"Historically, one of the distinguishing features of craftsmanship is the way that knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. In a system that dates to the Middle Ages, the skills of a craftsman are taught by means of an apprenticeship. In the old days, you apprenticed yourself to a master, moved into his house, and worked in exchange for room, board, and an education. The terms of your service were determined by the guild, a powerful institution in ancient Europe. When your term of service was up – seven years was the standard contract – you earned your papers as a journeyman. Journeymen could charge by the day (journée) and live on their own, but they couldn’t employ other people. Many moved from city to city, honing their skills as they learned from other workshops. Only after you’d spent years as a journeyman, and then completed a piece of work certified by the guild as a “masterpiece,” were you awarded the title of master craftsman.
Today, masterpieces are reserved for artists, and craftsmanship exists on the margins of everyday life. How did this happen? Certainly handcraftsmanship is expensive. You can own more things if they’re mass-produced. It’s also unnecessary in the strictest sense of the word. A machine-stitched shirt covers as much skin as a hand-sewn one. But I don’t think those are the central reasons for the decline of artisanal workmanship. In my opinion, the problem has to do with the embalmed state in which most craftsmanship exists today. At some point, in our rush to modernize, economise, and accumulate, we severed the link between craftsmanship and design. Craftsmanship, being old-fashioned, labour-intensive, and costly, was left behind, where it has remained in a state of arrested development. Or worse: in many cases, handicrafts are now relegated to the kitsch trinkets we buy when we travel, souvenirs that represent “authentic,” long-gone culture.
"In many cases, handicrafts are now relegated to the kitsch trinkets we buy when we travel, souvenirs that represent “authentic,” long-gone culture"
This chasm between design and craftsmanship is self-perpetuating. As craftsmanship lost its prestige, people became less willing to pay for it. Talented designers turned their ambitions elsewhere. As it became harder to make a living as an artisan, young people stopped apprenticing. Besides, in a digital world, how many people raise their children to be artisans? Craftsmanship is neither the unskilled labor of a factory assembly line nor the mental labor of an office worker. It is highly skilled physical labor that demands years of training. When you think about it, it’s amazing there are any artisans left in Europe."
Since his appointment as creative director at Bottega Veneta in 2001, Tomas Maier has made craftmanship one of his key focuses, as he outlines in the opening chapter of the Italian house's recent monograph. Born to parents who both had strong aesthetic sensibilities, Maier left high school and attended the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, arguably the best institution to educate oneself about the importance of craftmanship; it was here he witnessed firsthand the work of "petite mains" of couture. The glorious hardcover monograph, published by Rizzoli, focuses on the various lines of the Bottega Veneta brand – the bag, small leather goods, luggage, shoes, women's and men's wear, jewellery, homewear, the watch and scent – with insightful text courtesy of Maier himeslf and writers including Sarah Mower and Tim Blanks.
Text by Laura Bradley