By Kyle Studstill.
A few months ago, I found myself thinking a lot about the idea of balance and the various ways that we have come to think about it. I was intrigued by this idea because the word “balance” comes up often in the world of artisans and makers—we frequently lay claim to some kind of balance that drives our work or our personal philosophy. Indeed, I do it myself; I talk about the scarves I make through Composure in terms of “a rare balance of silk and wool,” and I talk about using the brand as a way to develop tools that help us find “an unlikely balance among the tensions that accompany all creative pursuits.”
What I realized is that the word “balance” doesn’t always do the work of describing what craftsmanship is really about, but I wasn’t sure how to think about it. So I began to dig deeper into this relationship, starting with some research.
I first fell down the “balance” rabbit hole at the collection of resources that makes up the Tensegrity Wiki, a website named after a term that started taking root about 50 years ago. In an attempt to describe complex inter-related forces, “tensegrity” came into use among scholars of physics. “Whether you are building a business, designing household objects, or trying to live sustainably in a resource-challenged world,” the website tells us today, “tensegrity offers innovative ways of thinking about how parts and wholes interact.”
I decided to borrow this description of tensegrity from our friends in physics as a useful metaphor in my work because it felt richer and more nuanced than the word “balance.”
After all, the “craft” of the craft brewer isn’t just to balance all the ingredients—hops, malts, yeast, etc.—equally, the craft is to ensure that they all work together in the most appealing way, to find the right balance. And that requires a complex knowledge of many interoperating factors. This illustrates the difference between “balance” and “tensegrity”: it’s more than a just trivial difference in words. “Tensegrity” helps us articulate that particular complexity. To spark ideas of how you might think about tensegrity yourself, see the Tensegrity Wiki’s inspiring set of various artists’ interpretations of tensegrity here.
During my research, it is probably not surprising that I also came across plenty of information on “work-life balance.” My favorite item was a study in a book called Monoculture by F.S. Michaels. In this study, management professor Peter Pruzan of the Copenhagen Business School asked corporate executives to articulate their personal values. He received responses such as “good health”, “honesty,” “beauty,” “love,” and “peace of mind.” Later, in a seemingly unrelated exercise, the same executives were asked about the organizational values that govern their daily business decisions—these questions prompted much different responses like “power,” “competitiveness,” “efficiency,” and “productivity.” F. S. Michaels describes this scenario and many other staples of modern life as a kind of unbalanced schizophrenia that plagues the modern world of work.
So how does this relate to the world of craft, specifically? It could be said that one of our jobs as artisans and makers is to follow a unique path, one towards creative independent business, one that helps others see how a more sane work-life balance might be found.
During my research, I also came to learn that “balance” is not always static. By The School Of Life’s account, renowned philosopher Hegel believed that “the world makes progress but only by lurching from one extreme to another, as it seeks to overcompensate for a previous mistake.” He proposed that “it generally takes three moves before the right balance on any issue can be found.”
Though a bit abstract, it’s an idea I take comfort in when thinking about process. Many of us can relate to honing in on a practice that feels right—only after trial and error, back and forth, mistakes over time. Balance in craft is something continually refined, a constant dance we engage in with the tools we use and those people who are the generous recipients of our craft.