Ideas: Bursting the Maker Bubble: Part 1

By Regina Connell.

We’ve been at this for a few years now, covering indie makers, talking about issues in the space, and exploring what it means to be a maker. And it was heady for a while, covering all these awesome artisans/craftspeople/entrepreneurs, especially when the rest of the world was starting to cover them too.

Renegade Craft Fair, Via Oliviarene@blogspot.com

Renegade Craft Fair, Via Oliviarene@blogspot.com

Soon, even conglomerate-funded fashion and lifestyle brands (hello Gucci) looking to align themselves with “authentic” and “soulful” started telling “maker” stories, talking up the (quite valid) traditional artisanal qualities of their work. Makers even became advertising mascots for Chrysler and Budweiser. Soft-focus videos of artisans bent over their workbenches (which we love) proliferated. A sudden discovery of “process” and “materials” transpired.

Soulful videos Made by Hand

Soulful videos Made by Hand

Almost weekly, it seems there are Renegade fairs, Unique fairs, and local versions of the above. Traditional retail chains like Williams-Sonoma started having farmers markets in their stores and, just recently, Target came out with a “locally crafted” collection of goods for men called Target Collective.

Well, if that’s not the best sign of the death of the maker trend, I don’t know what is.  Even from my daily perch in San Francisco’s Mission—a bastion of maker-loving, Tom’s-wearing, bearded, precious hipsterliciousness—I’ve been seeing and hearing it. And “God, I hate hipsters” is a phrase I hear more and more often.

Hipsterlife

Hipsterlife

If you’re reading this, you’re likely to have more than a passing interest in craft and making and all that jazz. So let’s look at this industry of craft, and figure out what’s happened. Because in understanding this, we may see what needs to happen next for this maker movement—which I dearly love and believe in—to thrive.

Start with the demand side. The first thing is that lubricant of all trends: money. The economy was bottoming out in 2009 and has been heating up ever since. Then there’s the continuing growth of traditional and lifestyle tech (all those apps), located near to the maker centers of San Francisco and Brooklyn. All that money has to go somewhere. The fact that all these tech geeks (and those in geek culture) could embrace things by their fellow geeks in craft was kind of perfect. And of course, this love affair was consummated at the Maker Faire.

The 2009 recession did what all good recessions have done before: it made it cool to question the big systems, to get countercultural, to eschew “mass” anything.  The whole maker movement was perfect for this. The rise of all those maker platforms like etsy and all those “curated marketplaces” (yes, we went that route too) made it easy.

Another cause is our perennial search for difference and change. From 2009 until perhaps early last year, craft and makerishness felt different and new. It’s easy to decry consumers’ love of all things new and blame it all on media, but this urge for change is hardwired in most humans. Media just fuels the fire.

The maker movement provided both a fresh breath of air, but also a steady stream of “new”: every year, there were new crafted brews and food; new ways to think about cutting boards (function? art?); and of course, all things decorative.

And finally, there was a new romanticism that fueled the rise of the supply side of the equation, providing us with a steady influx of new makers. In America, we love the little guy. Each of us wants to be entrepreneurs, run our own shop, live according to our own values. Idealism met opportunity: the recession meant that all these reasonably well educated, savvy middle class people were out on the street (or never employed in the first case). They read the articles about investment bankers turned craft beer producers, started making, began using etsy and putting up stalls at Renegade, and voila: they too became makers.

Of course, what feeds the bubble is also what kills it.

Let’s start with the broader market again. Much as I hate to admit it, it’s true: there’s a natural limit to the number of people who want the home-made look, or who really shape their preferences based on where something is made, how something is made, or who made it. Some people who bought into the maker movement and bought some handmade things probably did so only because it was trendy, not because they were truly interested. During the height of the boom, notions of quality and connoisseurship only nominally seemed to be at the top of the list: it was likely all about looks, good marketing, a clever back story, and some luck in the PR department.

Then there is the nature of the maker “product” itself. I’ve opined before about the quality issue: a lot of it isn’t well designed or thought through and it just doesn’t last. It’s not surprising that many of the makers hadn’t exactly spent 10,000 hours in learning their skill and trade.

The later years of the maker era brought forth endless appropriation. Buyers who’d gravitated toward the whole “making thing” because they wanted to look individual and unique suddenly found themselves surrounded by a veritable ocean of triangular necklaces, rough-hewn live edge tables, waxed canvas, and wabi sabi pottery.

Doug Johnston

Doug Johnston

Finally, there are now well-known “maker brands” that are becoming pretty ubiquitous in the kinds of stores that carry them. Think Joshu and Vela, Doug Johnston, Iacoli and McAllister, Ladies and Gentlemen, Joe Cariati, David Trubridge, Rae Dunn, and so many more. There is nothing wrong with these “brands”: their products are great, their design is solid, and they clearly have the ability to create and deliver on a consistent and professional basis to their retailers. These are mature, serious makers and they deserve to thrive. But clearly, a consolidation is going on.

Glide Chair by David Trubridge

Glide Chair by David Trubridge

So what’s going to happen? Is the maker market—and thus much of the movement—going away? Are we all going to return to the world of mass manufacturing, not caring about how things are made or who makes them? Will there no longer be any more soulful maker videos?

Stay tuned. All will be revealed in the next part of this series.

