From wabi-sabi to crafting sustainable surfboards, why we should all take up making

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arney

Wabi-sabi is the belief in the beauty in imperfection. The ancient Japanese philosophy seeks charm in the incomplete object, in the worn and weathered – products with a storied past. A growing movement is championing wabi-sabi, and it is being largely led by generations fatigued with the fetishization of busyness and the cult of perfection. Echoing the Arts and Crafts movement that came before them as a reaction to mass industrialisation and ruthless commercial expansion, today’s social rebels are purposely disconnecting from the hollowness of the corporate world. Instead, theirs is a slower life choice found, also, in the art of craft.

‘Perfectionism is such a funny thing,’ says James Otter, surfboard designer and maker, and founder of Otter Surfboards. ‘Our western cultures celebrate it – tirelessly. But it is a completely unrealistic target for any of us to aim at. It is an unhealthy and often damaging way of thinking.’

Otter has recently authored ‘Do/Make: The power of your own two hands’. by Do Books – the publishers of pocket guides designed to inspire action and positive change. He offers a simple guide to making while posing a compelling case for embracing a life in the arts and crafts. Otter is an award-winning designer who works with wood, sourcing ecological timber and making sustainable surfboards that celebrate beauty in the process.

‘I used to take pride in considering myself a perfectionist until I realised that this way of thinking revolves around judgment from others and when you feel things aren’t perfect, you feel a sense of shame,’ he says. ‘So your options are to achieve something that is technically impossible to reach.’ That doesn’t sound productive, I note. Otter agrees. ‘I found that reframing my making into a journey of achieving excellence was a much healthier way of thinking.’ Otter is also an advocate of the wabi-sabi philosophy. ‘I think it would be amazing if our cultures could move to a place where experimentation and striving for excellence were revered far more than the outcome.’

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arney
© Photography by Mat Arney for Do Books

Our entire education system is geared towards promoting perfection though, I say. Otter agrees that we are all likely to suffer from the fear of non-achievement – that at some stage in life our creativity has been knocked back by someone or even ourselves. ‘But what if we lived in a society that celebrated play – a place where having a go, and making mistakes were acknowledged as a way to progress? What a wonderful world that would be!’

Even before the pandemic took us by storm, many of us were reconnecting with the art of making, and the process of creating. Otter’s book happens to coincide with our current crisis. ‘As we progressed with the editing phase during the start of the pandemic, we noticed how people were reconnecting with their local environments, taking time to be with the people around them and reconnecting with the art of making,’ he tells me. ‘There is such a mental, physical and spiritual benefit to be found from reconnecting with our hands,’ he adds, ‘and there is no better time than now.’

Then there are the health benefits of creating. With wellness and mindfulness becoming increasingly pivotal in our lives, the art of making can cultivate a healthier lifestyle. If mindfulness is the idea of being in the present in each moment, regardless of activity or state of mind, then what could embody the spirit more than taking up a slow-motion craft.

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arney
© Photography by Mat Arney for Do Books

‘Mindfulness is about being able to calm the mind, recognising thoughts, acknowledging them, then letting them pass,’ agrees Otter. ‘So, when we embark upon any journey of making, we are given the opportunity to be completely absorbed in that process and by doing so, we can be present. With that in mind, the more opportunities we can create to make things, the more chance we will have of forming lasting habits that keep us making and provide us with the mental benefits for years to come.’

It seems like a win-win situation but I’m interested to know the necessary steps towards cultivating a passion for making. How do I know what I want to make, for instance? Otter has some helpful tips: ‘The first would be to pick something you are already excited or passionate about. For me, this was surfing. Then create a space to work in so that you can keep coming back to it as and when you are able. Then schedule the time to devote to it. Then release yourself from judgments by others and yourself.’

He says it is the fear of not being good enough that likely stops most of us in our tracks. ‘So, recognise this and let is pass. Finally, get stuck in – there is no right or wrong way to do this, mistakes made whilst making provide an opportunity to learn and help with the continual development of your skills. Enjoy the journey.’

© Photography by Mat Arney for Do Books

The art of making ought to have some purpose too. Finding happiness in making also entails thinking about the larger picture. ‘As someone who designs and makes things for a living, for me it is so apparent that every decision I make along a product’s journey has an environmental impact,’ says Otter, ‘and if we want to continue to make things – and survive on this wonderful planet – we need to put the environment first, always.’

Otter’s craft of choice has the added power of being a rather evocative product. His current favourite surfboard is designed to be versatile and withstand most wave conditions. ‘I spend a lot of time in the ocean with it – interacting with the wonderfully dynamic environment of the sea,’ he offers. ‘There is such magic in moving across the ocean, riding on a wave of energy that has travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to reach the shore before it rises, peaks and folds in a way that we can utilise. It is my happy place! 

John Ruskin, William Morris, and their Arts and Crafts comrades fought tirelessly to bring back the joy of craft and celebrate the natural beauty in materials. They understood the relation between art, society and labour, and in the darkest hours of industrialisation applauded the art of making. As we head deep into the machine age, begin to see the effects of globalisation, and try to salvage a climate in crisis, echoes of the movement continue to shine some light on life.

Do/Make: The power of your own hands’ is published by Do Books

Pop in to The Life Negroni pop-up shop

We have a pop-up shop in London next week, for five days only, dedicated to all things The Life Negroni, our latest book. Located in the heart of Shoreditch, in Old Street, the space is designed to excite any true bon vivant and aficionados of the cocktail. Here on sale will be copies of The Life Negroni, and unique prints and posters inspired by the art, design and advertising featured in the book.

