Mårten Claesson
Mårten Claesson,
Architect SIR

Am I a
"handicrafts" person?
by Mårten Claesson

It is a dark Autumn evening, and I am on my way home. Overhead, a BA 146 is coming in to land at Bromma airport. The fuselage is bracketed by the shining wings, and the roar of its engines underlines its low altitude. "Hope they don’t close down the airport", I think nostalgically.

The sight of the aircraft passing over the rooftops makes me think of Tokyo or New York (where I once lived), or London. Aeroplanes should be seen over cities. There is a glamour about traffic: its rush, the sound and smell of it. It offers unlimited freedom – the freedom to go wherever one chooses.

I love the city; its very fabric – the tarmac, the stone and stucco of its buildings – is part of my nature. As I move through the city I often experience a sense of euphoria, as though I were in control of the milling crowds in the underground, the surging traffic in the city centre, the commerce – similar, I imagine, to what a fisherman must feel in a gale.

In our Stockholm apartment overlooking Mariatorget square there is little sign of handicraft. A first glance actually reveals nothing in the way of what usually comes under the heading of craft. White-washed walls. No ornament or decoration, apart from a B¾rtling print in the hallway and another in the bathroom. But a couple of litographs hardly count as handicraft.

I continue the search. Two modern wall candle-holders, bought by my girlfriend, which sparked off a heated debate about decorations, but which I have come to accept. A few butter knives made from juniper wood. A lovely teak salad bowl (also property of my girlfriend). And that’s it. No furnishings. Not even a rug. A fairly meagre inventory as far as handicraft goes, for sure.

I imagine I am a fairly typical example of a young (no fussy handicraft), urban (abstract art) architect (bare white walls). But it won’t do. I am unwilling to believe that I am so predictable. Well, then, might not pictures be categorised as craft, after all? Surely the Rietveld "Zig-zag" chairs (which I made myself) would qualify. The Shaker rocking chair, certainly. And what about the apartment itself, which I redesigned and renovated with my own hands – without doubt a perfect example of craftmanship. Absolutely! I see that my definition of the word handicraft has been too narrow. I am, most definitely, a craftsman.

Traditional handicraft has historical significance. It tells us about our pre-industrial culture, and the ways people worked with their hands. Furthermore, it creates a natural fulfillment in the maker. These two factors alone may be enough. But craft’s past in the cultural development of society has long since disappeared, and been replaced by the mass-produced articles of industrial design. Ahead looms the era of the post-industrial society; and an end to mass production. Ford’s sucessful concept of the assembly-line – where a Model T’s choice of colour was limited to black – is history. Some automobile companies have alresdy launched the idea of the individualised vehicle, where the customer chooses not just the colour, but also the engine specification, upholstery, trim and accessories etc. Freedom of choice is increasing all the time. And not just in the car industry. CAD/CAM production allows cost-effectiveness without the need for massive production runs.

I envisage a society in which the role of the designer will, again, approach that of a craftsman. The products of design may not be handmade, but they will be adapted to individual needs and tastes.

Whenever I am asked, as a designer, what I think is meant by "good design", I usually mumble something about "quality" or "a feeling", or the like, but I am unable to give a precise and unequivocal definition. I can only say that my professional insights lead me to the right judgement. I recognize good design when I see it. Especially with hindsight.

I am not a craftsman in the traditional sense of the word. Naturally I do not have the same knowledge and experience as a time-served practitioner of a craft. However I am capable of recognizing the characteristic marks of the expert: his pride and delight in the material, a compulsion to the very core of his art, and the careful adjustments made in order to achieve perfection. Such values are timeless, universal, and apply to all creative work.

Is there no difference then between handicraft and design? Basically there isn’t. Even so, whenever I come across someone from one camp or the other, I am apt to notice certain differences. As I see it, a good craftsman is one whose creative impulse and feeling for his material are greater than the self-assertion. Confirmation lies in the tacit recognition of professional workmanship and quality, rather than in a personal signature imposed on the work.

The work of a designer is more specialised, where as a craftsman is a designer-maker, possibly also an inventor and consumer, in one and the same person.

And it may still be necessary to make a distinction between handicraft, design, architecture, craft and art, at the same time bearing in mind that they still share the basic concerns: a sense of proportion, material, colour, shape and conception.

One day I had gone up to the attic for some reason, when I spotted a loose nail sticking out of a rafter. I pulled it out and found to my delight that it was a hand-wrought nail. For several minutes I stood holding it, admiring its beauty.

Wherein lies the beauty of such a nail? Its history must have something to do with it. The house was built in the 1880s, and at that time all nails would, of course, have been made by hand. This nail had obviously been made by a skilled hand – with not one superfluous hammer stroke. Looking at the nail, I am able to read the mind of this smith from more than a century ago. He took a professional pride in his trade; the nails he produced were sturdy objects, straight and sharp, and he delighted in turning them out quickly and deftly. But he would never have considered them beautiful.

Awareness of the age and the history of a technique lends an æsthetic dimension. Handmade nails can still be made today, but to use them for building houses would be plain foolish. The craftmanship might still exist but there is no longer any need for it in this case. Imagination colours experience, which is why a new handmade nail does not have the same appeal as an old one.

After a short search I discover another old nail. I now have two antique handmade nails. I decide to use them to replace the reinforced masonry bolts which at present support the two wall mounted candle holders in the living-room.

A half day’s project now begins. Obviously one can’t just hammer a nail into the brick wall. The nails are too long. Cracks begin to appear in the plaster, and I have to apply some filler. I then have to sandpaper them and cover them with a coat of paint, and drill holes for the nails. While I wait for the filler to dry, I consider the possibility to shorten the nails and sealing what’s left in place. But that would be cheating. I should never be able to live with the knowledge, even if no one else would ever know that there was only half a nail in the wall!

I am satisfied with the result, and with the sense that at last there’s something in the apartment which reflects the history of the building. The need for craft, even with me, lies in its tactility – the sense of human presence in the handmade object. The contrast with the machine-pressed metal candle holders is satisfying, too. At the same time I cannot help thinking: Who in their right mind would spend hours replacing two good functional nails with objects that were never intended to be put in a brick wall? A craftsman perhaps...

This article first appeared in the book "Sweden as seen through her crafts", published in conjunction with the exhibition "The Presence and Essence of Crafts" at Liljevalchs Art Gallery, Stockholm, 1998.

Mårten Claesson, Architect SIR
Home page: claesson-koivisto-rune