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4 Responses to Ideas: Bursting the Maker Bubble: Part 1

  1. hi regina
    i enjoyed ‘when the levee breaks’. as always, your writing is thought-provoking and relevant, even if it was over-sensational.
    and i was flattered to see you include me at the end.

    it took me a little while to really fathom out exactly what you are saying but i take it that you are pointing out that the recent makers’ resurgence is in danger of selling out – the victim of its own success?
    this seems to me like saying that as long as the makers are poor and humble, quietly doing their own thing that is ok, but don’t sup with the devil, don’t go after the money!
    now is that really fair?

    i also find it amusing that you include me in this — sure i was part of the maker resurgence, but not the 2009 one you mention, mine was in the 1970s, born out of a similar “countercultural” backlash! and i didn’t start to become a maker-brand recently, as you say, but 15 years ago when i first went to milan, long before the current resurgence started (the glide you pictured was designed in 2002).

    i think you have to consider what it means to be a maker, living hand-to-mouth and working long hours, even though none of us would not have had it any other way at the time. i am now 64 and my body can not do that, i can’t physically lift heavy planks and my eyesight is not good enough even with the inconvenience of glasses.
    so i am eternally grateful that i have found a way to continue to use my creativity without painful physicality, and to benefit vicariously from the making of others in my team.

    then in addition i am giving employment to 22 people here, four more in the usa and many increment incomes elsewhere (retailers and distributors). t i like to think it is a rewarding job in a sympathetic company, based on chouinard’s patagonia ethic. this company is also my pension which i would never had had as a maker. it makes me sad to see some makers struggling on through their seventies because they can’t afford to stop.

    of course this is not for every maker, there are fortunately plenty who would never give up their private studio. but i don’t think you should place value judgements on those who move on like i did! what we are absolutely NOT doing is “returning to a world of mass manufacturing, not caring about how things are made or who makes them”! we have learnt over many years that the basic essence of craft is CARE and that lives on in our “brands”, quite unlike the mass-marketers and ‘luxury’ brands.

    best wishes
    david

  2. Greg Hydle says:

    Handful of Salt Awesomeness! Nice recap and positive thoughts on the Maker Movement!

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you for another timely article! As a craftsman for almost 20 years, and having followed first the DIY and then
    the maker movement very closely I’ve accumulated a few thoughts on the subject:

    I think its a mistake to think this craft thing began with the recession (at least, that was the impression I got). I think it’s true that it has completely taken off in the last few years, but I think it has very little to do with the recession. Already very early in this century people were writing profusely on the resurgence of craft, think Glenn Adamson or look at the work of the Campana Brothers…..Instead, I think it can be traced to the loss of manufacturing in the US over the last 40 years and most likely really began in the 80’s with the slow food and slow architecture movements . In a nutshell, my theory is that whether consciously or unconsciously, people who are now in their 40’s and 50’s, descendants of the hippie generation, began to see that the food we were consuming and the products we were surrounding ourselves with were trash and have been working to salvage the rapidly disappearing food and manufacturing culture.

    This slow craft movement (to be distinguished from the hipster $400-denim-apron-movement) can be seen as a move toward a more holistic production and consumption model. Yes, it is true, the capitalist machine co-opts these trends and so you get Martha Stewart, CB2 and the rest trying to, well
    capitalize on it. But then again, much the same can be said for the urban lumberjacks and so-called makers who are really neither (though they clearly romanticize the maker-look): they are people with access to the internet and can DIY on You Tube. Very few of the so-called makers have actually put in more than a few years at their so called trade and almost none have apprenticed and learned a craft from the ground up. The reality is, if you don’t want to sit at a computer what’s left for you to do in this country?

    So, now on to the economic side. Just as the general public doesn’t buy $500 blue jeans or spend $30 having their mustache waxed they will not be spending $100 on a cutting board or 5k on a dining table. (However, that will hopefully change when they see that these more expensive products actually have far reaching implications: they last longer, improve the quality of life, support local economies and have less of an impact on the planet.) Given the proliferation of hand made products on the internet one is inclined to think they actually sell. But the economic situation for the middle class in the US is still deplorable and I believe the only thing propping the industry up is this fact: people have very little free time. That little free time is not used to stroll the streets and find beautiful things to surround themselves with it is used to surf the internet, order stuff online and receive that precious little gift in the mail. No connection with makers, local or otherwise.

    With that said, I do not know where this is all headed, but I can say, it’s looking better than where we came from! 🙂

  4. lisa neimeth says:

    Regina-thanks for writing about this–It is a question I have been mulling over and posing too to fellow artists and makers –often in the context of restaurants all jumping on the handmade plate bandwagon– a trend unfortunately destined for backlash.. which makes me sad since many of us have been working at this for a long time and do not think of our work or ourselves as “trendy”.
    The good news, I believe, is as with the tech industry, there have historically been booms and busts and in the end, the quality companies and makers will rise and maintain their craft and not disappear- Yes, there will be casualties- the folks who quickly jumped on the bandwagon to cash in on what seems to be an easy thing to do. Of course, sticking to your craft is not easy or short-lived. Look at the 1970’s craft movement (which we see completely recycled all over the place in macrame and brown pottery) it had its boom and then went quiet when a more sleek modern look became vogue in the 1980’s. But those folks who were making beautiful furniture, ceramics, leatherwear and the like stayed the course, just in a subtle more intentional way. These days with social media calling all the shots, that bust will no doubt be much louder, but craft will endure and in a smaller but more elevated way. And that’s probably okay as it will encourage further creative exploration and experimentation. Social media has helped to promote the slow food movement and a burgeoning slow fashion movement. And while they will not replace the “fast” versions of themselves, they have taken their more permanent place in our culture and force people to look at what they buy and consume and consider the ethical sourcing behind it. This kind of conversation can transcend trend as it is retraining the way we think about food, fashion and objects and can alter demand.
    And a bit less of the big stores making lesser quality replicas of handmade pieces that are actually machine manufactured in large batches in un-vetted factories will not be missed.