit) following Japanese sale of US bonds, thus increasing mortgage defaults. There is political paralysis at federal level and growing budget crises and possible bankruptcies at state and municipal level. US unemployment has just decreased sufficiently to boost not only the Dow but the FTSE as well, but few bothered to notice that the number of employed people had also dropped. Research shows almost half of the US population of working age has no full time job. Approaching a half of all US citizens are benefitting from food stamps. (The big banks administer the food stamps system and make a nice profit on it.) Meanwhile Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase (‘the most dangerous man in America’ and Tony Blair’s new boss) is busy telling us all that the problem pre-2008 was too much financial regulation.

In the UK most economic indicators are turning down - growth, unemployment, housing market, consumer confidence. Inflation is up. Bank profits rise. The government’s Office of Budget Responsibility forecasts that private debt will increase massively over the next few years as public debt, maybe, declines. The full scale of cuts and transfers to the private sector, and the public anger at them, is yet to be felt.

Tipping points

The burdens placed upon the public in the first world, by political and business leaders seeking to maintain the financial system, are, in anything but the short term, insupportable, but there is no other plan. The burdens placed upon the public in the third world, by economic exploitation and commodity speculation, are equally or more immediately insupportable and contribute directly to popular uprisings in the Middle East, including the supposedly oil-rich nations. State forces have shot and killed demonstrators in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Saudi troops are in Bahrain.

Japan’s misfortunes threaten to destabilise the bond and currency markets. The Bank of Japan’s immediate reaction is a massive dose of quantitative easing. Industrial disruption in Japan is likely to ripple out to industry internationally. It may be worse than a shortage of batteries for iPads.

Against all this it is difficult to believe that we are not in serious and present danger of financial and economic implosion.

Deflation and depression

It will take the form of severe deflation and depression. The money supply will drastically reduce as financial debt cannot be honoured. Over 95 per cent of money in circulation is not government issued currency but debt-based money created by commercial banks.

There is certainly too much money (and debt) in the system now, but economies always over-react and there will shortly be too little. Money is necessary to facilitate human exchange of goods and services. People are unemployed in a depression not for a lack of any possible activities useful to themselves or their fellow citizens, but because the mechanics of the system for rewarding them for their work with some token they can use for obtaining goods and services they require from others has broken down. It is quite possible in a depression for farmers to be throwing away food they cannot sell, whilst nearby people are starving because they cannot afford to buy it. Neither supply nor demand are absent; just the mechanism to bring the two together.

There will still be rich people in a depression, but fewer of them and they will be more worried. There will still be a market for expensive goods, but a much smaller one and suppliers will be much more vulnerable.

Middle income people, even up to a quite high level, will suffer a drastic reduction in their wealth and purchasing power. The poor will grow and struggle. Asset values will plummet; the effective price of essentials will rise; governments will withdraw from public support.

It is not a happy prospect for furniture designer makers.

Where do furniture designer makers fit in?

These developments will affect every section of society, including furniture designer-makers, but there is a particular way in which we fit into them.

It is no accident that the ‘British craft furniture revival’ happened during the post-war boom and that it reached its climax of widespread public attention (not necessarily its largest membership) in the seventies and eighties. Our natural market is the inconspicuously rich (‘the lower edge of luxury’). That market has for many of us been augmented by more structured forms of wealth disposal amongst corporate customers (now largely faded) and the rich clients of decorators and interior designers. But those we access by piggybacking on other professionals. All of these markets and mechanisms will suffer severely in a depression.

A few of us have gained custom under our own steam from the conspicuously rich, and have done so by projecting a certain kind of extravagance of design and making. Only a few of us have the talent or aptitude to do that, and it depends in any case for its effectiveness on a level of exclusivity.

When we try to promote our group fortunes in any organised way, as FDMA intends to do, we have a tendency to lift up our eyes to this market of the conspicuously rich – in my view in vain. Even if we do not imagine every one of us can access that market, we slip too readily into the assumption that we need to emulate the characteristics of that furniture to make all of us more commercially successful.

In the coming depression there will still be some conspicuous-rich demand but it will be a contracting niche and it is hopeless to think that more of us will be able to climb in. The inconspicuously rich are going to be severely squeezed. There will be more localised markets for basic and durable items. In that situation I think it is very unwise for FDMA to take its character (or its leadership) from what has been established as the apogee of furniture designer-making in the preceding decades. Most of us are going to have to establish radically new models if we are to survive as businesses in a changed world.

There is a further, more particular way in which our group development reflects the unsustainable economy in which we are set. A significant number of us depend for a substantial part of our income on training new would be professional designer makers. I believe we are training more people than can expect to succeed in their own businesses. We are running in effect our own Ponzi scheme. Unless we have a much clearer idea than I have seen of a successful business model for furniture designer-making in the coming decades I do not think we should be actively encouraging people to join our ranks. There will be enough who do so without encouragement.

Recovery and its limits

The world will recover, though it took the best part of a decade and a world war to recover from the last depression. Capitalism will survive (probably), but it will not return to anything like the level of economic activity, of prosperity and of internationalism that we have seen in recent decades.

That is because other underlying limitations will catch up with us following financial collapse, in the form of energy deficiency, climate change, and general resource scarcity.

Oil and gas are certainly beyond their peak. The energy returned on energy invested ratio on new supplies is between a fifth and a tenth of what it was on the primary oil field discoveries. The boom may make new difficult (and very small) oil reserves look economically viable, but the failing economic recovery that rising energy prices helps bring about will mean that many of these new discoveries are never exploited.

