Podium: Spokeshaves, spanners and computers

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The Independent Culture
From a lecture delivered by the furniture designer at the Royal Society for the Arts, in London

LET US begin with the Industrial Revolution, created by practical makers, people who used the knowledge gained from their craft to transform industry and society, like Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. They brought together new materials, production methods and approaches to marketing. Most important, their enterprises linked art and industry without inhibition. They flourished.

Then come the reactionaries, the Arts and Crafts movement, first idealistic, then sentimental, becoming polarised and eventually bigoted - against any kind of industry ... until, by the early 1900s they appeared to behave, in the words of Roger Fry, like a bunch of "dour and melancholy old hypocrites who represented to perfection the hideous sentimentality of the English wanting to mix moral feeling in with everything".

The commentators involved in the debate - Pugin, Ruskin, Morris, Lethaby, Gill, Herbert Read, Coomaraswamy, Nash, Gropius, Pevsner, David Pye and Peter Dormer, to name but a few - come and go, but the debates about the crafts and industry seem perennial. The reason why this is so owes much to confused philosophies and debates.

The equation seems to go: mass production = machines = technology = shoddy. Mass production does indeed use machines but is nonetheless capable of making objects both cheaply and to good quality, but it does not essentially depend on machine tools or any other sort of tool. It depends on the size of the market and how much you can afford to spend on organising manufacture. It can also mean just lots of people and no machines at all - think of the cheap labour around the Pacific rim. This is not to belittle the horror of the Lancashire cotton mills.

It is certainly true that the larger factories, the Staffordshire potteries of Wedgwood, say, or Chance's Glass works were large, dangerous and sometimes dehumanised, but was this always the case? I think not.

There is a big difference between heavy and light industry, the large- scale assembly lines and the small-scale metal bashers and much of industry is, and always has been, in small and medium-size workshops.

If you look at the Distribution of Trades and Occupations in 1841, in, say, Worcestershire (a technologically advanced county close to Birmingham, well-connected to the canal system) we see large numbers of nailers and ironmongers (which would seem to suggest a major industry) but elsewhere, you will see that the number of cabinet-makers, carvers and gilders, upholsterers, and chair makers is probably the same number as there are today. In fact, there are only a handful of trades that employ more than a hundred people. This is not the stuff of dark satanic mills.

Let us look at the restoration at Windsor for a moment. On a pounds 45m project completed under budget and ahead of schedule, there were stone masons, plasterers, joiners, flooring specialists, carvers, gilders, glaziers and even passementerie specialists. Indeed, there were no less than 12 joinery firms and well over a dozen firms supplying stone work. The carvers at Windsor were told by English Heritage that the quality of their carving was too fine and that they should roughen it up to make it closer to the original, rather shoddier, work of the 1820s. Quite why people are surprised by what our nation's artisans can achieve is something of a mystery, since craftsmanship is as innate to this country as the Dunkirk spirit; in adversity, it always re-emerges.

Of the artisans at Windsor, one had a degree in astro-physics, another was a PhD chemist, a third was a former solicitor and another had been a vet, who had opted not to follow conventional careers.

My thesis is this: Modern artisans, building or craft, are as good as they have ever been. Only now they are better educated, work harder and are more financially acute than before. They have in their own workshops sophisticated industrial processes on a smaller, more economic scale than ever before. And they find a way to learn and relearn the hand-skills. It's in the genes.