No analysis of the rise of maker movement is without at least a pithy paragraph or three about how it is a reaction to everything machine-made and a celebration of the value of the handmade.
True, but duh.
Rather, what I think is more interesting about DIY mania is its focus not just on the finished item, but the process involved in getting there. Why? Because if you can construct it, you can comprehend it. "What I cannot create, I do not understand," is how the Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman put it. Granted, Feynman was concerned with all things quantum, but just because the crafty types of the world are working in a slightly larger scale doesn't invalidate the impulse: to know and understand.
Particularly now, in our souped-up, logged-on and jacked-in 24/7 existence. That's increasingly moved online and into a cloud that most of us don't fully understand. So what could be more tangible and antithetical to ephemeral cyberslickness than something as plodding and grandma approved as lace?
A new exhibition at the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais, France is celebrating the 120th anniversary of the birth of the great 20th century couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (above) with a show focused on his innovative treatment of lace. Of the 75 vintage items on view at Balenciaga, Master of Lace, many were borrowed from various prestigious collections, including those of the Museum of Decorative Arts, Palais Galliera, Maison Lesage, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum in Getaria, Spain and, of course, the Lace Museum's own collection. (The town has a lace museum because of its renown in manufacturing this delicate material.) “He had an enormous appreciation for lace,” notes the show's curator, Catherine Join-Diéterle. “It was consistently present in all his collections, even during his first in 1937 and his last in 1968....Balenciaga used lace in a unique way,” she adds. “He often transformed it with embroideries or pleating, and he liked to play with lace’s transparent quality by using different colored backgrounds, like brown.”
Okay, so this is just lace, we're talking. Mere fashion. But is it? "When Levi's launches a marketing campaign called Levi's Craftwork to sell one of the most mass-produced items of clothing in the world, we can collectively roll our eyes," agrees the writer, critic and curator Justin McGuirk. "But I wonder if there's something more profound going on."
By making things - and failing and trying again...wash, rinse, repeat - the maker culture is attempting to understand things. For when we create, we use our fingers, hands and eyes to convey data back to our brains, paving the way for a "deeper" kind of learning. "The craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others," explains historian Richard Sennett - currently a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University - in his 2008 book The Craftsman (Yale University Press). From making bricks to playing a musical instrument to prepared a complicated recipe, “the process of making concrete things reveals to us [insights] about ourselves.” (image)
Or, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once observed: “The hand is the window on to the mind.”
But when the hands are bypassed in the process of creation, what is the cost? "When a technology like cad [computer-aided design] is used to efface the learning that occurs through drawing by hand," adds Sennett, "when the head and the hand are separated, the result is mental impairment."
- Lesley Scott
Balenciaga, Master of Lace, will be on view through Aug. 31st at the Museum of Lace and Fashion - info at La Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode de Calais.