Todd Oppenheimer & The Craftsmanship Initiative
We're over the moon to announce that we have recently partnered with a wonderful organization called The Craftsmanship Initiative. Simply put, The Craftsmanship Initiative promotes handcrafts and innovation that make the world a better place. To kick off our partnership, they published three of our articles on their blog (about Calligrafile contributors Jake Weidmann, Ashley Bush, and Isabel Urbina Peña) as part of a series about fountain pens and hand lettering. (You may have seen their fantastic viral video, "The Pen Shaper," about fountain pen restorer Michael Masuyama? If not, it's embedded at the end of this interview.)
I was fortunate to be able to interview the organization's founder, Todd Oppenheimer, for our blog. Todd is an award-winning journalist and author who has dedicated the past decade to showcasing the work of artisans in a wide range of fields who are making a difference in the world. Todd told me about what craftsmanship means to him, just how it can make the world a better place, and why technology both helps and hinders this pursuit.
Todd Oppenheimer has more than three decades of experience in journalism, and is a long-time member of The Writers Grotto, based in San Francisco. He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times among other publications, and has won a variety of reporting awards over the years, including a National Magazine Award and a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). He is the author of The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology (Random House, 2003, 2004), which was a finalist for IRE’s investigative book award. Oppenheimer has been writing about unusual artisans since 2008, when he profiled Bob Kramer, a master kitchen bladesmith, for The New Yorker.
The Craftsmanship Initiative and magazine embrace a refreshingly broad definition of "craftsmanship". Can you define what this word means to you and your organization?
To us, craftsmanship means an uncompromising dedication to excellence and durability. It means doing a job to the very best of your ability, and to the height of your knowledge, simply because that’s the basis of integrity. We believe this is the right way to approach any challenge in the world.
In the lettering arts community there is growing debate about whether replacing traditional tools with digital technology (i.e. computers and iPads) diminishes the art form, rather than simply changes it. (I imagine that there are artisans in many fields who feel this way.) What role do you see new technologies playing in the future of craftsmanship? How have computers and internet helped or hindered the craftsmanship movement?
This is an excellent and tricky question—and an eternal one. The dilemma with technology is that it’s a magnifier; it advances and expands both the good in our world and the bad. Since humans are the only living beings on the planet with advanced brains, we ought to be smart enough, and forward-looking enough, to see which applications of a new technology cause trouble, and which ones help our lives. It shouldn’t be difficult to control or sideline the first category, and to then encourage the second. Instead, we act as if we have no control over our inventions, and thus let them pollute areas of endeavor in which advanced technology has no place.
The lettering arts is a prime example of this foolishness. Yes, advanced printing presses are a great gift to publishing, but if people stop learning to write, they will lose an opportunity to develop one of the last manual arts that is available to everyone—with all the attendant damage we now know that does to human brain development.
Part of your organization's mission statement involves highlighting ways that craftsmanship can help the world, from climate change to global conflict. What are some concrete ways this is already happening, and what is your advice to artisans who want to contribute to this movement?
Some of the best examples involve two of the biggest problems of the day—the increasing damage being done to the world’s soil; and the rising political divisions between various camps, especially the American left and right. In the first case, in a story entitled “The Drought Fighter,” we profiled one of today’s most innovative farmers, a young man, in Sebastopol, who has devised promising ways to revive infertile land, even in ultra-arid parts of the world like Africa. In the second case, in a story entitled “The Architecture of Trust, we featured a small but unusually brave initiative, started in Florida, to revive the art of constructive civic dialogue.
Both concepts are being led by people using the principles of craftsmanship to make their innovations work. They’re proceeding with imagination, without fear of failure, and with faith in the core materials of their trade. That’s how artisans in other fields can achieve similar results. Think big, think bravely; maintain your eye for detail, and your knowledge that progress takes extraordinary practice, and extraordinary patience.
What craftsman have you profiled for your blog or magazine whose work most surprised or amazed you?
Certainly Paul Kaiser, the farmer we call “The Drought Fighter,” surprised me the most. His farm is so small, and there were so many knowledgeable people in the agriculture world who doubted him, that I remained uncertain about his scheme for most of the year I spent visiting and studying him. (It was a pleasure to finally figure out that the experts were wrong.) But more traditional artisans have been just as amazing to me for different reasons. Many of them have gotten relatively little credit, attention, or commercial success, but that has not dimmed their drive to work diligently, often obsessively, for years and years, fed only by their pleasure in the work, and their own faith in the marriage of beauty and functionality. Fortunately, that faith has generally proved right. So, we’re now trying to help the world see exactly that.