While mass production is an intrinsic feature of modern life, many consumers are now looking for something different: finely made goods that combine the best of personal craftsmanship and cutting-edge tools.
As hairdryers go, Jean-Baptiste Fastrez’s creations are defiantly different. Each unlikely-looking version features a standard black plastic barrel complemented by an individually finished wooden handle. Trailing from the bare wood is a power lead and plug.
The Fastrez Tomahawk hairdryer is more art than commerce. There is now a permanent collection of his oeuvres at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, including Variations Upon An Electric Kettle. But in their striking collision of traditional craft skills with industrial mass production, these objects highlight a major social trend that has gathered momentum since the French designer conceived them in 2011: Western consumers’ growing taste for human individuality and craftsmanship in everyday objects long defined by mechanised uniformity.
Although craft hairdryers are yet to catch on, highly crafted versions of well-known products are establishing a foothold in numerous other markets.
Food and drink such as bread, coffee, spirits and artisan cheese have seen the same process unfold as with beer, but the craft movement extends well beyond this sector
From minimal beginnings a decade ago, members of the UK’s Society of Independent Brewers claimed 7 per cent of the UK beer market in 2018, while in the longer-established US market, craft brewers’ share was 13.2 per cent, according to the Brewers Association. Food and drink such as bread, coffee, spirits and artisan cheese have seen the same process unfold, but the craft movement extends well beyond this sector. Discerning stylists now choose craft hairbrushes, and chefs travel to Sheffield to commission bespoke kitchen knives made in the city where stainless steel was invented.
Market researcher Euromonitor picked “Back to basics for status” as one of its top 10 global consumer trends for 2019. “Consumers are rejecting the mass-produced and generic and… favour products positioned as simplified, back to basics and of better quality,” it said.
Importantly, Euromonitor added, these products confer “an implied level of status”. In an environment where every category is awash with cheap, easily available products, highly crafted versions become positional goods, identifying the owner as someone who is prepared to pay more for quality and who has a sense of connection with the people who have poured their skill and devotion into these objects.
Craft businesses see this personal connection as central to their positioning. The maker of each individual product is often identified and even businesses turning out significant volumes find ways to put an individual stamp on them. Products from cosmetics company Lush, for instance, include stickers with the name and cartoon likeness of the employee who made them.
Highly crafted versions become positional goods, identifying the owner as someone who is prepared to pay more for quality and who has a sense of connection with the people who have poured their skill and devotion into these objects
In some cases, a direct connection between buyer and maker is essential. Sheffield knife maker Stuart Mitchell regularly collects customers from the city station and drives them to Portland Works, where stainless steel was first produced by its inventor, Harry Brearley, more than a century ago. There, they spend half a day in Mitchell’s workshop designing a bespoke knife over coffee and bacon rolls.
“Ninety-five per cent of what I sell is commissioned work,” says Mitchell, who did his apprenticeship in the late 1980s under his father. “Quite honestly, I struggle to sell a knife that I’ve made myself because people want the input. They want to be involved.”
Scott Taylor, reader in leadership and organisation studies at the University of Birmingham Business School, points to the spread of tap rooms at craft breweries as another example of craft businesses finding ways to give their customers a sense of connection with the maker and the process. And the same dynamic underlies the web presence of virtually every craft business, whatever its niche: from the artisan cheesemakers of Vermont to Hiut Denim, the company reviving jeans-making in the Welsh town of Cardigan.
Hiut has found another ingenious way to increase its customers’ emotional connection with their jeans. The No Wash Club challenges customers to go at least six months without washing their goods, after which “each crease will have been made by your own individual way of sitting, walking, even which pocket you put your phone in etc. They will be made by us but shaped by you.” Not only that, but “it saves a bunch of water, which makes for a more beautiful jean in how it looks, and how it takes responsibility for its impact on the planet”.
