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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.