William Morris. Design for "Tulip and Willow" indigo-discharge wood-block printed fabric, 1873.

The Esteemer

Creation, of any kind, is not simply a process of making things, but of choosing the values that they will embody.

The craftsman, the maker, shapes not only material form, but the nature of our existence, the nature of being, for in changing the world around us, that world is reflected back onto ourselves, moulding us in the image we gave it. A single value laden object will have very little effect in terms of propagating its value throughout society. Most will go unnoticed. With enough popularity, however, the spirit embedded in a work can begin to shift the stones of culture and little by little its overall structure starts to change shape. When talking about design, this is seen in design movements. When talking about philosophy, this is seen in schools of thought. All of art and science has its movement.

For example, William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century, took a different approach to his craft than many of his contemporaries. The 19th century was a time of the rise of mechanical mass production, and many tradesmen were quick to embrace the machine for all of its precision and efficiency. Morris rejected mass production on the grounds that it turned the mechanical laborer into an extension of the machine, obliterating any creative expression he may have enjoyed in his work. To Morris, handcrafts were not simply jobs to be done, they were part of life, a form of toil that gave one pleasure through the creative expression one employed in it. Machine production reduced men to tools, turned the jobs into mere toil, and removed the possibility for creativity in work. As his contemporaries blindly churned out cheap produce afforded to them by the new machines, Morris took a different route.

Throughout his life Morris and his company have produced a great collection of products, from textiles and wallpaper to furniture and books. All the works were made with minimal machine use (Morris allowed certain uses), and cost a great deal to produce, but they all embedded his philosophy, carried his values. Others, sharing those values, joined the movement, leading to the formation of the British Arts and Crafts. Ultimately, mechanical mass production won, but there was never really any chance of stopping the technological tide. It was, however, not a loss, for the ideals of the movement were in turn taken up by the modern schools of design that formed the foundations of todays industrial design.

There are, then, two categories of makers. The first is deeply immersed in their trade, so deeply that the focus of his mental energies is wholly on what is before him at hand. His creative output is inseparable from the trends and fashions of society, and his work is a subconscious reflection of them. He projects no values of his own, but rather, embeds the work with the values of the world around him, not stopping to check whether those values conform with his own.

The second is able to elevate themselves from their work, able to see the paths that have hitherto led him and his contemporaries. He is able to look ahead in the direction of the general movement and get a glimpse of the nature of its destination. Above all, he is able to appraise the current situation and choose the route his work will take. The second type works not only on the execution of the technical details, but on the creation of values embedded in his work. For him the work is not merely a tool for a specific problem, but a part of human life that will, through its values and qualities, be the paint that will give that life its color.

Verily, men gave themselves their good and evil. Verily, they did not take it, they did not find it, nor did it come to them as a voice from heaven. Only man placed values in things to preserve himself – he alone created a meaning for things, a human meaning. Therefore he calls himself “man”, which means: the esteemer.

To esteem is to create: hear this, you creators! Esteeming itself is of all esteemed things the most estimable treasure. Through esteeming alone is there value: and without esteeming, the nut of existence would be hollow. Hear this, you creators!

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Published March 2015