Pulling the Press
The invention of letterpress printing was surely remarkable in its heyday, but it is somewhat odd that now in 2018, when everything is generally easier than ever, letterpress printing is making a comeback. The question of why that is is somewhat challenging to answer because there are so many possible reasons. It could simply be nostalgia, thinking back to a time when things were supposedly better, but it is most likely not strictly that. More likely, I would guess that the resurgence of antiquated technology originally came about because of aesthetic reasons. Hand printing does look cool and thoughtful in a way that typing on a computer does not, but it is still a lot of work. So the question then becomes, why has it stuck around? It is not as if the resurgence of “artisanal” products happened yesterday, so why has it still existed for multiple years?
In part, it is likely because creating “artisanal” products has become a creative outlet in ways that creating modern products is not. It is a way for a maker to harness their artistic side while also producing something that someone would actually use. These products are able to be sold in small batches since the power of the internet is able to connect artistic creators to other people who want to buy their products, rather than forcing them to design for the mass market.
This may be another reason for the resurgence of handmade products; they provide a sense of uniqueness that does not otherwise exist in our mass produced world. It is not unlikely to walk down the street today and see someone wearing the same sweater as you that was produced by the thousands in a sweatshop in Cambodia, so having a hand knitted sweater created by an unemployed twenty-something in Brooklyn is special. It makes the wearer feel like they stand out when they otherwise cannot.
While thinking about this prompt, however, I realized that this trend of artisanal production only really exists in the United States. In all the other places where I have spent an extended period of time, so Spain, Ireland, and most recently Sweden, “artisanal” products are almost nonexistent. I made a joke once about craft beer and then had to ruin it by explaining because no one in Sweden knew what craft beer was. That led me to wondering why exactly the artisanal product movement only exists in the US, and thinking about it further, why do these artisanal products primarily exist in large cities like Los Angeles and New York?
I think the answer really boils down to being some minor act of rebellion. LA and New York are where everything happens in the US. They are busy and stressful, and reverting back to making products by hand is taking somewhat of a stand against the pressures of modernization in current society. It is not in complete opposition, of course, because many artisanal products do use lots of modern technology in their production and marketing, but it is somewhat of a refusal to submit to the complete control that modernization and mass production have on the market.
In the end, perhaps that makes the resurgence of artisanal products a very generational thing. We millennials are known for our whining and complaining about established society, and this is no different. This generational determination also explains why the popularity of artisanal products is primarily limited to twenty- and thirty-somethings, rather than baby boomers. This is not, of course, a hard rule by any means, and there certainly are people outside of this generation who buy artisanal products, but when I think of the average consumer of kombucha and avocado toast, the image that comes to mind is of someone in their late twenties.
Like most trends, this will almost certainly pass, but it seems somewhat unlikely that it will pass very soon. Now seems to be a time where there is a deep appreciation for slowing down and taking a step back from all the modernization that exists today in favor of appreciating the time it takes to produce an object. So maybe nostalgia is some driving factor, but it is nostalgia for a time when work really mattered rather than performing the same menial tasks day after day in a stale office for a boss whose face remains a mystery. It is some desire to be recognized as a human rather than a cog in the machine, and it is also some of that good old fashioned “American innovation” that people always talk about. So yes, the trend of getting wedding invitations printed by hand will probably pass, but its implications seem to be much bigger than that. They are a sign of a much larger shift happening in American society that shows no sign of stopping soon, and it will be interesting to see where we end up.