A few days ago I attended the Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham. This is a massive trade show for the retail industry: possibly the biggest in Europe – but only one of many throughout the year and the country. It’s where shops come to find the stock for the next season: accessories, gifts of all shapes and sizes, novelty items, products for the home, the kitchen, the bath and so much more. It’s all there. Rows and rows of stands selling scented candles, greeting cards, handbags, picture frames, humorous placards and fridge magnets (an exercise for graphic design students: can you find a version of “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen” that hasn’t been tried yet?)…
I was there to explore the possibility of engaging with the retail market. I have a few designs that I believe could be manufactured in small production runs at a lower unit cost and marketed through more outlets than I have been able to reach so far. Do I want to go down that route?
Such a move would definitely challenge me. I know nothing about production processes. I know nothing about the retail sector. I feel excited at the thought of engaging with new networks, learning about new techniques and approaches… a whole new world! But it’s going to require a considerable investment in terms of time, energy and possibly money. There is a big risk of failure: at the very least I make a fool of myself and at the worst I actually lose money. So, it’s scary and exciting and the adventurer in me says it’s worth at the very least exploring more… who knows where it might lead?
But (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) seeing all that “stuff” – much of it utterly ephemeral by design, prompted me to question how I engage and relate to that world.
You see, when I was a teenager I got caught in the confluence of two apparently conflicting ideological streams. On the one hand a good Catholic education encouraged me to look with suspicion at our materialistic society, stressing the importance of looking for ‘higher’ goals than a success measured purely in status and property. On the other hand, that critique was reinforced, ironically, by the anarchist/left-wing political discourse I encountered through the music of a range of Italian singer-songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s (for instance Fabrizio de Andre’ ed Edoardo Bennato), as well as the last reverberations in the educational system of the student movements of ’68 (which, alas, I had missed being too young).
I decided then that in my life I would refuse to become enmeshed in the machinations of the capitalist system, that I would be wary of the brainwashing that leads people to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of an illusory, limited and limiting ‘success’ (the house, the car, the wife, the holiday, the career, the second home, the exclusive social milieu, etc.) and that my quest would be one for freedom and spirit, not in any particularly religious or transcendent sense, but in the sense of personal creativity, integrity, authenticity and self-awareness.
In some ways I have succeeded. Throughout my working life, I have mostly had a variety of jobs, basing my choices on my passions and interests rather than on salary and career opportunities. And I have left jobs when the demands of my employer felt irreconcilable with my sense of who I was. Even the decision to set up my own business was brought on not by a new found entrepreneurial spirit, but by the fact that I wanted to be able to both make, design and teach and I couldn’t find employment that would allow such flexibility: I had to design my own job.
However, I am wondering whether in some ways I have not been deceiving myself. Because I have little disposable income and little interest in property (books are my main weakness in that sense: I am a glutton for books); because in employment I never had any financial or strategic power or responsibility, I told myself that my involvement with the ‘system’ was so small as to be negligible. I told myself that I had managed to escape from the Matrix.
Even now, keeping my business small – the poor but happy craftsman in his dusty workshop – allows me to believe that I am not really part of the world of commerce. My turnover is measured in a few thousands of pounds, not in hundreds of thousands, or millions or billions. My pieces are made by a free and independent craftsman, with care, with appreciation of the materials and the skills involved, not mass-produced by wage-slaves in sweatshop conditions. My designs are bespoke, unique – they come from an emotional engagement from my part and from the part of the client: they’re not generic, one-size-fits-all compromises. I offer an individual, personal service: I am not some faceless corporation. I use quality materials, from well-managed sources, not cheap wood from illegally logged tropical forests. And wood is the re-usable, recyclable material par excellence… Besides, my work is bordering on (if not actually) art. And art is something different from mass-produced, mass-marketed ‘stuff’, isn’t it? Otherwise, why would people pay so much more for a picture of a tin of soup than they would pay for the real thing? (yes, the reference to Andy Warhol is intentional). And my measures of success are to do with the quality of the experience for me and for my clients, not with financial considerations (although I do need to earn enough to keep going…)
But is all this enough? Does it really absolve me from my involvement (or is it collusion?) with a psycho-socio-economic system that I believe to be flawed in its premises and responsible for many of the ills of the world? And what happens if I go down the production-for-retail route with its deeper ramifications into the ‘market’? Is it really possible to act within the system without working for the system? Or is the only honest congruent solution that of taking the red pill and disconnecting completely? Is any compromise a collaboration?
What would William Morris say?
Answers on a (virtual) postcard, please.