Fraser Forum

Furniture and the free economy

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I have been admiring the superbly crafted furniture of Thomas Moser while in Maine this week. March and April are commonly hot periods for the furniture (and interior design) industry, and Moser is particularly hot this year.

On April 2 he goes on tour to promote his fifth book, Legacy in Wood, and until May 22 the Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut is running a unique exposition “recognizing 44 years of Thomas Moser’s contributions to art, craft, design and entrepreneurism.” Those three elements celebrated in Moser’s career offer particularly fertile ground to explore the relationship between commerce and the arts, and the much derided influence of capitalism on the creation of beautiful and useful objects.

One of the most impassioned and sustained attacks on capitalism came out of the 19th century arts and crafts movement, which emphasized simplicity, organicism and traditional technique (especially in architecture, interior design and furniture production).

William Morris, John Ruskin and others associated with the movement were highly critical of the way that machines were replacing individual craftsmanship. Morris felt that the reliance on automation was severing the link between designer and producer in the textile industry. Ruskin also wrote extensively about this division of labour, and in a pointed jab at Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) argued that we may have learned how to produce many pins, but the division of labour results in “divided men” who are “broken into small fragments and crumbs of life, so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin” (On Art and Life, 1853).

What Ruskin, Morris and others did not see is that, while aspects of a growing capitalist economy created many mechanical and unfulfilling jobs, they also eradicated a multitude of many more forms of work that were much worse.

Ruskin may have lamented the drudgery of producing only one part of a pin, but neglects to explore the fact that many of those working in the pin factory had previously been digging ditches in the Scottish rain, or without employment altogether. Those of us who live with the products, comfort and leisure of modern open markets (and the innovation that springs from them) can scarcely imagine the back-breaking work that was a commonplace before the invention of tractors, excavators, washing machines and powered saws to name a few.

Critics of industrial production also neglect the possibilities for movement within the labour force. Someone might be a wire cutter at a pin factory one year, but with added experience and improved skills, can become shop foreman, or move down the road to make clocks, cutlery or carriage springs.

Many in the arts and crafts movement also argued that the products of mass capitalist production were of low quality. While this is decreasingly the case in a world of superb mechanized production (think only of Lexus and you get the picture), it may sometimes be true that mass-produced clothing or furniture is not as good as the creations of master craftsmen. But it’s also the case in a capitalist economy that many more people can enjoy some furniture rather than have no furniture at all. It is the rare university student who sets up their first apartment with the Thomas Moser Aria writing desk (a cool $5,700 Cdn). I suspect that many people are happy that IKEA can take advantage of the lower costs of mechanized capitalist production to give them options.

The prosperous capitalist economy can not only employ many more and differently skilled people, it can also cater to a wide spectrum of consumers—often the same consumer as he or she matures and develops different tastes and greater wealth.


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