Books about craftsmanship?
June 28, 2006 12:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in reading about craftsmanship, in the sense of attention to detail and finish as it relates to the overall success of a project. My specific project is ceramics, and so books (and suggestions) about pottery would be really appreciated, but I'm interested in other disciplines as well.

I'm not entirely sure that what I'm asking about exists, and of course the short answer for me is to simply pay more attention to what I'm doing and the details that make something seem really well crafted, but I'm looking for more philosophical ruminations about the nature of craftsmanship and craft, and about what separates the acceptable from the really good. There are certainly spiritual traditions (the Shakers, some Japanese crafts) where attention to craft is considered a necessary part of any undertaking.

I'd be happy to read about personal experience, but book suggestions would be really great.

(While I'm interested in the "spirituality" of artistic production, I'm not at all a fan of new agey stuff, so would really prefer to avoid anything in that vein.)
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the mother lode for this. The full text is on the Web, in several places, too.
posted by paulsc at 12:45 PM on June 28, 2006

if you are a ceramicist, i think you will benefit from a book called "the unknown craftsman" by soetsu yanagi

it will exercise your thinking regarding handwork

one memorable part discusses imperfection and ugliness, so of course the idea of beauty comes up. amateur works are often too perfect, and therefore not beautiful

the old masters of ceramic art sometimes didnt intend a vessel for a particular use, didn't know or care how it would be used. but its beauty compelled people to find a use for it

my own craft is literary, but i look at this book often because many of the principles are transferable from the medium of clay to the medium of words
posted by subatomiczoo at 1:03 PM on June 28, 2006

paulsc - This is an honest question: Is Zen & the Art all that good? I remember reading it at 15 and being distinctly underwhelmed, feeling even then that the philosophy was sophmoric. I've always thought that I read it at just the right time in life to be really blown away, and that I wasn't and that that spoke badly for the book. It's 20 years later, and I certainly could have been wrong, but I wonder what you saw in it?
posted by OmieWise at 1:48 PM on June 28, 2006

Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand by Malcolm McCullough (link here) is a book I liked a lot when I read it a few years ago. Here is the book jacket copy (it's from MIT Press):

“In this investigation of the possibility of craft in the digital realm, Malcolm McCullough observes that the emergence of computation as a medium, rather than just a set of tools, suggests a growing correspondence between digital work and traditional craft. McCullough builds a case for upholding humane traits and values during the formative stages of new practices in digital media. He covers the nature of hand-eye coordination, the working context of the image culture, aspects of tool usage and medium appreciation, uses and limitations of symbolic methods, issues in human-computer interaction, geometric constructions and abstract methods in design, the necessity of improvisation, and the personal worth of work.”

I suspect you know his work already, but if not William Morris might interest you:
posted by sophieblue at 1:51 PM on June 28, 2006

Maybe Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order books might be of interest: they’re a bit flaky/new-agey at times, but also have plenty of stuff based on his practical experience—in architecture—but with insights that should be more generally applicable.
posted by misteraitch at 2:40 PM on June 28, 2006

See if you can get hold of James Krenov's "The Joys of Cabinetmaking." There's lots of advice on cabinetmaking here -- but also an extended set of reflections on what it means to create. From the Conclusion:

"The things these new craftsmen will offer you will have more than just a visual appeal, more than decorative or investment value. Honest purpose, clean lines, the traces of tools skillfully used, these make up objects that enrich us in a person-to-person way at a time when so much of our lives is spent in anonymity, in hurried commercialism and bureaucratic trivia. We need something, even a single object, to remind us that there is another, more generous side to life. Things made with love and received with understanding -- that is what might yet bring it all together."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:06 PM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Men at Work: the Craft of Baseball by George Will is about exactly what you're asking for: attention to detail, respect for a craft. I don't remember it being particulary philosophical but I think it might give you an interesting perspective. Just paste something over Will's picture on the cover and you're good to go.
posted by stuart_s at 7:19 PM on June 28, 2006

OmieWise, I never recommend ZMM for the philosophy, any more than I suggest it as a primer for motorcycle maintenance, but there is a good bit in there regarding the kinesthetics of precision work, and the development and utility of a craft mind that is worth revisiting from time to time. The use of a feeler guage, the avoidance of gumption traps, neatness as productive ritual, avoiding awkward positions in order to facilitate mind-body and body-mind communication, awareness of self state as a barometer for work quality, etc.

What you think of the metaphysics of Quality with the big "Q" isn't all that important if you can't keep your handlebars from flopping around...
posted by paulsc at 7:35 PM on June 28, 2006

Talking With the Clay: The Art of Pueblo Pottery by Stephen Trimble.

I haven't read this yet - it is on my list. This was recommended to me. It includes interviews with prominet potters. Amazon description: "Stephen Trimble conveys the beauty and fine craftsmanship of Pueblo Indian pottery and shows how pottery making is closely connected to the Pueblos' beliefs, their ties to the land, their role in the modern economic world, and their feelings of identity."

Also, the Pottery Blog may be helpful.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:32 PM on June 28, 2006

Thanks for all the reponses. Someone sent me links to these two David Pye books by email, which also seem just up the street I'm trying to map. I thought I'd add them to the list for those who've favorited the thread.

mjj-Special thanks for the Pottery Blog!
posted by OmieWise at 8:30 AM on June 29, 2006

This is not philosophy really, but Woodworking Magazine sometimes has thoughtful pieces really worth reading and the photography is often good Chris is my cousin and a real hand tool fanatic and woodworker himself. You might also want to check out Redefining Craft which is a sort of 2.0 treatment of the idea, but with some good stuff tossed in there and links to all over the place.

Being up in New England, there's a lot of Shaker mythos around here. Ken Burns The Shakers is an excellent introduction to not just the religion but also the idea of aesthetics and creating beautiful things as a way of honoring life and the creator. I enjoyed it, lots of amazing pictures of furniture and the other things they created [medicines, brooms, clothing] and just how much attention and care went into every detail of every thing. It's not a deep look at craftsmanship but there is something really captivating about the way they took the idea of craftsmanship and brought it into their entire lives.

Apropos of almost nothing, I can't think much about craft without thinking about Gerhard Richter.
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 PM on June 30, 2006

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