ACC Conference 2009 - Faythe Levine - “A Handmade Nation”
ACC Conference: Riding the ‘Long Tail’: Marketing Craft on the Internet

ACC Conf.: Rob Walker - “Handmade 2.0”

Imagine my astonishment, WOW!, to see an image of this pin up on the big screen as people walked into the lecture room on Saturday morning.  Actually, I made this pin a year ago as a present for Rob Walker after he did a Q & A with me on his blog

Brownbeanie Rob Walker prefers to remain incognito.  When I met him for the first time on Friday morning, he was wearing a brown knit cap (see cap photo to left), kind of like "Where's Waldo?"  He thinks blending in is his secret to being a good the picture of Rob Walker is just this brown cap. Who knows, next time you are at some newsworthy consumer event for something like Red Bull, Rob Walker may be standing right next to you! (Read his book to find out what I am talking about.)

Buyingin_bookRob Walker is the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (2008), and a contributing writer and columnist for The New York Times Magazine. His column, Consumed, has observed and assessed consumer culture, design, and marketing since January 2004.  Walker also writes for his own blog site, He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife, photographer Ellen Susan, and their dog, El Rey de los Perros (the king of the dogs).  Rob showed his dog several times during the lecture as a diversionary "feel-good moment" whenever he said something controversial.  Since I could care less about dogs, this fell flat for me.

Certified Quality Pin
Recycled tin cans
Harriete Estel Berman
Moving on
Overall, I loved Rob Walker's lecture which he wrote specifically for this conference. Walker started off with the statement that he does not think that there is A craft culture! but that "there are craft cultures, plural." His intent was to declare that the craft movement consists of a variety of currents, so the general movement is up for grabs in a way that was not true 5 years ago. With this statement in mind, he thought it was an "interesting time to examine craft culture in the marketplace."  Tensions arise within the craft community due to the latest emerging currents such as new wave, indie, and D.I.Y. in contrast to the more established craft world.  But in the marketplace, these tensions are far less important than the impact of consumer preferences. 

Kindle hidden in book BuyIn
Hide your Kindle in a real book
Sold on Etsy
Artist: Busted Typewriter

Consumer culture is filled with contradictions following three themes. 

  • 1: Authenticity!
  • 2: Ethics!
  • 3: Quality!

Walker applied his appraisal of the marketplace to the crafts/D.I.Y. as one combined issue, and maybe he is right. He observed that buyers of craftwork are driven by typical market forces; that buyers buy because of perceived benefits in relation to all other possible purchase alternatives.  But the trade-offs shift over time.  For example, consumers enjoy owning more things but the negative environmental impact has now entered their assessment.

AOLbracelet NOcredit AOLbraceletTRYitTODAY AOLbraceletNOcommitment
"No Credit Card Required"        "Try it Today"              "No Commitment"
Bracelets by Harriete Estel Berman
Constructed from recycled tin cans

The issues and structure that Rob Walker presented seem much too complex to digest in one short review.  It's more like the basis for an entire book.  Add the fact that this lecture was not about craft itself, but the external market forces and their impact on the "idea" of a handmade object in a world of mass-produced consumer goods.  For example, many consumers crave the authenticity of a handmade object because it is something that they can understand and appreciate, in contrast to their dependence on mass-produced products that they can not understand, make or even repair.

The marketplace (including the craft marketplace) is filled with opposing desires within the consumer. Two examples are that "consumers are attracted to novelty while expecting the familiar" and  consumers "demand the very best when they demand the cheapest."

LOADEDquestionsWORDS72WHAT QUESTIONS WERE ASKED AND ANSWERED? Once again the questions were not questions, but rambling thoughts...we should have skipped this and asked Rob Walker to sit with us at lunch for discussion.

WHAT DID I LEARN?  Walker did evaluate some of the current trends in craft marketing. He prompts some thought-provoking insights about the influences in the marketplace, how to understand the consumer, and learning "why we buy, what we buy." The handcrafted has a story about the unique and irreplaceable.  However, when it comes to successful selling, the story is not about the maker, but how the buyer sees and identifies with what they buy.

Consuming Identity Bead Necklace
Recycled tin cans, plastic, polymer
Harreite Estel Berman
Photo Credit: Philip Cohen

LIFESTYLE OR LIVELIHOOD? Ultimately, the only thing we have to sell is our commitment to the handmade as a lifestyle and as a livelihood. This is what makes us unique to the consumer. Selling this identity to the consumer and having the consumer identify with this idea is key to financial survival.

SUMMARY: Rob Walker's lecture was a foundational introduction to the second day's lectures on the marketplace for craft and the future of craft.  However, the title of the lecture was a little misleading as it was not about just the Internet.

THE BIG PICTURE from my point of view:
We need to think much bigger, uniting and joining every media and every craft organization, from D.I.Y. to SOFA.  If we continue to rip our collective consciousness about such trivialities as the value of traditional methods versus new fabrication methods (as one example), there will never be enough social and political momentum to support the arts. We would all be better served by an umbrella of combined marketing and political action groups like the Milk Advisory Board, California Raisins, or Sunkist.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: If you are interested in understanding our consumer society, I recommend reading these books. Do you have a book suggestion? Please add it to the comments.

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Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference


This post was updated on January 3, 2022, to provide current links