Sheffield knife maker Stuart Mitchell drives customers to Portland Works, where they design bespoke knives over coffee and bacon rolls
Sustainability, social impact and climate-consciousness are threads that run through many craft-based companies – and strike a chord with affluent consumers prepared to pay a premium for their products. However, while sustainability is often an important part of the pitch for craft companies, this does not extend to a rejection of modern technology or techniques. Quite the opposite: modern craft businesses frequently combine traditional skills with cutting-edge machinery and materials.
Tek, based near Milan, started making patented hairbrushes with wooden bristles in 1977 because of the health benefits wood brings for people’s hair, says Matteo Todisco, its communications manager. But in 2000, it launched “the first brush to use aerospace technology” – high-tech ceramic coatings that protect hair strands and fix colour better. Its professional combs are made from carbon infused with an antibacterial agent. These innovations are carefully wedded to a craft-based ethos in which every product is “handmade by a qualified Italian staff member”.
Breaking with tradition
This focus on technology and innovation is important: modern craft companies place great emphasis on human skills and knowledge, much of which has been passed down for generations. But they do not see it as their mission to preserve traditional techniques at all costs. In the case of the UK’s craft beer makers, this has caused some friction with organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale, which insists that only “live”, naturally carbonated cask beers made the traditional way count as real ale.
The willingness of the new generation of craft brewers to break with traditional methods – for example, by producing artificially carbonated craft beers in kegs – may offend purists, but there is little sign that contemporary consumers see their beers as any less authentic than real ale. “I don’t want to drink beer that was made in the way beer was made 250 years ago – just for that reason,” observes Taylor.
Arguments like this point to a wider question: what makes craft businesses “crafty”?
“Contemporary craft makers retain a really strong emotional connection with what they’re making – even if it’s made in a 3D printer,” says Taylor. “For me, that’s the key connection that makes contemporary craft interesting.”
Innovations are carefully wedded to a craft-based ethos in which every product is ‘handmade by a qualified Italian staff member’
The personal commitment of the makers clearly matters. But other elements are equally important: the importance of human knowledge and craft skills; dedication to quality and sustainability in the materials used; the place where the product is made and the primacy of the makers in the corporate hierarchy. In the absence of formal definitions, some combination of these factors usually enables consumers to identify craft products. And where formal definitions have been attempted, they have proved problematic.
Shelby Solomon, assistant professor at the University of West Florida College of Business, points to the tendency of craft entrepreneurs to prefer relatively small-scale production and independent ownership, which he calls the “oppositional identity” that many adopt to distance themselves from big business and demonstrate their authenticity.
US craft brewers are formally defined by a 25 per cent limit on external ownership and caps on annual volumes, he says. But over the years, the industry body for craft brewing has repeatedly lifted the volume cap to allow the largest brewers, such as Brooklyn, The Boston Beer Company and Lagunitas, to scale up while retaining the craft label.
“That catches a lot of flak,” says Solomon. A number of craft brewers in the US and UK have also been acquired by mainstream brewing giants such as AB InBev and Coors, which excludes them from the formal craft definition as well as compromising their craft credentials in the eyes of many consumers.
Sustainability is often an important part of the pitch for craft companies, but this does not extend to a rejection of modern technology or techniques. Quite the opposite
“It gets harder and harder to distinguish which really is a craft beer and which isn’t, in terms of who they’re owned by nowadays.”
This suggests that the essence of being a craft company is as much about autonomy and independent ownership as it is about the skills and processes used to create the products, which won’t necessarily change if the company is bought out.
Remaining relatively small and independent is a price many craft entrepreneurs are happy to pay to stay true to their values, says Taylor. “There are a significant number of craft and artisan makers who actively don’t want to grow their companies beyond a certain point,” he explains.
“There’s a tipping point and consumers know what that is instinctively,” he says. “The key is consumption – once a product is everywhere, it starts to lose the exclusivity and positional value it once had.”
Craft, therefore, may be seen as embracing a way of working and a brand positioning. For consumers, the appeal stretches both ways. And in the internet age, it is an increasingly viable strategy for companies to retain an independent edge, while simultaneously establishing a worldwide reach n