Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Defy Bags & Craftsmanship

The video above from Defy Bags actually encapsulates a lot of the story of manufacturing, and as such, of society, over the last few's quite interesting (you can watch a nice big version here if you like).

Defy bags was founded by Chris Tag. Chris makes every bag, from start to finish, in Chicago and openly admits that a seed for craftsmanship was planted in his personality during childhood, watching his father and grandfather coming home from work at the General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio. This was a time when American industry was unrivalled in its power. The American mainland escaped World War II relatively unscathed and so they found themselves, in that most o-matic of decades, the 50s (you know, cut-o-matic, slice-o-matic, grill-o-matic appliances), with a lot of hands, a lot of money and a lot of resources. One of the great industrial booms in recorded history followed as factory after factory was opened, staffed and producing goods, goods, goods!

 For a lot of people, though, the boom wasn't so sweet. As things progressed, all of these amazing machines, inventions and automated processes were being developed and a lot of those hands suddenly found themselves without too much to do! Machines overtook that unscathed landscape and manufacturing went away from the idea of a bunch of people in control of a few relatively simple tools to a bunch of relatively complex machines being operated by a few relatively simple processes.

This was great for quality of life compared to a time when there were no washing machines, no vacuum cleaners, no household appliances but not so great for the quality of those things that had forever existed. Have you ever compared, say, a flat packed dining table to a beautiful dining table from the 40s? There is no such thing as a dining table from the 40s that isn't beautiful, they were made by men with their hands, no bolts or screws or clips, just timber at the mercy of somebody engrossed in what they're doing.

Here's the main point about hand made stuff: there is no loophole for apathy. The work becomes engrossing, the responsibility all yours, the ownership of the task is unmistakable. You can look at the finished product as a direct reflection of fact, you can't look at it in any other way. In short, you do it well.

But back to the 50s and society in general. The space race was on between the Soviets and the States and with each thrilling instalment, this infatuation with automation, with 'technology' just got bigger and bigger. Using your hands became passe. By the time Neil Armstrong was on the Moon, Americans had nothing left to hang on to but their household appliances and unrivalled material quality of life. Vietnam was a disaster, Watergate was around the corner but nobody lived more comfortably than Americans. People were ignoring the aforementioned loophole, because things were comfy.

 But then a cruel twist of irony as the 80s came along and Japan was all of a sudden ruling the world of automated manufacturing. Where Hirohito had failed, Akio Morita and the Sony Corporation had succeeded. All of those once mighty factories, initially staffed with skilled craftsmen, later staffed with shiny machines, were finally shuttered. Veil American manufacturing.

All of these forces still exist; an infatuation with technology, a desire for a comfortable quality of life and a reliance on the economy of automated manufacture. But they are not everything. They are great for basic things but here is where the script gets flipped. We, most of us, the lucky ones, are no longer in a daily struggle for quality of life. Things are comfy. Nor is the idea of 'technology' so novel that we pay attention to informercials about kitchen appliances. Where hand made things used to be passe, we now understand that it is quite the opposite. As Shakespeare wrote for the Merchant of Venice, 'but at the length, truth will out' and we now crave the very things which were taken for granted and seen as archaic 60 years ago - for something that is handmade!

Why? Again, it's that loophole for apathy. The fact that when you hold something handmade, you are holding a direct reflection of the maker. To take the present subject matter as an example, each Defy Bag really does carry this story, that once there were proud men doing work they were proud of, that we lost our way but that at the length, truth will out. Chris puts it well: "I believe you don’t just create with your hands and brain. But with your hands, brain and heart."

There is an individual story, a uniqueness, a personality to each finished piece. It may manifest itself as something trivial and simple but in principle it is everything. If you've seen bags made on an assembly line, you've seen a worker put a piece of fabric into what looks like a giant transparent barbeque, and stand aside for 30 seconds while some science-fiction stitch-o-matic does its work. It looks kind of neat, and I'm sure a child would be really impressed with the speed and I'm sure the robotic accomplishment is an engineering masterpiece but in none of these qualities do I see signs that somebody has put their heart into what they are doing and that the finished piece is a reflection of a craftsman's principles and integrity.


  1. iPhone Application Development Services, Custom iPhone Application Development ServicesMay 12, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    Nice Bags. I really love it. It usually takes me a long time to find a product that I absolutely love. When I heard about Defy Bags from a friend, I decided to check them out.All goods are crafted to be: simple, clean-lined, sturdy and manufactured to a level that would make my grandfather proud.

  2. Really nice bags! I've also read about style of the bahs after the World War II. Retro style is really wonderful!

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