17 August 2012

JUST PRICE, THE MACHINE AND THE MAKER

I'm preparing a talk for the News From Nowhere Club next  month and I've been reading Michael Cardew's chapters in Pioneer Pottery on price and product.  I'd forgotten what good sense he talked.

Cardew (left), whom Leach regarded as his best pupil, started off trying to make pottery for everyday use at a price that ordinary people could afford, but he was unable to support his family, and in 1940 had to take a salaried post in Ghana running the pottery at Achimota college. Later, in Pioneer Pottery,  he set out the problem clearly. In order to achieve low prices, sometimes called "the just price", the potter had to make a lot and to work quickly, but by doing this he pitted himself both against the machine and the market. Ultimately the quality of his work suffered.

Leach was a late adherent of the Arts and Crafts philosophy, which he saw through a Japanese prism with his colleagues Hamada Shoji, Tomimoto Kenkichi and Yanagi Soetsu.  His essay, "Towards a Standard" in A Potter's Book, was a re-statement of William Morris's view of industry, although he  thought the Arts and Crafts Movement had ended in "pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national life and work".  "In the field of ceramics," he said, "the responsibility for the all-pervading bad taste of the last century and the very probably ninety per cent bad taste of today lies mainly with machine production and the accompanying indifference to aesthetic considerations of individual industrialists and their influence on the sensibility of the public."

Morris famously regretted that his firm ended up producing interiors for the "swinish luxury of the rich". You may want to make beautiful things at reasonable prices, but things made by hand are expensive. Tomimoto saw ceramics as a vehicle for individual artistic expression and at the same time believed that it was possible to produce well-designed and affordable vessels for popular everyday use.  This dual ambition characterised much studio pottery in the early 20th century, sometimes accompanied by Leach's anti-machine aesthetic.

Morris's ideas about the crafts and society implied conflicts between quality and price, good conditions of work and adequate profit. He thought craft work was necessary for the quality of the goods made, the happiness of the user and the wellbeing of the maker. But craft work is expensive compared to machine made goods. If it's sold cheaply, the producer's income goes down.

Because of Morris's idealism and his socialism, it's easy to overlook how successful a businessman he was. The conditions of work at Merton Abbey, where Morris textiles were made from the 1880s onwards, were not much different from those of other dye works and weaving sheds, although the surroundings were pleasant and attractive. The work was repetitive and the creative decisions were made by Morris and his principal designer J.H.Dearle. There was no creative input from the workers and the firm was not democratic. Morris was often asked why this was so, or why he didn't give the business to the workers. He explained that he had a large family to support, but he also said that it would be futile: only a total revolution on Marxist lines would make a permanent difference to the condition of the workers.

C.R.Ashbee, a generation younger than Morris and inspired by his ideals, set up The Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, and then with utopian ambition took it to Chipping Camden. The Guild produced excellent furniture, silverware and books, but it began to make a loss after 1900. After the collapse of the Guild, Ashbee still spoke about his desire to destroy the "commercial system", as he called it. He advocated a tax on factory goods to give craftsmen a chance, but the consequence of this confused idea, if it had ever been put into practice, would have been to depress factory wages and put factory workers out of a job.

Craftspeople have often underpriced their work and some still so.  If they persist, they will, at best, be unable to renew their equipment in the long run; at worst, they won't be able to support themselves.

The difficulty for the ceramist who makes useful things is the tendency of the public to compare his work to factory-made tableware and to value it accordingly. David Leach made an elegant fluted celadon bowl and then put a handle on a similar shape, turning it into a cup; the cup took more work but it sold for far less because it was more obviously useful.

In A Potter's Book, Leach shows his accounts for 1939, in which his profit was about 5% of sales, rather a low figure. (I suspect this even this figure is inflated, because at the time Leach was being subsidized by Leonard and Dorothy Elmshirst.) "This" he says "has meant simple living and hard work." Despite his contempt for Stoke-on-Trent, the St Ives Pottery really was only established on a sound footing when David Leach took it over after training in management at Stoke.  But it is impossible for the craftsman to make things for everyday use at a price that ordinary people can afford unless she has a fortune, a sponsor or another job.

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