September 20, 2015

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman

By Peter Korn, 2013

To read Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn is to accompany a craftsperson on a long journey through many phases of life. Why We Make Things and Why it Matters is many things, but above all, it is the biographical narrative of Korn’s development from being a young kid in Philadelphia to becoming a master furniture maker, craftsperson, and founder of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship along the coast of Maine. Throughout this journey, Korn falls in and out of love, gets cancer and recovers, opens and closes up shop throughout the northeast, spends some time in Colorado, and then comes back again.

Over the course of his life, Korn also develops powerful thoughts about what it means to make things, and why making things matters. In particular, Korn comes to understand that made objects possess a certain gravitas (or “mana” as he says), and to be the maker of objects holds a power far beyond what is often described as the IKEA effect. As Korn writes, a craftsman not only develops the ability to make high quality products, but also develops the distinct ability to look closely, and notice complexity:

When I look at a piece of furniture from across a room, I see form, style, scale, context, and intended use. As I approach it, I distinguish material, joinery, and proportions. When I get close enough to touch it, I take in details such as hardware, textures, finish, edge treatments, wood grain, quality, and comfort. A craftsman cannot control a respondent’s path through this information… but the craftsman has the advantage of making complex structures of information simultaneously apparent. (p. 64)

This realization comes relatively early in Korn’s narrative. By the end of the text, Korn has gone from being a rooky carpenter working on Nantucket to becoming a furniture maker at the top of his game, and the founder of a furniture making school that has inspired many to pursue a common path—a path that Korn describes as “transformational.” Through the process of his life’s journey (and through the process of writing it down) Korn comes to understand something we’ve come to know very well through our discussions with maker-centered educators—that making (and craft) is not an individual endeavor, but rather a socially distributed experience. As Korn writes,

Before writing this book I believed that craft and art originated with the maker, and that whatever vitality they possessed was the result of his creative focus. Now I see the maker as an extension of society, a cell within a larger organism. The issues with which he wrestles with are not his alone. They are everyman’s. He participates in the conversations of his field and the broader conversations of his culture.… To the extent that the maker’s ideas are relevant, they pass from person to person (other makers, academics, merchants, collectors, and the general populace), each one potentially adding his own charge, until the current returns to the maker, or the next generation of makers, in the form of a new cultural orthodoxy with which to wrestle all over again.” (p. 157–158)

Here, Korn presents the reader with a systems perspective on making and craft. His thoughts stretch beyond the realm of objects and individuals out towards ideas. It is through the ideas embedded in made objects that the act of making becomes social, communicable, and part of a greater knowledge ecosystem. While this perspective deeply aligns with the distributed approach to teaching and learning that the Agency by Design team has heard from its interview participants, reading Why We Make Things and Why It Matters may make the reader pause for a moment to wonder—how are we all connected through making? To what degree does the precision of the craftsperson play a role in the hack of the maker? Are the two mutually exclusive? Or is there a dialogue between maker and craftsperson, perhaps even more nuanced—and more problematic—than Korn suggests?

–Edward, September 20, 2015