Q+A: Richard Sennett

“Western civilization has had a deep-rooted trouble in making connections between head and hand,” Richard Sennett writes in his new book, The Craftsman (Yale University Press). Sennett, 65, a sociologist at New York University and the London School of Economics, builds the case for craft as not merely productive but also engrossing and ennobling—an activity of equal importance to the artisan, physician, plumber, and architect. I.D. spoke with him in his Greenwich Village townhouse.

You begin and end this book with the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s suspicion of manual work as mindless and thereby potentially destructive. Arendt died in 1975. Why have you waited until now to write a rebuttal?

The technological revolution we’re going through means we’re losing a sense of material, physical skill. I’ve seen that as an urbanist, particularly in the way people abuse CAD and lose some of the virtues of drawing by hand: its slowness, objectivity, and difficulty. All those things prompt us to think, whereas CAD does the thinking for us. I’m not a Luddite. CAD is a necessity, but it’s a necessity of knowing what to use it for.

Many in the design world would say there’s something homespun and retrograde about craft. Call it the macramé factor. Are we looking at the concept too narrowly?
Craft is a dirty word because craftspeople have been thought of as mere manual artisans, but how can we distinguish between art and craft—between the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini and someone just playing the cello? I think the error evolved in the 1970s with artists like Michael Craig-Martin who never made anything, feeding the notion of a divorce between conception and production in the visual arts. In architecture, that idea has been a disaster. When we teach young people about materials, it’s often a sidebar to design. It’s rare to ask people to think of form coming out of the tactile experience of a brick, or the texture of one piece of steel versus another.

Your celebration of the way the craftsman steadily builds mastery—requiring, by one account, 10,000 hours of practice to gain expertise—reminds me of the various “slow” movements: slow food, slow design. Are you advocating a more deliberative, thoughtful way of life in general?

I’m advocating a dialectic between routines that are based on tacit knowledge and the ability to dredge up that knowledge so you can think about it consciously to revise and develop another routine. If you play any kind of musical instrument, you know that in the primitive stages you’re just struggling to make the physical gestures come out right. You’ve got to ingrain habits in your body so deeply that they’re available to you. But if your habit is fixed, you never get better. Between the 6,000th and 7,000th hours of getting expertise, however, is when young musicians start thinking about what other arts are saying about music. They get to this capacity, engaged with lateral thinking, where they can say, “I read a book and it changed the way I play cello.”

If expertise is simply a matter of sustained practice, is there still a place for talent?
You need to turn that question around the other way: Why in our culture do we believe that only a few people can do good work? Other cultures don’t make that assumption. If you were a Zuni Indian, for instance, you would assume if you were properly trained, you would be capable of producing those exquisite pots. What I’ve tried to do in this book is to show, in terms of what we know about modern psychology, why we’re the exception rather than the rule. We’re a very elitist culture; we don’t privilege or exploit the potentials that most people have to work with.

Your book doesn’t address the economics of craft—for instance, that it’s a developmental tool in third-world economies still waiting to join the industrial revolution. Why not?
I’ve just written three books about labor and the modern economy that are pretty critical of the way the existing economy works. I wanted to look on the positive side of this. But I can tell you that the economics are very uneven. Ordinarily, we think the more skills you’ve got, the more reward you get. But there are walks of life in which an increase of skill doesn’t necessarily bring reward. Architecture is one.

Julie Lasky is the editor in chief of I.D.
Portrait by Noah Kalina