Marketers do home-made one better

It has become pretty hard to reflect on marketing without tripping over the word artisanal. We have artisanal beer, artisanal bread and artisanal cheese, to name just a few of the things to which this superlative is applied. We have artisanal banking, artisanal real estate brokers and I’ve even come across a reference to an artisanal escort. I presume that the latter is gluten-free as well.

Paul Epp

An artisan is a skilled worker that makes things by hand. The produce of an artisan may be described as artisanal, and traditionally, this term has been used primarily to describe food or drink. Now it is used much more broadly. In all cases, the implication is that the work is done essentially by hand, with the exercise of esoteric skill and the production is in small quantities. There will likely be little reliance on machinery, but this depends on the marketing honesty of those involved.

When I was younger, the descriptor of choice was craft, which is a related word. Good things were crafted, by craftsmen, of both genders, in small quantities, without much use of machines.

But the word craft has always suffered from some tricky associations, and not just that bad people were sometimes crafty or that crafty people are thought of as bad. The term begs a distinction between handmade, which may be excellent and home-made, which may not be. Anyone can make an assortment of things and the activity may be therapeutic, at the very least. But some people are good at making things, possibly because they have studied how to or worked long and hard to attain a technical and aesthetic proficiency. How do we differentiate the works of artist/makers from the happy dabblers? What about the exceptionally gifted amateurs? Perhaps the word artisanal does the trick.

Another related descriptor is the term Mennonite Furniture. It has always struck me as tenuous that a proscription against infant baptism would necessarily make them better wood workers. But I imagine that this value-by-association has more to do with the myth that Mennonites eschew technology and therefore their furniture is made-by-hand, or artisanal, making it somehow better. Many things are disallowed by Mennonites but making money is not one of them. Even artisans are practical.

A critical distinction here is between things made by hand and those made by machine. The use of the word artisan implies that hand-made is superior. But is it?

We live in a world where most of what we encounter is the product of our industrialized culture. We can afford to drive automobiles that achieve a standard of luxury that was unimaginable, not that long ago, due to the complicated use of machines and advanced technology. I doubt that many of us want to swap our Audis for buggies. Computers are another miracle of machine-based achievement. There are so many that the hand-made is what is unusual.

Some things will benefit from the intense and personal care that a craft-based approach will yield. Bread is one and I’ll accept that cheese is another. Ditto for beer. But even more things will not.

What about wooden furniture? Wood is a natural material both enhanced and plagued by its diversity and complicated character. When used in its natural state, with sensitive consideration of its properties and proclivities, it is probably best done using a craft-based approach. But even here, wood workers will welcome the use of jointers, planers, shapers, and other heavy machinery especially if they have ever had the chore of flattening and edging wood by hand, and their customers will endorse their efficiencies. Most woodwork now relies on the use of pre-manufactured panels that eliminate a lot of the problems and challenges associated with woodwork, and even the need for the traditional skills.

Having spent a lot of my working life making things by hand, I have a deep appreciation for what this approach can yield. I like artisanal bread and cheese and beer. And artisanal wooden furniture. But I’m a bit amused at how the marketers have latched on to this term. They are likely smarter than I am and maybe I ought to join them. Would you believe that I’m an artisanal column- writer? That will be on my next business card.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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