Handicraft and the new world order

Today the Economist declared the age of Multinational domination has passed. The market for Handicrafts is on the rise.

Handcrafted products have been integral to the recent US election. I’m (kind of) serious. What do Donald Trump and handicrafts have in common? Nothing you say? Think again:

  • His ties? Handmade in ‘Gina – not in ‘Merica.
  • His suits? Handmade by Brioni in Italy – not by Americans.
  • Pink hats worn at his protests? Hand-knit by American women with a message of gender equality.

Will handicrafts determine the new world order? It’s a stretch, but we can learn some lessons from the rich stories behind local artisanal products. Trump was attacked for being hypocritical about his promise to bring production back to America while the ties and suits he wears are made elsewhere, and ditto for the Trump clothing line. Protesting women made a bold statement that is both personal and poignant through hand-knit hats, sparking a movement and awareness. There is a truth in these products, tangible proof that can be twisted less easily than twitter statistics. You see, who makes these products is actually quite important. American Apparel has staked their entire brand on what it means to be made by Americans. As his first act as President this week, Trump backed out of the TPP, vowing to make more things in America.

Consumerism is closely interwoven with politics.

The guilds which passed down trade secrets for a 1000 years were once at the heart of our society and politics. The importance of who made products was very relevant. As a designer who creates many mass-produced products, I take this seriously. I love my job but feel a certain disconnect with the result. I am but a cog in a large wheel of creation. The industrial revolution gave corporations (and their slew of designers and developers) the power to dictate the story of a product. But interestingly, I feel like this power is shifting back to the masses through empowering technologies like 3D printing and crowdfunding like Kickstarter. Options for consumers are democratized by everything from peer to peer platforms like Etsy, e-commerce platforms like Goop, Sunday markets for artisans, and open source design. Mass-produced is a synonym for commodity. The part of a product’s story influenced by who makes them is again becoming increasingly rich.

More than ever, the story behind a product is important.

We vote with our wallet. We increasingly care more about where a product was made, by whom, with what, and in what way. We increasingly want to know he story behind what is presented on the retail floor. Perhaps this is because the gap in quality is increasingly smaller and we seek differentiation, perhaps we want to be more responsible consumers, perhaps we simply want to know the truth. In this aspect handicrafts have a more sincere story to tell than mass produced products and perhaps a greater role to play in the future than we expect.

Central to the story is who made it.

Sites like Maker and Return to Sender are seeking out the stories behind products and creating connections between the consumer and the creator. Tom’s shoes and many other brands work on principles of buy 1, give 1 back. Our thirst for product stories that connect us to the creators never left during the Industrial Revolution, it was just replaced by impersonal marketing. In my Working Lunch with one of the entrepreneurs behind the newly launched Ideiya.com, Erika Aquino triggered my thinking about this topic and the value of stories behind handicrafts. Ideiya really takes it to the next level, sharing the artisan’s personal story and selling their work in one spot. On their site they sum it up well:

‘In our search for inspiration and purpose, we always end up with the same lesson: we empower ourselves by empowering others.’


So what about empowering the needy?

Walking the streets of Vietnam I am confronted with panhandlers – blind and disfigured. As a rule I don’t give money to panhandlers, partly because I can’t trust if money will actually help. I want to know the truth about how their life brought them to this point but I know there is no way of finding this out. I can’t verify whether they actually made the trinket they are offering or if they bought it at the dollar store. I have an aversion to trinkets. The kind tourists bring home as gifts or memories. Mostly these are mass-produced soulless replicas of artisanal works with no functional value. They are supposed to tell a story of an experience in another culture, a present that says ‘this is how they do it in a land far away’. But globalization has trivialized this novelty. At some point everyone has a dream-catcher from Canada or a wooden shoe from Holland – so when does it become special?

Here’s the question that vexed me – what changes if the artisan is disabled?

Is the trinket now more valuable? Sure you can pat yourself on the back for supporting someone with more physical challenges than you. But the context can make the trinket special or horrific: maybe they are forced to work in a sweatshop, maybe they are subsidized heavily by the government, maybe they were purposely maimed by their parents, or maybe left over Agent Orange contaminated their mother’s womb? Again, it comes back to politics.

What I conclude for myself is that we need to go further in understanding who makes our products, and in what circumstance. Products are tangible vessels for capturing a story, and we decide which stories we want to endorse by buying them. This is an age old phenomenon, but the technology has changed and globalization has milked the truth. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back a bit now, Artisans in all shapes and sizes (3D printing geeks/traditional weavers/entrepreneurs/disabled craftsmen) will give big brands a run for their money because of our thirst for meaning. Like long tail economics, maybe in the future all our meaningful products will come as handcrafted/custom specials from beloved artisans, and mass produced products are just for satisfying basic needs. Perhaps as creative directors of big brands and design agencies we need to find more ways to connect meaningful stories about who makes our products. And maybe this is a new chance for Americans to tell the world a great new story, what ‘made in America’ means today.

This topic is quite relevant because my next lunch is with a group of disabled artisans, setting up a business in Vietnam. I would love to hear any perspectives or reactions to this post!

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