The Nature and Art of Workmanship

from Barnes and Noble dot com

from Barnes and Noble dot com

This week, we begin David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. As we move forward, I am curious to see how this work relates to what we have been discussing about craftsmanship. To me, the move from the root of craft to work is intriguing, and I wonder about the implications of such a focus in term and what this might mean for the process of making and the product made. To provide a really broad gloss, Pye seems to be working to distinguish the difference between design and workmanship, differentiates workmanship of risk vs. certainty on the basis of whether or not “the result is predetermined and unalterable once production begins” (22), the concept of handwork and its meaningless distinction from machine work, and the contrasting qualities of workmanship – precision and approximation, regulation and freedom. This is rather reductionist, as Pye is careful, slow, and deliberate in his prose.

Traces/Scraps of Work

“Design is what, for practical purpose, can be conveyed in words and by drawing; workmanship is what, for practical purposes, can not. In practice the designer hopes the workmanship will be good, but the workman decides whether it shall be good or not” (17).

This was of interest to me because I saw a connection to our conversations in reading Richard Sennett’s work and dwelling in the embodied and tacit knowledge of the craftsman, or now, worksman (I’m really curious as to this shift in terminology and what it meant for identity and making). In this section, “Design Proposes, Workmanship Disposes”, Pye focuses on materials and the dependency of the design on the worksman in what the worksman can make from materials; as Pye describes it, “Material in the raw is nothing much” (18). This seems to continue our focus on a product that is good in quality and in function. The title of this section though has me wondering about material concerns – proposes vs. disposes – and the relationship between designing and making; here, they seem distinct from one another, in two different bodies and processes.

“If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works” (20).

I find this interesting because I question if Pye’s explanation of a craftsman as a worksman + technique or apparatus works in the opposite – is a craftsman a worksman? Does his vision differ from Sennett? Does Sennett’s craftsman embody design as seen as somewhat removed from Pye’s worksman?  I also feel more of an emphasis on tools or apparatus emerging in Pye…What significance might these have on workmanship?

“To distinguish between the different ways of carrying out an operation by classifying them as hand or machine work is, as we shall see, all but meaningless” (25).

In the section “Is Anything Done by Hand?”, Pye works to dissolve the distinction between handwork and work done with tools. He states that “very few things can properly be said to have been made by hand” (29) and that “Handi-craft and Hand-made are historical terms, not technical ones” (26). I continue to be fascinated by the role of machines in making and the tensions that exist between human and thing. After reading Pye, and Sennett as well, the relationship between human and machine is complex, and I’m starting to subdivide machine to explore this relationship.

Work Potential

What I was drawn to in reading is not only Pye’s discussion of techn- and machines/machinery, but how he is defining these concepts and their relationship to making. A goal for reading this text, for me, is to take inventory of all the tech- root words and their iterations through tools, production, and workmanship. This is sort of an obsessive side interest in the use of techn- as techne, technique, technology, technic, and so on and the relationship to the conception of materials and making.

Craft Connections: Plastic Bonds

Friday I attended a critical connections mini seminar at special collections in SU’s Bird Library (which is incredible, I’m discovering) – “Is it Real? Imitation and Style in the First Plastics” with Dr. Robert Friedel on a section of his book Pioneer Plastic.

From books about pens dot com

From books about pens dot com

It was a last minute decision after beginning to explore the richness that is material resources at Syrcause University. Registering last minute, I just made it on the guest list. Aside from Dr. Friedel, there were representatives of the plastic industry, collectors of celluloid pieces, students and faculty of studio arts, engineering students and faculty, history students and faculty, chemists, and me: a composition student. Though people were welcoming, I had the feeling people wondered what my connection/interest to plastic was. Luckily we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves, and I spoke of my interest in materiality and its implications for making, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, the rhetorics of craft, and rhetoric of science and technology. This litany of interests, which is how I always feel my research interests come out, captured the attention of my seminar peers. I left the seminar with connections to SU’s studio arts department, the history department, and a history of science and technology faculty all interested in further interdisciplinary conversations on materials, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, invention and imitation, the rhetoric of science and technology in the sociology of knowledge (network studies to me), and the production and circulation of products. It was really exciting to be able to connect with people on a shared interest from different disciplines and it permitted space to talk about our field as being more than writing about writing texts (singular); it also lent me another opportunity to try to articulate thinking through composition as craft – moving beyond craft as a romantic metaphor for composing.

