Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bespoke


It occurred to me the other day that I own nothing bespoke. I was reading a Patrick O'Brien novel (probably Post Captain) and was struck by how much of the desiderata of the nineteenth century was custom made: suits, boots, watches, telescopes, even ships. By comparison there is nothing in my extensive range of things that was made by someone else, for me. Overall I am more than happy to take the improved relative cost and breadth of products provided by the world of mass production, but there is something enviable about a person's belongings being of them in a way beyond mere possession. I am not talking about the tragedy of lost arts, there are probably more tailors and carpenters now that there were in the nineteenth century, just the idea that there is comfort to be taken in looking at something you own and knowing that it is yours down to the last fibre, that it wouldn't fit as well on anyone else in the world.

Craftsmanship is an attribute that we hold in high regard culturally if not during the daily decisions we make. The craftsman is not the same as the mere expert. The expert is a individual with whom we have had an up and down relationship over the years, and is currently widely regarded as a person to be treated with skepticism. The craftsman, on the other hand, is universally admired. The expert is reviled for telling us what to do and often that what we're currently doing is wrong in a stupid way, thus prompting the hot, prickly sensation of being publicly shamed. The craftsman, on the other hand, asks us want we want and then provides it. We go to the craftsman with vague desires, half formed ideas, a vision of an item that will improve our life, and leave with an object of perfect utility. As I say, this regard is often overridden by pragmatic concerns such as cost and effort, but it is nevertheless well-regarded.

One of the hallmarks of the modern consumer's world is the amount of choice available. A quick check of the Skechers site, for example, shows forty different varieties of men's shoe. That's one brand, and only their casual range. Ignoring size, since even if different brands have different numbering schemes your foot is likely to say roughly the same size, I have ready access to what probably tallies up to a thousand or more different models of shoe. That being the case what is the attraction of getting custom made shoes? First, and least defensibly, there is knowing you have something that nobody else has. Then there's the little options that you might not get in a retail situation, no matter how extensive the selection, one shoe a slightly different size to the other for example. Most important, though, is the knowledge that somebody who knows what they're doing has made the guiding decisions. Where the layman might think "this feels a bit loose, maybe I'll try the size down" the expert shoemaker knows all that is required is a little padding on the heel. We are routinely presented with a wide variety of choices in which we have no domain expertise. The craftsman has both the expertise required to make the right choice, and then the ability to execute that choice is the best way.

It would be nice, I think, to sit down in my office chair in the morning and have it feel just right instead of feeling as though like I had just sat my bony behind on steel plate. It would be even better if that was not because I had spent six months trying to find the right chair but rather because there was a chairsmith who had crafted one for me. I know that in the end things aren't important, but I do seem to spend a lot of time interacting with them so having things that are for me rather than simply mine seems like a mighty fine idea.

Note: this is take two. I originally wrote a screed about working in the bespoke software industry but I bored myself writing it, and even more reading it back, so I canned it. You're welcome.

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