Real Wealth: Steve Jobs and Handcraft

Steve Jobs and handcraft are not two things we naturally associate with each other. But they should be. Allow me to explain.

Big news in the business world this week is Jobs stepping down from Apple. One story about this that played on the radio caught my attention, as it echoed a point I tried to make in my post-financial collapse essay for Arts and Crafts Homes Magazine called “Real Wealth: The Value of Art and Craft In a Debased Economy,” which was that if manufacturing, along with agriculture, forms the foundation of our economy, then the bedrock of that foundation is handcraft. Jobs’s story provides a perfect example. Even as high up the economic ladder and the management scale as Jobs was, even as technologically sophisticated and abstract as his work is, there is a real basis for what he did in handcraft. Here’s how he himself explained it in his 2005 Stanford University commencement address:

Reed College at that time [when he attended in 1972] offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

It’s notable that what opened his eyes to handcraft wasn’t reading books or attending lectures about it, but the actual presence of it in the buildings that framed his education. As drenched in technology as college campuses and students are, it would be nice if this lesson were reviewed and all computer- and machine-generated signage were replaced with calligraphed and carved signs. After all, no less a technological visionary than Steve Jobs makes the case that such seemingly small matters comprise the bedrock of our technological advancement.

“Real Wealth” a Year-and-a-Half On

In the Winter 2009 issue of Arts and Craft Homes and the Revival I published an essay called “Real Wealth: The Value of Art and Craft in a Debased Economy.” (You’ll find a link to a pdf on this page.) In it I expressed my hopes for the sustenance — or even revival — of appreciation for handcrafts as the bedrock of an economy we might begin rebuilding on the restored foundation of manufacturing and agriculture. Needless to say, a year-and-a-half later we still have quite a ways to go. But in any case, I thought I’d throw out a few footnotes to the piece, and some further thoughts.

First, the entire Walt Whitman poem, “I hear America Singing,” from Leaves of Grass (1900), in which, by simply describing Americans of his day, the poet reminds us how we were once a nation of makers:

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker Magazine review of the 2006 Art Basel Miami Beach was the where I got the bit about “the crumpled Camel cigarette pack suspended on a fishing line selling for $160,000″— not that that’s likely to shock or surprise anyone, but the article is illuminating from the standpoint of the place of art in our culture today, as art fairs seize the market from galleries and take the commercialization of the art world one step further.

Year of Hope: Looking forward to 2009

The holiday card from my landlord (and friend; some of us are too lucky) this year said, “Beat the odds! Have a great year!” Things do look bleak. But without venturing my opinions on matters like the auto industry and stimulus packages that people don’t generally look to picture framers to explain to them (I promise to stick to things I know about), I’m feeling strangely positive about the outlook — and not just because the long-awaited new administration has finally taken over. More big picture thoughts at the end, but meanwhile…

Here at my studio, I look forward to a few things in 2009:

  • Having Christin Coy join the gallery. I look forward to framing her paintings and having them here in the gallery to enjoy every day. (That’s Christin’s “Bear Valley Glow” above.) Christin is a wonderful Marin County landscape painter who has been active on the local scene for many years. Visit her website, to find out more about her and her work. And look for her contributions to the Journal as well. She and her partner Richard Lindenberg – another terrific landscape painter – are planning a couple of painting trips over the next several weeks, and I hope she’ll send updates. I’m very pleased to be adding her to the gallery. We’ll be officially introducing her at an opening for…
  • Paul Kratter – a show of new studio landscapes, larger than what we typically show of his. Should be spectacular. June 6. Get it on your calendar now! Paul too will be contributing to the Journal.
  • Just got off the phone with Bob Flanary who is working on a mural we arranged for him to do for a home in Berkeley being remodeled by my friend and neighbor, Alex Bergtraun. It sounds tremendous! Bob’s excitement was contagious, so this will certainly be a highlight of the year. As soon as he gets an email address (and I thought I was a Luddite), Bob too will be sending in entries.
  • All things considered, we did very well with Robin Moore’s show, “Tomales Bay – A Shifting Light” , but many of these wonderful pieces are still available. Have a look! Meanwhile, we are working with Robin to build on the success of the first show. Discussions are centered around the subject of California Trees. Robin has an extraordinary affinity for trees. She and I are both avid fans of Arthur and Lucia Mathews, and are playing with the idea of framing the show in highly individualized frames with polychromed low-relief carving. In this economy, though, we’re both concerned about producing such labor-intensive work on spec. Any thoughts or ideas are welcome.
  • “A Heaven In the Eye” – a group show here at the gallery of local plein air painters from around the Bay, painting our beautiful Bay from their respective points of view. Paul and Christin will be joined by at least two other artists yet to be named. Probably November.
  • This journal. The web has been great for me, allowing for a new and promising business model. This…uh…”blog” (why do I dislike that word?) will help me stay in touch with at least our core customers and share my enthusiasm for my work. In spite of the downturn, things remain vital here!

The big picture –
It truly feels like a new era fraught with danger but also full of tremendous opportunity for a renewal of our national character. In an article I have coming out this month in Arts and Crafts Homes and the Revival, called Real Wealth: The Value of Art and Craft in a Debased Economy, I expand on the significance of one 19th century epigram for our time (got it out of John Bogle’s new book, Enough):
Some men wrest a living from nature and with their hands; this is called work.
Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature and with their hands; this is called trade.

Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature and with their hands; this is called finance.

Now’s the time to renew our support of small craft studios, for if manufacturing, along with agriculture, is the foundation of the economy, the small workshops and studios that are frequently the origin of companies and products are the bedrock. No healthy society can abandon the basic skills cultivated in small workshops. No civilization can survive without the artistic spirit of the small studio. My hope for 2009 is that it will be remembered as a watershed year when our economy and culture began to reestablish themselves on more sound footing. I hope you’ll check out the article.

So this journal is off and running! Happy New Year to all! May we all beat the odds together! Please come by and see us!