“While appeals were consistently made to considerations of economy and practicality, imitation remained celluloid’s primary virtue in most of its applications. While the imitative role was natural for the materials when it was new, the persistence of that role throughout its history suggested the uneasy and ambiguous status of the first synthetic plastic. The first important function of this plastic was to look and behave like something it was not. The identification of plastics as cheap imitation is still with us” (Freidel 89).

Scraps of the Seminar:

  • history of new materials – new materials are a product of opportunity, not necessity
  • Friedel said “whenever you do something and faily, you’ve done something else. So what have you done?”
  • originality vs. imitation
    • sincerity vs. imitation – honesty (Ruskin connection): the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
    • celluloid was not a cheaper (cost) material at the time to produce, but low in cost in terms of investment – economically (would not need replacement like other natural materials might wear)
    • wasn’t trying to “fool” anyone by masquerading as another material – it was brought into market as something new and novel; not imitation (not pretending to be horn in eyeglass frames), nor plastic as plastic – plastic as celluloid
    • emphasis was on creating inexpensive, durable products (plastic) – attempted practicality with fashion
  • celluloid could take on color, but often was left uncolored so that it looked as it was – celluloid (a sort of opaque off-white, well, like ivory)
  • celluloid products pushed by the patents of John Wesley Hyatt
    • companies and factories had to be built to manufacture products (machines, process, skilled workers)
  • celluloid upset the craft of combmaking – tension between hand crafting and machine crafting
  • celluloid appealed to nativism/pride in the craft of US manufacturing
  • question/reference to Ruskin: the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
  • question: does industry (machinery as tools of craft) bring in a new craft? does it eliminate craft?
  • question: did materials like celluloid make available the middle class lifestyle that arts and crafts promised but could not deliver?
  • celluloid was not molded by machine, but had to be hand shaped and heated. Machines and tools had to be created to work with material properties.
  • Friedel explains that “it began as imitation, and as a material for everyday objects, it remained imitation” (88)
  • celluloid was designed “to look and behave like something it was not” and never lost that image; today the only celluloid products made are ping pong balls and guitar picks

Does craft a craftsman make?

Reaching the conclusion of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, the last section on “Craftsmanship”, there is still much to sort through. But what I found myself questioning is who is the craftsman? I can see craft and craftsmanship as concepts that I can apply in my own work, teaching, and lifestyle – the making and what is made seem to better circulate across contexts. But craftsman, when I tried to similarly move it, seemed to stick as a word on Sennett’s page: craftsman. Sennett works to retrace the “spine” of the craftsman in Western society by describing the ambivalence represented by Hephaestus and Pandora. Sennett explains “Western civilization has not chosen between these persona so much as fused them into ambivalence about man-made physical experience” (293). He condenses views of Pandora and Hephaestus as artificers – one who makes beautiful but malign things, and the other who is flawed but makes good, everyday things. Tracing the fusion of these personae, he writes

“The man-made material object is not a neutral fact; it is a source of unease because it is man-made. Such ambivalence about the man-made has shaped the fortunes of the craftsman. History has conducted something like a set of experiments in formulating the craftsman’s images as drudge, slave, worthy Christian, avatar of the Enlightenment, doomed relic of the preindustrial past” (293).

And I wondered – where are we at now? In history, society, culture… How does that influence who is imagined as the craftsman? Is the craftsman the small family owned carpentry business that has been in operation for generations? Is the craftsman the couple who strive to live on their own labor outside of the city that make jewelry, or soap, or canned goods, etc. to sell at small, local markets? Is it the local artisan goat cheese company? Back home, in Michigan, is the craftsman nostalgia at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village – as diorama, as historical reenactments? Or is the craftsman in the auto factories? Or perhaps the craftsman isn’t associated with commerce at all, but is my dad, covered in dirt and grease every weekend (unrelated to his job)?

