A new book celebrates the resourcefulness of people who innovate everyday objects – from the prisoner who carved her own dildo to the man who solved toothpaste squeezing forever.
The objects we buy are supposed to tell us something about who we are. But they don’t tell us half as much as the objects we make, as even a quick flick through Home-Made Europe: Contemporary Folk Artifactsreveals. Here are everyday things people have fashioned with their own hands. Heaters, hammers, anchors, rat-traps, barbecues, showers and goalposts. They range from the pitiful – a child’s grill for corn on the cob, rigged out of wires bent over tea lights – to the technically impressive – one man made a fridge. This is a catalogue of human resourcefulness.
Published by Fuel, the London-based design and publishing outfit that turned Russian criminal tattoos into a three-volume encyclopaedia, the project began with Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. This is the sequel. If the first volume was a testament to ingenuity behind the Iron Curtain, where not just poverty but a lack of consumer goods forced people to improvise, the European volume suggests something different: even when everything is available, it is still better to make your own.
The handmade has risen back to the surface of consumer culture, with luxury goods brands deciding that craftsmanship is the key to our wallets – cue advertising campaign featuring a man in a leather apron and a soft-focus close-up of his tools. Suddenly we want to know more about the people who made our handbag/jeans/whisky: we don’t want products, but stories. When I wrote about this last year I called it “craft fetishism”.But the objects in this book are the opposite. Not made to seduce, they possess none of the glamour of the master craftsman’s finish. As the author Vladimir Arkhipov writes, “They are part of that special class of functional objects in the world that were not made to be sold”.
Almost universally, they were made to do a job. And that job might require you to cut your hair without making a mess, in which case you’d attach a hoover to your clippers, obviously. The results are often pragmatic, such as the safety glasses twisted out of a wire and some cellophane, but that’s not to say they lack skill or pride. One woman who did a spell in prison carved herself a very lifelike dildo out of a piece of rubber.
The makers’ motives are not always need or thrift; sometimes it’s pleasure or obstinacy, or serendipity – a road sign that happens to make a perfect tabletop. This kind of uncelebrated creativity brings to mind artist Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive, which catalogues everything from protest banners to pizza kiosks. Deller has written a short foreword here, in which he makes a distinction between these objects and DIY, “a hobby that seems so pleased with itself”. The difference is that the DIYer seeks to emulate the professional, whereas these objects all share the nonchalance of the amateur.
And the makers are certainly not pleased with themselves. They speak like Beckett characters. “What’s there to say?” and “I didn’t do much.” A man (from Ireland no less), who made himself an easel, says: “They want four hundred pounds for these. I says, ‘For what?’ I have hands. I can spend the money on tubes of paint.” Indeed, some objects would barely deserve to be published if they weren’t entertaining plot devices: one man made himself a step out of a slice of tree trunk – a step to climb in through his window because his landlady, who didn’t like him, kept locking him out.
There are all kinds of “maker” subcultures. There are the techie tinkerers who flock to the Maker Faire with their rapid-prototyped,Arduino-powered creations. There is even making as a form of critique, as in Thomas Thwaites’s Toaster Project, his quest to make a toaster from scratch (mining the iron ore for the steel grills and so on) to highlight the resources that go into a product Argos sells for £3.99. But these folk artefacts are neither critique nor subculture, neither knowing nor community-minded – they’re just a raw human impulse. Their makers do not consider themselves designers, nor do they aspire to be. And yet they create moments of rupture in a world that, as Arkhipov points out, is created by specialists. “If there were suddenly no more professional designers or object-makers left in the world, then the process of creating new designs, new forms, would of course not diminish.”
By Justin McGuirk