An essay by Ariel Hagan Elwell
Last month on a desperate Tuesday night after a long day of work, I ordered pizza delivery. Out of curiosity, I got the “Domino’s Artisan” option that was supposed to be a step up from their usual offering. The idea seemed so ridiculous to me that I had to see what it was all about. Even the largest of corporations who are in every other strip mall are trying to cultivate the image of being small-scale, slow, and handmade, the image that they have a heart, a face behind the product. Made with integrity, love, and care.
There seems to be an explosion in the use of keywords like “handmade, handcrafted, and artisan.” Consumers are coming to value these qualities more and more. I include myself in this demographic– I am attracted to quality and durable materials, objects handmade by someone in their studio or workshop using skill and creativity. Disposable consumerism, or purchasing cheaply made products, is still riding high. For example, stores like Forever21 market products that will all end up in a landfill in 5 years because their quality and materials are garbage. Teenagers upload “hauls” to YouTube to show off the obscene number of products that they just purchased. Out of this glorified consumption and disconnect between the consumer and the maker, has arisen a counter-movement focused on quality and connection to the maker.
I believe that Etsy was the catalyst for this shift when it launched in 2005. An artist working out of his garage in the middle of nowhere suddenly had an easy way to sell his work on the internet to consumers anywhere in the world. This was revolutionary for the arts & crafts market. In 2013, Etsy sales surpassed $1 billion. “Artisinal capitalism” (1) is flourishing. In fact, because the handmade label is so meaningful, companies like Nordstrom have partnered with Etsy makers to capitalize on this one-of-a-kind image. Martha Stewart has created a new online shop called “American Made” via Ebay where her empire sells products from independent makers and designers (2).
Not only do consumers want an alternative to the things they see as negative such as unfair labor, environmentally harmful practices, and poor quality, they are attracted to the opposite characteristics: well-made, original products made by identifiable, happy individuals through simple materials and superior craftsmanship (3). According to design expert Michele Varian, “People are all of a sudden realizing there isn’t a tactile handmade quality to things anymore and people don’t know how to do it themselves. There’s a real curiosity about that now (4).”
Mainstream companies are piling on to this bandwagon. West Elm has begun to tout supporting artisans as one of their business values. There is a section of their website entirely devoted to goods designed or made by independent artists. The company has committed $35 million over the next 2 years to increasing its offering of handmade goods (5).
So what does all of this mean for artisans? What does it mean for consumers? I can’t help but feel as though the companies are exploiting the creativity of the artisans as a marketing tool. But if these collaborations boost support for artisans’ practice, and facilitate increased consumer access to ethically made goods, I’m inclined to argue that this is a positive shift for our economy (6). It’s just since companies who are so far removed from the homespun, like Domino’s for instance, attempt to use the artisan lingo to attract consumers, I worry that the handcrafted bubble is going to burst when consumers get sick and tired of hearing that literally everything can be labeled “artisan.” Do we need a new word to describe goods that are truly handcrafted? In the meantime, I think it’s up to us as consumers to do our research and figure out which labels are authentic and which are just for show.
(1) “Ecommerce Enablers,” Mar2014, Vol. 119 Issue 2, p8-9. 2p.
(2) “The art and craft of business; Artisanal capitalism.” 4 Jan. 2014: Business Insights: Essentials, 19 Apr. 2014.
(3) For more on the meaning of crafted objects for the consumer, see Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why it Matters (Jaffrey: Godine, 2013), 57-68.
(4) After the Jump, on Heritage Radio Hour, episode 74, 2014.
(5) After the Jump, on Heritage Radio Hour, episode 71, 2014
(6) This could be compared to the sustainability initiatives of many corporations. Does it matter if they’re motivated to be “green” to make a sale vs. conserve the environment as long as they’re doing it?