Sennett ends the book with this line, “The clubfooted Hephaestus, proud of his work if not of himself, is the most dignified person we can become” (296). And I wonder who is we?

American Arts and Crafts Movement Field Trip

I had the privilege to attend An American Look: Fashion, Decorative Arts & Gustav Stickley at the Everson Museum downtown with the rhetorics of craft collaborative (our seminar course on techne and rhetorics of craft with the wonderful Dr. Krista Kennedy). The exhibit showcased a collection of elegant, simple handcrafted pieces of clothing, pottery (some of which reminded me of Pewabic Pottery from Detroit), and Stickley furniture representative of the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. Syrcause, which was headquarters to Stickley’s company and The Craftsman magazine, was one of the seminal cities in the movement. The focus of the Arts and Crafts movement was on good design that regarded the relationship between the form and the use of the object.

In class we have read a number of texts – from a base in ancient rhetorics through Plato and Aristotle on techne, Kelly Pender’s thoughtful account of techne’s presence in the development of rhetoric and composition as a discipline in her book Techne: From Neoclassicism to Postmodernism, and currently John Sennett’s account of craftsmanship in The Craftsman – that are working to serve as a basis to explore the value and ethics of craft, the craftsman, and craftsmanship and how these concepts might illuminate composition and rhetoric as craft in making (and in making as action beyond use as metaphor).


Richard Sennett: The Craftsman

Sennet, Richard. The Craftsman.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Richard Sennett, from Richard Sennett dot com

Richard Sennett, from Richard Sennett dot com

Richard Sennett’s website

About the author, from his Brief Biography

“Richard Sennett has explored how individuals and groups make social and cultural sense of material facts — about the cities in which they live and about the labour they do. He focuses on how people can become competent interpreters of their own experience, despite the obstacles society may put in their way. His research entails ethnography, history, and social theory.  As a social analyst, Mr. Sennett continues the pragmatist tradition begun by William James and John Dewey.”

Describes his works as “cultural studies“, but is using the phrase in an unusual manner to capture looking at how individuals and groups of people “make sense of material facts about where they live and the work they do”.

  • Works from interview and ethnography
  • Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University
  • Pragmatist/m: the function of thought is not to represent reality; instead, thought is a tool for prediction, taking action, and solving problems. Knowledge, language, science, and like philosophical topics are viewed in terms of practical uses and successes in action.

The Craftsman

From The Craftsman Magazine archives

From The Craftsman Magazine archives

“History has drawn fault lines dividing practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user; modern society suffers from the historical inheritance. But the past life of craft and craftsmen also suggests ways of using tools, organizing work, and thinking about materials that remain alternative, viable proposals about how to conduct life with skill.”


“The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged” (20) in collective, tangible, material reality. But craftsmanship is poorly understood as a reduction to manual skill in a singular being without recognition of value in joining skill and community. Sennett sets out to examine the concrete practices of craft as investigatable – expanding notions of what counts as craft to technology, science, medical and like domains of craftsmen as craftsmanship has become institutionalized. His aims (as we continue reading) are to “explore what happens when hand an head, technique and science, art and craft are separated” (20) through larger issues presently and historically.

Main Argument (thus far)

Craftsmanship, dedicated,  skilled, good work for its own sake (20) that focuses on achieving quality to standards set by a community (25) is now organized in three troubled ways (52):

  • attempts of institutions to motivate people to work well (issues of individual competition, charades of cooperation)
  • developing skill, a trained practice, in environments that deprive people of repetitive, hands on training (a separation of head and hand)
  • conflicting measures of quality in products – one based on correctness and the other on practical experience (pulled between tacit and explicit knowledge)


In a time and global economy of automation and mass production, what is an available means of production that reorients itself as craft – making with a connected head and hand – beyond small enclaves of artisinal and craft counter-movements? (Sennett cites Japanese factories as more successful than Western production based on the collective way of doing, despite the scale and range of production.)

Does Byron Hawk’s post-techne – “the use of techniques for situating bodies within ecological contexts in ways that reveal models for enacting that open up the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques” ( “Toward a Post-Techne” 384) in combining technique, the technical, technology, and techne – provide illumination as a means toward solving the problems that Sennett is setting up to work through? What might this look like in action?