I’ve learned enough to know that for most questions relating to the creative process, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer. More common is a continuum of options, depending on other factors. In electrical terms, there are more dimmers than switches in life. Recently I started thinking about the process of making things in similar terms. There is a continuum of craft, and it doesn’t necessarily get better at each end of the spectrum.
A group of wall mirrors I made several years ago illustrates this idea. I had decided I wanted to design a tile mirror – a wood frame with a tile border, surrounding a mirror in the center. I had seen these made really well using various glass tiles, beads & ceramic pieces. Still, I wondered if I’d find something new by making the tiles myself. Without access to a kiln, I was soon rolling out polymer clay and employing various techniques to create the colors and textures I wanted. I love this kind of work. I found myself doing drawings that I’d then transfer to the clay surface (think silly putty/comic strip transfer). I went as far as making custom cutting tools, like a cookie cutter in the form of a grid to give me a uniform tile size. It was a process lover’s dream. From imagining the final product, I’d worked backwards and made the elements of the mosaic myself, even the tools to make the elements. That’s like…three levels deep into “handmadeness”. Great, right? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the result. In fact I made and sold several mirrors. Even a commissioned wall mirror for a hotel in Hawaii. The problem was that it was a very time-intensive process. I had allowed my love of the various stages of process to influence my decisions. Had I needed this to provide meaningful income, the entire project would have failed. Even though I was happy with the finished product, I’d never be able to get the per piece I needed to cover the time and effort. As it was, the mirrors were pricy. I had strong doubts that, had I done the breakdown of time and materials, the numbers would have made sense at all.
I loved making them though, and I wasn’t relying on them to pay the bills…so no harm/no foul. The lingering problem still bothered me. I enjoy the market-viability part of designing. Even on the one-man-show level, I like figuring out how materials and technique can work together efficiently. I like making things that satisfy both the look AND the numbers. It irked me that I hadn’t considered time in the mix on this one, and that the process of making them had gotten out of hand. For these mirror, in this form, the numbers didn’t add up. I eventually stopped making them. Would the numbers have worked out if I had just purchased tiles? Probably. After all, the work of making the tiles (and the tools I made in older to make the tiles) would have all been saved. The path to a finished product would have been more direct, a savings of both time and money. But it would have been a different product.
I have no regrets about it. Ultimately I really enjoyed making them. Moving forward, I’ve approached subsequent projects with a new appreciation for the depth of handmadeness, and more consideration for where I want a project to fall within that spectrum. Now I’ll often Stop myself and ask, “do I need to make ALL the parts? Should I really start from scratch?” The answer isn’t always “no”, but before I say “yes” I take a hard look at what it will mean for both the price and the viability of the finished product.