I love handmade objects. They have a life to them that you can see and feel. It’s easy to believe that they move when you aren’t looking, that they have thoughts and feelings of their own. I’d love it if every single thing around me were made by hand: from the furniture and rugs, to the lamps, picture frames, the books and the book-ends. Unfortunately, that’s an expensive proposition. You either invest money in buying things made by others, or you invest money in materials and time in making the things yourself. Either way, it’s a costly ideal.

I’m cleaning out my studio (again), and I’m struck by just how much of my storage is plastic. Plastic is cheap, easy to find, and fairly durable. It keeps my materials tidy and clean until I can use them. But it feels soul-less and it bugs me to have so much of it in a room where I am making things with my hands. My plastic boxes and drawers lack the aesthetic appeal of the materials they hold. They are slick and cold, unlike the warm, soft, textured papers and fabrics I work with.

Plenty of storage, but most of it's plastic: neat, clean, dead.
Plenty of storage, but most of it’s plastic: neat, clean, dead.

I keep remembering something I read a few years ago. In his 1969 interview with The Paris Review, the writer Robert Graves pointed out that nearly everything in his office is handmade and that it’s that way for a reason.


Do you notice anything strange about this room?




Well, everything is made by hand — with one exception: this nasty plastic triple file which was given me as a present. I’ve put it here out of politeness for two or three weeks, then it will disappear. Almost everything else is made by hand. Oh yes, the books have been printed, but many have been printed by hand — in fact some I printed myself. Apart from the electric light fixtures, everything else is handmade; nowadays very few people live in houses where anything at all is made by hand.


Does this bear directly on your creative work?


Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.

I find the idea that how the things around you were produced can affect your state of mind, especially your creative mind, intriguing. I can sense it might even be true. Like Graves, I am sensitive to how things feel, even the inanimate objects around me. I’m more comfortable surrounded by natural materials and maybe how they are manufactured matters, too.

A few of the precious items I like having close.
A few of the handmade items I like having close.

I’d love to test Graves’s theory. Even if he’s wrong, having my work spaces filled from floor to ceiling with objects made by hand would be satisfying. I guess I’ll have to settle for the pile of hand-crafted objects that I clutter my desk with and work on improving the studio storage one small piece at a time. And in the meantime, I’ll do the best creative thinking I can, despite the handicap of a manufactured environment.

Do you think Graves’s is right? Does a handmade environment make for a better setting for creative work? Or was he crazy for being so sensitive to his surroundings?

7 thoughts on “The Handmade Office: Do Physical Surroundings Affect Creativity?”

  1. Yes, I agree, our surroundings really do effect our creativity. My studio is in desperate need of a serious ‘de-clutter’ – well done for starting yours! I do find I also use a lot of plastic boxes, too, but I generally see this as a necessity as 90% of my studio is textiles and I have a constant worry of moths! Luckily, I have not had them but plastic boxes with good seals probably help towards this as well as the usual lavender, cedarwood etc. If I could keep my studio tidy, would also improve my creativity and production, I am sure! 🙂

    1. I definitely value order in my studio but I find it hard to keep it that way. I pull things out to use for a project and wind up with huge piles of stuff lying around. Many of my projects (like quilts or art dolls) take a long time to make. I do have project boxes for most of my quilts so I can keep things together and put them away easily. After I took the time to sort and organize my beads, I found I started using them more, another sign that organization can help you be more creative. There is nothing more frustrating than having an idea and spending an hour searching for the special supply you need and never finding it.

    1. I’ve known people who are this aware of their surroundings; occasionally I’m one of them. I’d like to think I could tell the difference between working in a plastic, manufactured office and one where all the furniture is made by hand, but I’m not sure I could. Considering I work a lot on a computer, I’m not sure how I would even test it! Although a handmade computer might be a cool thing to see…

  2. Hi, Kit. Hope Robert Graves is wrong. I have an awful lot of dollar store blue plastic bins in my apartment. Plus plastic milk crates plus a plastic laundry basket that I use as bookcases. And a big plastic bookcase from the now defunct store Woolworth’s. But I suspect you and Robert Graves are right and that this explains a lot. Plastic is ugly and cheap but I find it comforting too. Oh well.

    1. I live with lots of plastic, too. Most people do. Robert Graves was speaking for himself. It’s up to us to figure out what works for us. He assumes that he thinks best in his handmade office. I’m guessing he just thinks differently when in other environments and prefers the way he thinks when surrounded by handmade stuff. We have to do what we can with what we’ve got. If I waited to write or sew until everything in the room was handmade, I’d never do anything at all. An imperfect something beats a nonexistent nothing, every time. (PS I like milk crates, too.)

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