A recent Background Briefing was devoted to the culture of MBAs. It claimed that the arrogance fostered in business schools like Harvard encouraged the reckless financial speculation which triggered the current global crisis.The program featured the views of Will Hopper, an economist and author of The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream. He contrasted the lateral mobility of the MBA with the previous model of manager who worked his (or sometimes her) way through the ranks. For Hopper, it’s an issue of ‘craft’.
Yes, this is a characteristic of what we call ‘the great engine companies’. The young man — and there were not many women in business going back to the 1950s and ’60s — but the young man would join the corporation from college, aged 21, 22, and he would work his way up to the top. And as he went, he learned two things. He learned the craft of management. Now I think this word ‘craft’ is extremely important. Management is something that you learn on the job under a master, just like an old-fashioned craft of carpentry for example. So the individual learned the craft of management as he worked his way to the top… And as the young man progressed up through the ranks towards the top, he would tend to move around all the departments, so he spent a little time in sales, a little time in accounting, a little time in manufacturing, and when he reached the top he would have acquired ‘domain knowledge’. He would know about the product, the suppliers, the customers, the method of production, the relation to regulatory authorities, movements in the market. He would be a master of the subject.
(ABC Radio National Background Briefing – 29 March 2009 – MBA: Mostly bloody awful)
It seems one of the great challenges of our time is to find ways of re-introducing the value of craft into how we manage our world. What survives of traditional crafts (pottery, weaving, metalsmithing, etc) provides a compelling theatre for these qualities. But that shouldn’t be seen as a kind of monastic order separated from worldly affairs. How can these values find their way into the way we heal bodies, manage our cities, grow our food and tell our stories?April’s issue of The Monthly features an article by Gideon Haigh on Damien Wright. It’s a many-sided account of a contemporary furniture maker’s world. He helps convey the way Wright’s practice is more than just the construction of wooden tables, but also engages with critical issues in Austarlian culture – specifically how non-Indigenous Australians (‘gubbas’ down here) can work within an Indigenous context.
On a personal note, I’m quoted by the author as making a statement about design and the Platonic hierarchy. This reference to Plato may seem a little untoward as a quote taken out of its conversational setting with the author. So please let me fill in that context.
My point was that, broadly speaking, Western culture tends to see materials as secondary to the ideas that shape them. This theory of Platonic forms provides a metaphysical framework that underpins religious and class hierarchies. This reached an extreme expression in our era. The millennium drive to ‘smart solutions’ that transcend the messy business of making things fuelled a seeming air-borne culture that has just recently come crashing to the ground.
Design featured in that story as the way information-based capital could replace the loss of manufacturing, particularly in regions like Victoria. But the kind of design that flourished in this environment seemed largely about the consumption of imported brands. As many have argued since, design became a form of cultural capital that circulated between urban elites and those wishing to buy membership. This resulted in a few elegant and worthy objects, but also a sea of hype which submerged the less glamorous craft side of the equation.
Don’t get be wrong. I think design plays a critical role. Good craft needs design if it is to find a place for itself in the lived world. It’s just that the relationship is two-way. Design also needs to be in partnership with the skills and labour necessary to realise its ideas in the materials available. The logic of outsourcing that dominated the ‘smart’ years too often took the ‘making’ side for granted. Hopefully, no more.
I’m fond of the line by Mikhail Bakhtin that ‘Expression is the cradle of experience’. So we could also say that craft is the cradle of good design.