Anyone can sell a good product, but to sell a piece of crap, now that takes real talent.” Is ‘Design’ and ‘Handwerk’ increasingly less valued?

There appears to be a growing misconception in mainstream America about just what exactly is ‘design,’ its value to the individual, and the culture at large. Big-box stores, mass media outlets, educational institutes and even the “design disciplines”– to name just a few entities – can share the blame for muddying the term. In many circles design is a commodity, produced by a recipe, cranked out, apparently, by anyone. In this line of thinking – propelled by mass-marketing forces – there is no such thing as ‘bad design’ …and very little ‘site-specific design.’ This ‘one size-fits-all, rip and read’ approach to design has produced another disturbing trend: an increasing de-valuation in ‘handwerk.’ And begs the question: just what does distinguish the artist from the artisan?

It’s interesting to note that within the discipline of studio arts, artists and artisans share at least one thing in common: the desire and need to make something tangible, real and honest. Most are willing to acknowledge that in the very making come the creative ideas, the understanding of their design process, and quality work.

Why is it that those in the “design disciplines” – particularly architects and landscape architects – more often than not dismiss with scorn and intellectual indifference their brethren who choose to design with a hands-on approach?

Perhaps tradition plays an important role in fostering these attitudes. Painters, sculptors, jewelers, ceramists, and furniture designers, to name a few, must first learn basic skills of their craft –often in art schools like I attended – before ever hoping to truly conceive and design works of art.

This is rarely the case in the design disciplines. For example, many landscape architects admittedly claim little knowledge about soils, plants and climate, lack practical hands-on knowledge about construction methods (even the basics such as planting a tree, building a bench or a walkway), and seemingly are disdainful of those who do. Yet they consider themselves artful designers, relying upon their training (largely conceptual) as a pedigree for success. We expect artisans to understand the properties of metal, wood, concrete and fiberglass before we hire them as metalsmiths, furniture designers, home builders and boat makers. So why do we train students to become professional architects and landscape architects who have never laid a hand on wood, steel, stone and soil?

As in all the design professions, there is a tremendous amount of diverse knowledge needed to work in one’s chosen field. The profession of landscape architecture is no different. On the one hand, it’s a small, specialized field encompassing engineering, horticulture, sociology, sculpture and such basic design elements as texture and color. On the other hand, its all about production and has little to do with anything creative and everything to do with the making of things that sell and make money. Art or craft made by artists or artisans? I guess we all have our opinions on that. It’s time those of us who choose to make and design appreciate our tactile, artful nature, celebrate our craftiness and revel in our uniqueness. And for all of us to ponder these words penned from the late author and social critic Norman Mailer: “corporations used to have some pride in their products. Now they have pride in their marketing…Anyone can sell a good product, but to sell a piece of crap, now that takes real talent.”

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