Like so many other parts of previously normal life, the work of craftspeople has been disrupted and displaced by the current epidemic. Factories and workshops have been closed, like the stores which sell their finished products.
Yet individual makers have persevered where they can. Continuing to exercise the skills that have taken years to sharpen. And we’ve seen the return to a mode of production common before industrialisation: individual, artisanal craft in the home.
Recently I spoke to Edward Gucewicz Baillie, a designer and consultant who’s been making sunglasses and optical frames for brands and under his own E. Gucewicz label for over a decade. For bigger projects (such as designing and consulting for Thom Sweeney, Casely Hayford, and Ralph Lauren) this has meant guiding his creations through production by a third party. But when lockdown came to the United Kingdom, and he was confined at home in Scotland, he took the opportunity to go back to making frames by hand. It was also a chance to work on a very small run of designs more daring than a merchandising team might commission. I asked him about the project and the experience of going back to one-man technical and creative work.
It’s all very well to look back to premodern artisanal production, but how much of a modern design project can one man do by himself, in a residential basement rather than a commercial workshop? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Edward had a few tools on hand, which made things easier: a small CNC milling machine; a 3d printer (for making packaging elements); a laser cutter and a band saw. But much of the work he was doing would have been recognisable one or two centuries earlier: sketching and designing on paper, hand-filing and hand-polishing the frames.
He’d been interested in working with natural horn from the very start. While working at English craft umbrella maker James Smith and Sons, he saw horn used for the umbrella ferrule (tip-cap), and became fascinated by it, both as a beautiful material and in technical terms, as an organic thermoplastic. Realising how difficult it was to find real horn frames in the UK, he set about trying to make his own. You can trace a continuous line from those first experiments with offcuts to his highly refined process today: take a block of horn, create the overall shape using laser cutting and milling, and then shape, finish and polish by hand, as you would with woodworking or sculpture.
He and I talked about the appeal of natural materials for handcrafting. Every piece of horn is different. It’s marbled and full of character. It comes from a particular farm and animal. In Edward’s case, that means water buffalo, oxen, highland and Tibetan sheep. Some people will feel strongly about any use of animal products in fashion, though he tells me he has a strict sourcing policy: all his horn comes from farms that raise animals for other purposes (agricultural work, or meat farming, for instance) meaning it’s a by-product that would otherwise be discarded or burned. This is very different from tortoiseshell, which he is strongly against.
Working with a range of horn you can feel the difference in your fingertips, he says. Sheep horn is much softer than black buffalo horn, and you experience the varied resistance on a hand file. When sanding on a buffing wheel you hear the difference. There’s a kind of deep understanding of the material which is not abstract and scientific but implicit and practical.
Anyone who has spent time doing woodwork or metalwork, pottery or sewing, will recognise this tactile relationship to materials. But you even sense it in routine acts of maintenance; finishing and polishing horn, Edward says, is very similar to polishing shoes.
There’s a distinctive kind of challenge and reward in solitary forms of making. It’s great to work on a team of people you like and trust, but individual craft means having personally brought something into existence by the end of a day that didn’t exist at the start. Sometimes (as in drawing or writing) you start with an empty page and produce something line by line and piece by piece, adding and modifying as you go, until a loose sketch becomes a finished article. In this case, the alchemy is subtractive: you start with a large, plain block of material, and cut away at it until you have revealed and realised the final design.
Though the historical parallels between lockdown craft and the old “cottage industries” (spinning, weaving, shoemaking, and the like) are instructive, this need not be a nostalgic story. Edward is very clear about the utility of modern tools, and not inclined to romanticise handwork at their expense. There’s a vital connection between any skilled maker and their materials, but this is also true of those operating sophisticated tools. On his blog, he recounts the story of Chris, the operator of the laser cutting workshop he used when starting out in eyewear, who could tell the origin of a sheet of wood entering the cutter just from the sound and smell of it burning.
This story of craft isn’t about reconstructing some imagined pre-industrial moment, or disparaging mass production. It’s about finding a combination of what is predictable and precise (machining, laser cutting, 3d printing elements of the packaging), and what is organic and variable.
Though this project came about under the unusual and (we hope) uncommon conditions of a global health crisis, it does offer a way of thinking more generally about modern craft. It’s not a fairy-tale of ancient tradition (the kind of tale that is often used by brands to obscure the actual people making something and their working conditions). It’s a practical combination of machine and hand labour, united by straightforward respect for the provenance of materials and the skill of those transforming them into products.
Of course, these singular craft projects don’t scale very easily. That’s both their charm and their commercial limitation. Edward’s finished project is a micro-collection called “RAW HORN”: five frame designs, and five pairs of each design under the E. Gucewicz label. They’re inspired by big characters of the 70s—Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, David Hockney—and have more than a touch of swagger. “Tight Jeans” is a Warhol homage classic panto shape with cold blue lenses; “Expensive Tastes” is a De Niro-inspired frame with thick, dappled arms shaded from coffee brown to pale straw.
E. Gucewicz is selling each model in limited weekly drops over the summer.