Even if nuclear and renewable energy had the inherent capacity to substitute for our present level of energy use, which many informed people doubt, we do not, from where we are now, have the economic ability to create the massive new infrastructure required. That infrastructure would have to be created from the ‘old’ economy and from conventional energy. We have simply left it too late.

There will be other scarcities too, most notably of food and water. Water supplies are inadequate and compromised in many parts of the world (including the USA). It may be true that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, that it is just in the wrong place, but that doesn’t remove the problem. China and India have difficulty feeding their present populations and are currently buying up enormous swathes of agricultural land from impoverished countries that are more inured to seeing their own populations periodically starve (see Ethiopia).

And modern food production is of course highly dependent on cheap energy and petrochemical inputs – and increasingly in competition for land usage with bio-fuels.

Is that a juggernaut? I think it is. Can it be stopped? I think not. Can we, as individuals in local communities or small groups, dodge it? Possibly.

Why do people join associations?

Why do people, including furniture designer-makers, join associations?

Now there is a really interesting topic of psycho-social speculation.

To be brief: why do people join (or in the case of furniture designer-makers, why were they so exercised about having a newer better association instead of just getting on and doing the things themselves in ad hoc groups)?

They join because they see themselves as the sort of people who ought to belong to that sort of association - and vice versa. It's ideas in their minds in each direction.

It's a question of identity, and the association becomes a small (usually) part of their identity. But of course they're not in control: other people form part of this thing that is part of them, and they have different ideas and modes of behaviour. Therein lies the explanation of why people not infrequently behave so badly in associations - behaviour they would feel inhibited from indulging in individual encounters. They impugn people's motives; they object over strongly to other people's actions or even discourse; they misrepresent others' words and deeds; they hope to expel them. But they have to do so because they are correcting a wayward part of themselves. They don't mean to accuse others. It's a mild form of derangement, probably with a name in the literature (I expect it's the 'Strangelove syndrome' - remember his arm?).

These are the stronger (or madder) members. The more vulnerable join because they hope they are, or hope they will by joining become, the sort of people who ought to belong. They keep quiet and nurse their discontents. For the time being.

There it is in a nutshell, totally theoretical of course. No reference to any living person is intended or should be inferred, and no animals were harmed in the production of this post.

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.

Hand or Machine?

'Manufacture': literally, to make by hand.

The question whether hand work is somehow superior to machine work is s an old one that takes us straight back to our supposed Arts and Crafts roots. When John Ruskin and William Morris first objected to the Victorian mechanisation of manufacture their primary concern was for the spiritual wellbeing of the craftsman; the quality of the artefact was secondary in their minds.

Today we have almost completely lost that concern, although there is an interesting echo when we say that some more primitive methods are so tedious that the maker is unlikely to indulge in a second attempt to improve a poor initial result. There, in some sense, one is referencing Morris’s recognition that machinery could legitimately relieve the workman of unhealthy drudgery, but I’m not sure that either he or Ruskin would have welcomed the idea that the artefact is to be perfected by multiple mechanised attempts. That’s not how they built the cathedrals, as anyone can still see.

It was in this context that the Arts and Crafts objected to ‘applied decoration’: they were very far, at least initially, from objecting to ornamentation as such, and for Ruskin it was a vital expression of the spiritual content of craft.

The primary concern of Ruskin and Morris was that the craftsperson should be engaged in and should delight in the process of the making of the object from start to finish – the autonomy of craft. So hand versus machine is not a simple issue. Yet machines do inevitably tend towards a division of labour, no less in our time than the Victorian, as we (some of us) commission the computerised subcontractor for some highly specialised element of our sophisticated design.

Nor is excessive finish and unwelcome physical uniformity in furniture or any other artefact necessarily the product of the maximum utilisation of available mechanical processes. To a considerable degree, ‘craft’ making skill in our time has come to be identified with the achievement of levels of accuracy that the public might think cold normally be achieved only by machines. That may be a vulgar misperception but it is nevertheless something that designer-makers have done and continue to do a great deal to encourage. And we start to feel either uncomfortable or exhilarated as highly mechanised and automated production begins to achieve a level of individualised design that previously was associated only with small-scale ‘hand’ production.

It calls into question the whole aesthetic of the modern movement, that still holds surprising residual sway, that function could determine form without the intervention of taste or style, that there was, somehow, a styleless modern style that would be ushered in by the inevitable mechanisation of production.

Machines and tools exist in a continuum, and skill is not to be counterbalanced against them. Indeed the exercise of skill, in the context of making artefacts, is hardly possible at all without the utilisation of tools or machines. Yet there is an inescapable paradox that tools at the same time enable skills and achieve ‘deskilling’. The difficulty arises when and to the extent that the tool or machine operates without the agency of the person – though in our own context of ‘computer controlled’ (what exactly do we mean by that phrase?) machinery it is not always as easy as it might seem to say when that point is reached.

Lethaby, one of the progenitors of the Arts and Crafts as a movement, urged that craftspeople should produce good designs specifically for machine manufacture. Ernest Gimson always resisted Lethaby’s personal urgings, arguing that the mechanically produced version of his design work would drive out, commercially and culturally, the hand production that resulted in something superior at a higher cost. Both, in their different ways, had to a considerable extent abandoned Ruskin’s and Morris’s struggle with the personal cultural and spiritual problem of their (and our) day, and we now seem no closer to re-engaging with it.

Perhaps, as our national economy increasingly outsources to developing countries not just all physical production but also ‘mind-based’ work, it has come to be seen as a lost battle or an irrelevance.