The year is 1851. You are a small child—with eyes full of wonder—beholding the Crystal Palace. It’s a massive structure made of cast iron and plate glass. You’ve never seen anything like it before. It seems like a mystical palace from your bed time stories.
You walk inside, holding your mothers hand, and you see massive crowds milling about, beholding wondrous artifacts from all corners of the globe. Constructs and machines, made with materials you don’t recognize, fill the space. You aren’t aware just yet, but this is one of the first gatherings celebrating the Industrial Revolution.
The Crystal Palace was built to house the Great Exhibition, an event where inventors from all around the world were invited to display and share their work and innovations. Up until that point in history, this much steel and glass hadn’t been readily available to build such a structure.
Steam power and machinery were becoming more and more prominent in factories, and greatly increase the amount of goods that factories can manufacture in a year. New advances in chemical manufacturing and iron production make glass and iron much more readily and cheaply available to everyone. Before this, glass and metals were time consuming to create, and were usually reserved for those who had money for more luxurious additions to their homes.
It’s a massively interesting time period for me to read about. In college, at The Art Institute of Portland, there were several required classes called “History of Material Culture.” They were classes focusing on manufacturing and architectural history. The topics ranged from the beginning of architecture, such as wattle-and-daub housing, all the way to Neo-Modern architectural movement; covering innovations from ceramic pottery all the way past the automated assembly line and beyond. The class was far more fascinating than I thought, although now I remember far less than I had hoped to retain
Bill Bryson, who wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, wrote another book called Home: A Short History of Private Life where he dives into the history of how the modern day house came to be. It discusses a wide range of topics: explaining things like how salt and pepper became common dinner table staples, to why the Presidents cabinet is called a cabinet. I highly recommend reading it—it answers questions you didn’t know you had.
Back to class: I remember my instructor explaining that the reason we need to learn all of this is that eventually, people won’t remember how to create these things the way they used to be created. I distinctly remember him saying, as an example, that no one today knows how to traditionally carve housings for grandfather clocks anymore. You know the classical grandfather clocks with the intricate wood carvings near the crown and the feet? No one is skilled enough to do that by hand anymore—so he claimed.
I’ve never really fact checked that statement, but I think even if it’s not true there is still a lot to digest from that idea. When our tools change, our work is forever affected. Many of my favorite papers and essays from those classes talked quite a bit about how the authenticity of craft is whittled away each time a new, massive manufacturing technique is invented.
I desperately wish that I could find the essays I had read in school, so you’ll just have to follow along with my rhetoric. I know that a lot of them were in the compilation book The Industrial Design Reader, edited by Carma Gorman.
Several notable designers at the time of the industrial revolution spoke against machine innovations, stipulating that the scale of manufacturing required a loss of authenticity. Designers no longer created beautiful designs and built them by hand, they now created new works that were specifically meant to be easy to manufacture. You started to see simpler designs imitating older, more refined designs, but made them cheaper so that the lower and middle classes could start to have finer furniture.
Imagine being an artist who could draw nearly perfect straight lines by hand, and then someone invents the ruler, allowing a far wider range of people imitate your technique. It’s without a doubt an amazing innovation, but many artists would be quick to claim that the ruler removes the need to practice and refine your technique.
An outspoken designer by the name of William Morris feared the changes that technology had on design and craftsmanship. At the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1888, William Morris set up a loom and began traditionally weaving to demonstrate the skill and technique involved in a dying art—one that might fade from the world one day. I think about this a lot.
It makes me wonder how many things I’ve taken for granted around me. The furniture we have, the cars we drive, the food we eat. They each have a rich history that we slowly forget or omit as new techniques present themselves. There are still people who celebrate this antiquated techniques—there are still people who practice blacksmithing and glassblowing as examples—but for how much longer?
When I first got into design, I was taking drafting classes. Classes that taught you how to draw up manufacturing blueprints or architectural drawings for design. Then during my last year of middle school I was introduced to AutoCAD. A software that drew straight lines for you, that classified line weights for you, that created isometric views for you.
I no longer needed to know how to draft. With the implementation of a single technological innovation a useful, sought after skill was obsolete.
I wrote my final paper for those college classes on how designers need to constantly change their perspective and learn to adapt to their new tool sets. You don’t stop painting because someone gave you a new paintbrush—you need to learn to paint with your new brush.
I think I need to re-visit this concept and apply it to myself. I love to lament that skills I have learned aren’t useful, but I fail to spend any time playing with new tools that are presented to me. Yes, it is sad to see things we’ve worked hard for become obsolete, but your skills don’t evaporate just because your tool is no longer used. It’s just hard because learning those skills required long portions of your life— portions that you feel like you can’t get back.
What I frequently forget during my lamentations is that I might have trained to be a 3D artist, or a product designer—and those jobs might get replaced—but beneath that I am a creator. You don’t stop creating just because something came along to make creating easier. You keep creating because it’s what you do, regardless of the standards of the industry, regardless of what you trained with, regardless of what you thought you could do.
There will certainly be a loss of technique, but what we all need to remember is that the technique isn’t what made us as a designer, a writer, or an artist. It might be hard to let go of all you learned, but to truly be part of the changes throughout history we need to remember that nothing ever stays the same. Clinging to the past only prevents you from being one with your core desire, and you will likely be lost to the movements of history.