Martin Szekely spent the duration of the confinement in Paris. A few months earlier, in response to his own situation, he had begun writing a short text on the dwindling number of businesses with which he was working. The confinement allowed him to pursue this reflection, presented here today.
CRAFTECH : a neologism and a portmanteau that defines the approach, both artisanal and technological, of the companies with which I work. Heading these companies are artisans with traditional expertise who complemented their skills in the 1990s-2000s with a new knowledge in programming digitally controlled machines, or young engineers in direct contact with digital practices in their own studios.
Like 3D images, the objects produced using this new, polyvalent tool are marked by a precision that has never been achieved with traditional machines and hand tools. Inconsistencies are generated almost exclusively through the expansion or removal of the materials used, and no longer through the manual gestures of the person operating the technology. For example, wood remains a living material, susceptible to atmospheric humidity, while the digitally controlled machine carves, pierces, profiles, and deposits with tireless constancy and precision.
The craftech artisan projects the piece to be made down to the smallest detail, as the draughtsman did before, with the help of drawing software, rather than tracing it with a pencil or a sharp tool on the final material. This projection or programming on the screen, which people have always claimed is similar to drawing, is now used to guide the digital machine without the artisan touching the material, except for any so-called “hand” finishing. This new chain of procedures generates a new type of object marked by an almost abstract, geometric quality. It is hard to recognize the difference between the 3D image of an object and a photo of the same object made using a digitally controlled machine.
This software and machinery, high-tech tools par excellence, are no longer reserved exclusively for industry. This is how, for over twenty years, I have been able to develop projects with industrial connotations in their forms and finishes, but made, unexpectedly, by men and women working within small and medium-sized craftech companies.
Concomitant to this real revolution in the approach to design and fabrication, another monumental change has occurred : in the past, without exception, objects were either made of a single material (clay, leather, wood, stone, etc.) or else made by juxtaposing or assembled materials. Recent years have seen the advent of glues (as many glues as there are particular situations), which have allowed for the development of sandwich materials known as “composite materials” (carbon fiber and resin, fiber concrete, bamboo slats, sandwiches of honeycomb and stone, etc.). A composite material is superior in solidity and resistance to each of its components taken in isolation. From their cohesion results a new material with new qualities. This allows us to envisage infinite possibilities for every case. Thus, we can think about – or even compose – the material according to the object being made, rather than adapting the object to existing materials, which profoundly changes the approach to the project, both for its designer and its maker.
The craftech artisans are no longer affiliated to a single material that defines their craft – for example, wood for the cabinetmaker, iron for the blacksmith, leather for the saddler or marble for the stone worker. The cabinetmaker works in wood as he must, but also in aluminum, resins or cork, just like the stone worker, who can fit airplanes with a lighter stone or, in other circumstances, floating stone ! There are also artisans who have studied engineering, who are no longer the product of a traditional, identified craft, and who work in a single studio with a multitude of materials : wood, cork, plaster, resins, aluminum, plastics, cement… What defines them is no longer the material, but rather their cross-disciplinary approach to the crafts, envisaged essentially thanks to the omnipresent digital tool, their open mind and their capacity to take initiative.
The political decision makers – those from whom we expect decisions and laws that favor new actors in French craft production – seem to know nothing of these of these professional seismic shifts. For them, there exists on one side an idealized traditional craft, and on the other industry, too often neglected. As for actual new technologies, they are, in their minds, the prerogative of cutting-edge industry or start-ups, but never seen in relation to the crafts.
My work is still in the hands of these small businesses dedicated to complex, small works. In the space of two decades, I have been witness to their disappearance. Some of them were bought by bigger companies, and inevitably, their expertise was lost given the new management’s exclusively financial objectives. Others were not taken over, since it is so difficult for a young person to acquire a business without a down payment. Worse still, training in these crafts –considered manual work – is generally undervalued, or only occasionally supported by a radio program or an award.
Rich Americans have their architects design furnishings made in Europe, especially in France and Italy. It is a fact that in the United States, these works would never see the light of day given the lack of skill, which has mostly been lost – with rare exceptions in certain fields such as blacksmithing, which is still alive and well in that country.
This text is the observation of the situation as I have experienced it. Will you know what to do with it, so that this world of “making and culture”, embodied by knowledgeable, committed and passionate people, can thrive ? The expertise in this field, and its future, are at stake, and it seems to me that that concerns us all.
October 2019 - March 2020