Endangered Crafts in a Precarious World

by Selin Genç

In an age of a mass extinction of biological life, we simultaneously face the extinction of many craft professions too. These two occasions are more connected than it might initially appear; industrialisation is a driving force in the emergence of an ecological crisis, while also being the culprit in the devaluation of skilled work. What is more: many craft professions inherently promote more ecologically sound processes, so environmental issues may not only be parallel to the loss of know-how, but directly implicated in it. 

As Mad’in Europe, we would like to address possible incentives to battle the loss of craft professions. With this in mind, one of the core values we champion is having a human-centered approach when talking about this topic. We take individual craftsmen and their stories as our starting point, even when addressing larger issues at hand. So, before we delve further into suggestions on how to assist endangered crafts, let’s take a closer look at how craft professionals contribute to a circular economy as well as to our interpersonal relations through their sustainable practices…

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Sir John Soane Rose, Thomas Brown

In an interview published on Madineurope, stone carver, sculptor and mason Thomas Brown remarks that the stone his atelier uses varies depending on the specifics of the buildings they work on. His architectural enrichments range from early Gothic to Baroque. This requires Brown to be well-educated on different periods, regions, and the materials historically used. Typically, historic architectural buildings are composed of local materials, so having knowledge on the regional resources not only allows Brown to contribute to the local economy and endorse a more ecological conduct, but also renders his work more historically accurate and authentic.

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Oscar Olle at work

Craftsmen have a deep acquaintance with the materials they work with, allowing them to delicately choose resources in accordance to the demands of specific contexts and to produce as little waste as possible. Mindfulness prevails in every step of the production- not just in the handiwork. Dedication to the land is not just an abstract value, but has an environmental resonance as local materials are often favoured. In another interview, cabinetmaker Òscar Ollé recounts the profound experience of cutting a tree which he grew up with and turning into a unique piece. Ollé notes that before carving, he studies the wood closely, caring for it and preparing it years on end. Consequently, his work is endowed with a deeper understanding, respect and admiration for the raw material. In crafts, knowledge, care and dedication go hand in hand.

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Staircase by Marc Obbergen

Furthermore, while craft practices may initially appear to be of higher cost due to the nature of the materials or the longer process of production, the durability and quality of the end product justifies these means. In our times, speediness is a chronic tendency. Yet, the speed in which we have expended our resources should prompt us to consider the benefits of slowing down. Crafts are a living example on how taking the time to consider, paying attention to detail, and adopting a more meditative approach can bring about a gentler way of inhabiting this world. Just by following the lessons that tradition has preserved, crafts inherently promote what we now recognise as pivotal ecological principles. Marc Van Obbergen and his team craft wooden staircases and banisters, as well as balconies and terraces. Obbergen’s designs are completely custom-made to fit the unique environment perfectly. For this, he does not consult computerised processes, but rather uses traditional methods. The gracefulness of the end-product testifies to the attentiveness of the human eye at work. Non-mechanised processes also grant room for the flourishing of interpersonal relations. While more traditional methods take more time, this also means that there is occasion for the customer and the craftsman to communicate, share ideas and cultivate a bond.

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Ocernaria mallorquina, Carme Hermoso Capllonch

Through millenia, human relations have been shaped by the environments they have lived in; relatedly, environmental practices also have a social aspect to them. The type of soil, the weather, the vegetation of a locale, etc, influences how people think and act, and relatedly, the objects they produce. Luthier Carme Hermoso Capllonch specialises in ocineria, a small wind musical instrument made out of clay, part of Marjorcan historic, musical, cultural ethnographic and artisanal heritage. Carme is also involved in The Sounds of the Earth Association, which is dedicated to the preservation of Majorcan musical culture. The association organises pedagogic activities and interacts with wider audiences, taking an active part in empowering the local culture and identity. Preserving the know-how of material heritage also enables us to retain the knowledge of intangible heritage. As in this example, craftspeople are imperative members of their localities, as they hold the generational knowledge native to regions. Crafts can be seen as the nexus where sustainability and aesthetic sensibilities meet, if we understand aesthetics as the means through which we share and cultivate our perceptions of this world. 

All these points demonstrate how tradition does not need to be antithetical to innovation. Rather, a way to propel ourselves into a greener and eco-conscious future may especially be through paying attention to our roots in cultural heritage and learning from its processes. Cheap and fast mass production may seem indispensable to us, and if we do not act now, may become the only means of production available by the end of the millenium. Yet, we still have a diverse and rich range of knowledge, passed on through many generations, distributed all across Europe on more sustainable production techniques that also result in higher-quality products. So what are the challenges we need to address  to protect crafts?

In a 2020 survey we have disseminated amongst European craftsmen, we have found out that while 30% of the respondents live in big cities, 29% are based in small towns with less than 100.000 inhabitants, and 41% live in a rural area or a village. In the same survey, %67 of the craftsmen stated that they have no succession plan. Craftspeople nourish their localities and it is refreshing to see a counter-tendency to the homogenising effects of globalisation; yet, this local character is unfortunately also one of the major impediments in the persistence of these professions. Many are not known to the world and their extinction often passes unnoticed. In the span of 44 countries and 24 official languages spoken across the continent, it is a challenge to access all crafts professionals and incorporate them into a network. While we may take an example from the UK, where the Heritage Crafts Association has created a well-documented list of heritage crafts professions and their conservation status, the scale of the project would be of a much different proportion when applied to the whole continent. We need a well-organised coalition and resources to instigate a project of this size. The aim would be to survey Europe into its farthest reaches to unearth and bring onto the global stage those craftspeople who are known only locally. Giving craftspeople greater visibility would also arouse the interest of younger generations and they may be incited to become involved. More mobility and apprenticeship programmes can be organised through such networks. In short, it is essential to find ways to find and promote the work and knowledge of crafts professionals and to keep heritage alive.  

Considering the general inclination of our current society, it comes at no surprise that the crafts and heritage sector is also tinged by the spirit of competition. However, since we are facing the threat of a mass extinction of these professions, competition cannot be an option. What is at stake is the preservation of the history of our societies, the multivarious character of European culture, and the know-how which has reached us through the depths of time. With a sense of respect for our forebears and responsibility towards our children, we cannot afford to work against one another in this field. In a question regarding their involvement in the local economy, nearly half of the respondent craftsmen remarked that a vital part of their work is cooperating with other professionals. As crafts help build worlds, they are not isolated activities. When combined, in customary but also unpredictable ways, they can produce wondrous outcomes. We invite crafts and heritage professionals to come together as a community, encouraging one another’s work and collaborating on projects. Growing the sector and the position of crafts in society will be beneficial to all stakeholders.

The stakes are many and they are high. Crafts play a great role in addressing these stakes, as they are concerned with the environments we inhabit and how we can enhance them through sustainable practices, as well bolstering local cultures, identities, and economies. In sum, Mad’in Europe would like to issue an incentive on preserving this knowledge and revaluing know-how by finding local craftsmen, promoting their work, creating a network to facilitate communication and collaborations, and proliferating channels for the transmission of knowledge onto the next generations. 

We aim to address these issues in our European projects; read more on our projects here.

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