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Craft, the Wisdom of the Hand

Ferrari factory

It's nice to know that Jeff Immelt, GE's CEO, and I think alike. Just as I was writing this piece, I happened to read his comments on the business culture in this country: "I believe that a popular, 30-year notion that the U.S. can evolve from being a technology and manufacturing leader to a service leader is just wrong…. real engineering was traded for financial engineering. In the end, our businesses, our government and many local leaders lost sight of what makes a nation great: A passion for innovation."

This macro-economic thought ties very well to the micro-level design piece I had been thinking about. Simply put, over the past few decades, we stopped getting our hands dirty, elevating the importance of white-collar managerial tasks, while shunning blue-collar activities. Essentially, we grew a world where we depreciated the value of manual labor. And we thought it was smart. Well, think again.

Ferrari engine In the early '90s, a gig designing office furniture led me to a small village near Bologna, in Italy. At the center of the village was a massive factory of COR, a major Italian office furniture brand. COR did everything in-house. Its team included master tool-makers, who tweaked progressive dies, metal experts and, above all, a great sense of pride in craftsmanship. These artisans had worked together for decades, owned the factory as a cooperative, and had a regional history of hundreds of years in metal crafts, going back to medieval armor making.

Two years ago I dragged my family to a trip to the Ferrari factory not so far from Bologna. The most fascinating piece for me (and, surprisingly, for my daughters) was a 12-cylinder casting of a racing car engine block. It was a sculptural masterpiece of metal craft and Ferrari was not shy about showing it off—it was the center piece in the exhibit.

Ferrari worker Craft is not only recognized in Italy, it is celebrated. It isn't just the craft of a weekend hobbyist; it's a tradition of craft that has built cars, furniture, and fashion, and served as the foundation of an entire economy. As the work day is winding down, scores of Ferrari workers walk the streets of Maranello wearing their work jackets. The sense of pride in that great tradition of excellence in craft and design is palpable throughout this small Italian town.

As we grapple with rebuilding industries and communities, we ought to take a good look at craft as a strategy. Craft is not taught in schools nowadays; it is better acquired by a system of internships and years of professional training. Building cars or building a rocket to the moon, requires that someone, somewhere build a very delicate machine; that machine cannot be built without craftsmanship.

Beyond macro economics or social politics, the values of craft are the foundation of design excellence. It is not just the ability to make an exquisite object; it's the deep cultural recognition that craft is form of wisdom—the wisdom of the hand.

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

Read more of Gadi Amit's blog: The New Deal