Nº 263

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Craft and Design

Craft is as old as human civilisation itself and craft objects are among its most important testimonials. For thousands of years, it determined the landscape of consumer goods, at least until the advent of industrialisation and mass production. However, even today large parts of the German economy still rest on the skills of highly trained specialised personnel. Whereas craftsmanship was underappreciated and denied the attention it deserves for a long time, there are signs for a trend reversal. Not least thanks to the input of design.

A bare mountaintop surrounded by rugged, snow-capped peaks. A team of workmen is busy assembling a futuristic-looking building. Sparks, shavings, and gravel fly – as does the helicopter airlifting in materials. The message is clear: the work is tough but the guys are tougher still. The closing scene shows them gathered around the campfire, exhausted but content. The soundtrack is a rock song called “Believe in Yourself” commissioned specially for the ad. The three-minute-long commercial for a line of workwear called “Roughtough” by Engelbert Strauss has the feel of a professional music video. Every scene drives the point home that workmen are tough, love the freedom of the great outdoors, and take pride in a job well done. The Youtube clip already has 250,000 clicks and to judge by the comments is quite a hit. Clearly it has touched a nerve.

Within four generations, Engelbert Strauss has grown from a one-man brush-and-broom business to the undisputed market leader in workwear and protective gear. A family business based in Biebergemünd, a community with a population of just 8,000 in the German state of Hesse, it now ships its wares all over the globe. When looking around one will soon notice its logo blazoned on the overalls of workers of all kinds. That the company owes its success to the quality of its products and the high standards it sets for function, safety, and durability is not in doubt. But design is an increasingly important factor. Fashion issues such as colour, cut, and features have become so influential that more and more private individuals are now buying the workwear to put on in their leisure time. You only have to visit one of the “Workwearstores” to understand what is happening: there, sales space has become a world of experience in which props like tools or raw materials uphold the connection to the theme of work but are used in a purely decorative way. Manual work now carries a certain cachet, which makes it a powerful selling point.

Also, the communication of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, since 2007 client of the Hamburg-based agency Grabarz and Partner, turns on the “mystique of manual work”. Thus the protagonists of the current commercial for the new Transporter are rendered heroic by what they do: we see a breakdown mechanic racing through the pouring rain to rescue stranded drivers (the only females far and wide, incidentally); a forwarder delivering an exceptionally fragile load safely to its destination; a construction gang hard at work at the top of a precipitous dam. And accompanying them all is the faithful Transporter, which in the course of its 65-year history really has become the commercial vehicle of choice for innumerable businesses – hence, the emotional attachment invoked here. As pathos-laden as the ad may feel, the message – that this kind of hands-on work is challenging, vital, and all too often undervalued – is unambiguous.

A Hymn to Handiwork


That an outfitter that once specialised in workwear is fast metamorphosing into what might be called a lifestyle brand and that the emotional factor of manual work is being exploited to sell a commercial vehicle may seem surprising at first. Digging a little deeper, however, the signs that perceptions are indeed changing are impossible to overlook, as is the role played by design in this development.

The skilled trades in Germany enjoy a high standing in society, according to a recent Forsa poll. They draw on a long tradition, account for nearly eight per cent of Germany’s gross value added and currently provide jobs for some 5.3 million people. Internationally, they count as a model of quality and competence; yet they still have an image problem to contend with. Craftsmanship is likely to conjure up images of hard working and badly paid men in dusty blue overalls, as a category it actually covers 130 different jobs in radically different lines of business, some of which are highly advanced and technically sophisticated.

On the other hand, in the world of standardised perfection and uniformity we live in today, craftsmanship promises many of the things we yearn for. Modern objects are digital, smart, and intuitive: their sophisticated functions hidden inside a glossy exterior require only a minimum of input from its users. The more technically advanced they become, the more convenient they are to use, but this does not mean that they meet all our needs. Developments such as the maker culture and the success of manufactories and traditional production methods prove that the desire for “real” products is gaining ground. The tactile properties of the material, the (creative) energy invested in the handmade artefact, the use of the hands as well as the head – all these factors are the exact opposite of what work and consumption means for most people these days. The trend is away from anonymous, mass-produced objects and towards unique pieces and small series, which mean something to us personally. Craftsmanship is now much more widely appreciated than it used to be, whether it manifests itself in a shelf made by the local joiner instead of IKEA (accepting higher costs) or in our own attempts at do-it-yourself.

Appeals to the Heart


Admiring craftsmanship from afar or doing a bit of do-it-yourself as a hobby is of course something completely different from actually serving an apprenticeship with the aim of becoming a professional – someone who gets their hands dirty day in, day out. The latter option has met with rather less enthusiasm in recent years, to judge by the consistently large number of apprenticeships that remain unfilled. Those school-leavers who can, tend to opt for a degree course or a traineeship in the commercial field, believing that this is where the opportunities lie. This is the misconception that Das Handwerk, an initiative launched by a joint initiative of Germany’s chambers of skilled trades, sets out to refute. The communications of the campaign are entrusted to a different agency every five years. The first to take up the baton, Scholz and Friends, endeavoured to make the skilled trades more of a presence in public life and to establish them as a brand (with success, as a study shows). When Heimat Berlin took over in 2014, it trained its sights on a younger target group with the aim of alerting them to the advantages of a career in the skilled trades, which of course extend far beyond early financial independence. The campaign is currently focused more on the emotional aspects of manual work, its core idea being passion. There are many small craft businesses, which are much more intimate than anonymous industrial enterprises, and offer a working environment in which tradition and pride in one’s own work are key factors. Those who work there are highly skilled and bring enthusiasm and personal involvement to bear on everything they do. This makes for excellent results with an identifiably personal imprint. Contrary to commercials like the ones for Engelbert Strauss and the VW Transporter, this campaign highlights that it is not necessarily about a man’s world. The skilled trades these days go out of their way to attract both male and female recruits and to show that this kind of work is not just about physical strength and determination, but often requires dexterity and mental agility, too. The target audience comprises young school-leavers as well as unhappy undergraduates who find their chosen subject too abstract and remote from the actual working life. A raft of social media campaigns, commercials, and sponsored events has been created with the aim of approaching potential trainees on their own terms, while presenting a career as a craftsman as both authentic and fun. To what extent these will bear fruit remains to be seen.

That the image of the skilled trades is indeed changing is undeniable. Designers, too, are involved in this process, both conceptually and practically. With clever and appealing campaigns and corporate design they are doing their bit in communicating the new self-assurance of the skilled trades and its potential to the public. In the long run, however, this is a development that will be relevant for designers outside the commercial field as well. The growing readiness to invest in well-designed, handcrafted products offers all sorts of opportunities beyond the mass market. For designers, the kinds of skills and expertise that in the early twentieth century were taught at Germany’s schools of arts and crafts are likely to become ever more crucial. Designers would therefore be well advised to keep an eye on the craft segment both as a partner and as a gauge of quality – and perhaps even to learn from it by applying some of its qualities to their own work process.









Text: Susanne Heinlein


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