This is a handcrafted story. Assembled according to the time-honored traditions of the delightfully anachronistic magazine industry, it was carefully conceived by a small group of experienced editors, then slowly stitched together around locally sourced quotes, each word expertly tailored to your reading enjoyment (stitched—a nice word, isn't it?). The author, emerging from the seclusion of his quiet work warren, submitted the piece only after it had met his exacting specifications and according to no schedule but that dictated by the work itself.
So, congratulations on selecting this limited-edition article. We've fashioned to meet your desires—which are all of ours, really. Because collectively we—the refined buying, reading, eating, wearing, life-curating American public—are all hopped up on the spirit of the handcrafted, the painstakingly procured, the small-batch. And this spirit comes in individually blown glass bottles, each with its telltale imperfections, the label numbered by the hand that made it. It's intoxicating stuff, this artisanal spirit, and we can't seem to get enough.
Try riding your Dutch-style bike down to your local non-chain coffee shop. Have the gentleman with the Baroque mustache pull you a perfect shot of espresso made from fair-trade shade-grown Guatemalan arabica beans. You can read about the beans, their growers, and their roaster while you wait. Because everything has footnotes now. Because the neo-Artisanal era is an annotated age, in which every cup of coffee comes with a backstory as compelling as that of an Olympic athlete.
This isn't completely new, of course. From roughly the time of the Renaissance artist to the era of the J. Peterman catalog, with its absurd consumerist prose poetry, we've been entranced by provenance, tethered by narrative to things we covet and consume. What's new is the astonishing ubiquity of the aesthetic. Small-scale has hit it big. Farmer's markets sell artisanal cheeses— and so does Costco. Suits available in midwestern malls have machine-made details that mimic the hand stitching once found only on a Neapolitan tailor's eccentrically rolled lapel.
Grant McCracken, an anthropologist and trend watcher, and the author of the book Chief Culture Officer, smells a cliché in the making. McCracken cites, for instance, Tito's Handmade Vodka (label legend: CRAFTED IN AN OLD FASHIONED POTSTILL BY TEXAS' FIRST & ONLY DISTILLERY), whose appeal isn't based on quality but on its Absolut Artisanal status. "Artisanal products believe themselves to be intrinsically interesting," McCracken says. "If we once delighted in the sheer scale of a consumer society, now we want things made in tiny batches."
So why this suddenly dominant desire in the culture for the small when the world seems so big, for the personalized and individual when the mass-produced has gotten so good? Certainly an ailing economy deserves some credit. When everything is falling apart, it helps to know how to put things together. And isn't that the secret message of so much artisanal longing? That when everything goes to hell, we'll all become potters and learn to make bread. The sheen of Wall Street gone, bubbles burst, it's better not to be flash these days. The true signs of taste—of connoisseurship, of knowing what matters—are letterpressed in small type on recycled paper, embossed on hand-dyed leather, elegantly announcing: Objects made simply are more valuable than they appear. This is anti-bling—status objects that fetishize sweat equity over equity funds. And maybe that's the source of these items' cachet: There's meaning for those who look. Scratch the surface of any artisanal process—leather-bag-making, hotel-lobby design, pickling—and you'll find expertise, discriminating selection of materials, time-consuming craftsmanship. The return of the artisanal is like a return to the gold standard, the durable value of the well-made thing.
"The big shift from agriculture to industry exploded our sense of scale," McCracken says. "But the digital blows that all to bits, no pun intended. That's why we love things little and handmade—it restores a sense of scale."
In the world of food, for instance, this newfound emphasis on scale has paid off. The movement toward sustainable agriculture, toward narrowing the physical and psychological distance between producer and consumer, isn't just good for the planet and for our bodies. It tastes good too. We can, if we want, know our butcher by name and find small-producer cheeses and eat artisanal breads and memorize the bios of boutique beet farmers. But what does it mean when the Olive Garden and Starbucks slap the artisanal label on their homogenized foodstuffs? (Are Starbucks' Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches and its Signature Hot Chocolates inspired by "artisan chocolatiers" made in the same, you know, atelier?) What happens when Costco starts selling artisanal cheese by the pallet, when the language of Bugatti is co-opted by Buick? What happens is we work harder to separate the organic heirloom wheat from the mass-produced chaff. What happens is we splinter and specialize, doubling our desire for the unique, the one-off, the authentically original.