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.
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.
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?