Image via Flickr user Marg
Two years ago this April I took my first trip to Italy. This was a life-changing trip for a few reasons. The first, and most important, was that the inspiration for the trip was to celebrate my marriage to Elisa. The second was that I’m Italian, and as Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Repair, a person understands himself better when he walks in the lands of his ancestors. The third was my understanding of the importance of maintenance and making things in Italian culture.
I realize that this third realization falls a little flat after marriage and connecting to my cultural heritage. But witnessing the Italian ethic of maintaining a thousand-year-old buildings rather than tearing them down and building something new taught me as much about myself as eating the food and speaking the language.
This trip came in 2012 at the tail end of what was considered “The Great Recession.” For four years, I must have heard the word “manufacturing” over a thousand times as politicians and economists touted it as the industry that was inevitably going to regain our economic vitality. Many of my American elders tried to burst my proverbial bubble of my love for the Italian way of life by pointing out that the Italian economy was in a ditch. But even though I accepted that was true, this trip reinforced my belief that as a culture we need to focus a bit more on using our resources to maintain what we already have rather than manufacturing something new.
The timing of this trip also coincided with the beginning of my exploration of artisan manufacturing, or as the popular culture has branded it, being a “maker.” I’m not sure when this term came into such prominent use in the media, but at the time, I was not very aware of it. I equated my lifestyle more with the sustainability movement. I grew food because I was, and continue to be, awed by the ability to provide daily sustenance from my garden. I started building my own furniture because I find woodworking to be an extremely meditative activity, and because Elisa and I didn’t have enough money to shop at West Elm.
But as I came to learn more about the maker culture, I realized that it was the embodied ethic of what I learned in Italy. This movement was about organizing people to collectively revalue goods that were made by actual people, often times in local economies.
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I see two very important outcomes from the rise of maker culture. The first is that a person learns a skill that makes them more self-sufficient — which I don’t think economists put enough stock into when calculating things like GDP and consumer trends. The second is that even though a person is most likely never going to produce enough sustenance to live off of, they are better consumers because they know the value of the product. This is why those involved in maker culture are more inclined to spend a premium on craft beer or food from a farmer’s market. By brewing beer or growing a beet, people understand the labor it took to make those products and thus assign them more value.
When I was in Italy, the concepts of maintenance and making things were apparent everywhere. I remember seeing things like watch repair shops. I have had my favorite wall clock sitting in a drawer for the past six months because it broke and I didn’t know who to take it to. In Philadelphia, we tear down old brick rowhouses and replace them with structures oftentimes made with cheaper and less durable products. In Italy, I must have seen dozens of old buildings being carefully maintained by stonemasons. I can’t say for certain if these artisans made their entire living from their work, but in our country, it seems that skilled stonemasons are more likely to be working on a sculpture for an art commission, or a very specific project for a wealthy client.
Building on this example, I feel that maker culture in this country and in Philadelphia specifically sometimes exhibits itself more like art than an economy. Although there is a great deal of artistic ethic that goes into craftsmanship, I feel that if maker culture wants to make a sustained economic impact on our society, than those of us in it must focus on the larger economic systems that allow us to create handmade goods that people can actually afford to rely on for their daily needs.
I realize that Italy is a much smaller country than the US, and that it will take a great amount of ingenuity to figure out how maker culture can fit into the context of a society of over 300 million people with a vast array of needs and circumstances. But I still think we can learn a lot from the Italian ethic of maintenance about how to sustain the maker ethic on an American scale. And maybe we can teach the Italians how to manage a stable economy while still taking the entire month of August off. But let’s take it one a step at a time.
Nic Esposito is a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur and sustainability guru. He has worked on a number of urban farms and today works for the Department of Parks and Recreation. He is also the founder of the Head & the Hand Press, a printing press and writer’s community based in Kensington.-30-
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