The Life Negroni Pop-Up Shop

The Life Negroni Pop-Up Shop

Published by Spinach Publishing, The Life Negroni is the story of the illustrious cocktail and the world it represents. This delicious 300-page coffee table book is the story of the history, ingredients, personalities, music, art, design, fashion, poetry and politics.

And we’ve been receiving some incredible reviews!

Stephen Bayley wrote in The Spectator: ‘It is a gorgeous book offering voyeuristic insights into a way of life which may never have existed anywhere other than the imagination, but one that is no less intoxicating for that…’

‘Be warned: this is a gripping read,’ wrote Time Out

The book takes the readers on a little road trip of sorts around the world to meet the distillers, mixologists, drink historians, aficionados and aesthetes who champion the Negroni. We visit craft gin distillers in London, makers of Vermouth di Torino in Piedmont, and the king of all bitters Campari in Milan.

We trace the drink’s history to 1919 and its alleged birthplace in Florence, and meet with the ancestor of the contesting Corsican family. We explore a world far beyond a cocktail – one that has been the patron of the arts, has embraced pioneering design, branding and advertising, of free spirits.

The Life Negroni is a story that spans generations. It is a story of Italy, of la dolce vita, of Futurism, of aperitivo. It is a story of love and duels, fought to preserve the spirit of a cocktail. It is, above all, a celebration of the pleasures of living.

To quote Stephen Bayley once more: ‘I was reminded of Luc Sante’s epic No Smoking of 2004, a masterpiece of book design. It is an album, a love letter, a guide, a memoir and a rich source of graphic delight. Only hedonists would enjoy such a thing.’

The shop will be open from November 30 to 4 December in Old Street Underground Station, London EC1Y 1BE.

Read more about the book here.


Valuing craft: The story of Rolls-Royce

Everyday objects have little personality, their origins are vague, their narrative almost non-existent. In a world saturated with commoditised, bland and homogenised mass produced products, hand built objects naturally have added value.

We have almost come full circle, retuning to some of the ideology raised in the late nineteen, early twentieth-century before the commodity boom when thinkers, artists and designer used the art of craft to give objects the soul that was progressively being stripped away by mechanised industrial processes.

At Goodwood, the home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, artisans virtually hand build cars to fulfil their elite customers’ wishes. In this idyllic spot, amongst the green rolling hills of the West Sussex English countryside, cars are being made to measure, painstakingly handcrafted and, crucially, not at all in a hurry. And, off course, the end products come at a seriously premium price.

‘Every car has to be bespoke and unique, and have the fingerprints of the customer,’ says Torsten Müller-Ötvös. ‘You could never achieve this with a fully automated factory. We always say there are 60 pairs of hands that work on each car from start to finish to make sure they are immaculate,’ notes the Rolls-Royce chief executive officer who joined the marque over a year ago.

We are here to visit the manufacturing site and meet these skilled crafts people. Designed by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw, the ecologically sympathetic site almost blends into its surrounding land, where Rolls-Royce has resided since 2003 when the marque was purchased by BMW and relocated from the former premise it shared with Bentley in Crew.

To understand the workings of Rolls-Royce is to grasp what the marque stands for. Long ago it decided to remove itself from the performance luxury car-making race. Now its mission is simply to make very niche, very bespoke and very, very luxurious cars.

The Phantom is the ultimate Rolls, the pinnacle of the marque, and around 85 percent are ordered highly bespoke. Customers – clients as they are referred to – travel from far and beyond to visit the Goodwood site, meet with the bespoke designers and specify their ultimate dream car. Some return to see it born, visiting the various workshops, perhaps revisiting months later to see the car roll off the production line.

Rolls-Royce cars have a narrative. The materials used inside the luxurious cabins, the abundance of wood and leather, even the sheepskin that adorns the floor is sourced individually, and as much as possible locally. The result is that the notes are almost perfect and there is an appreciation of the quality of light, proportion and material throughout these cars.

‘You need the passion of the people – this is what drives the quality in the end,’ says Müller-Ötvös. ‘Talk to the guys and you will see how they love the cars and care for the results. Some of them are passing on their unique skills to their children and we’re developing our own apprenticeship programme here.’

Having visited many fully automated car factories throughout the world, it is clear that the set-up at Goodwood is entirely different. Yes there is some automation but the bulk of work is predominantly carried out by hand.

Our first stop is the wood shop where skilled men and women – including a local boat maker and a cabinet maker – are busy at their stations working meticulously on creating the perfect wood veneers that have been specified by customers.

Forty or so solid wooden parts find their way into the interior of a Rolls and each part is hand finished. They are sourced from a variety of trees – walnut, oak, elm – and each tree is visited and inspected by specialists before it is purchased.

These veneers are made using a traditional technique called book-matching – cut from the same piece of wood, they are stitched together using a special glue so to match the grain, and each side is a mirror image of the other. Plus all parts in one car are unique to the family of wood. The Ghost gets some degree of modern manufacturing process.

However, what is most noticeable whilst witnessing the veneer-making process is the pace – it takes almost 60 minutes for a single cycle to complete here as opposed to seconds in other manufacturing sites.

Our next stop is the leather shop. All the leather that finds its way into a Rolls is of natural grain and from the bull, and not just any old bull but ones that are reared in Western Europe in closed environments – such as at German supplier Seton – to make sure the skin remains flawless.

The bull also offers a large expanse and it can take as many as 18 hides to make the seats, panels and consoles. Each piece of leather then undergoes detailed inspection to ensure it has absolutely no flaws before it goes anywhere near a Rolls.

Colour options are infinite as are embroidery and tattoo work for a truly personal touch. Some customers specify other skins namely alligator hide or silk blend mixes but as they are more delicate they are typically used in conjunction with leather.

For the 102EX trial electric trial car, launched recently to gauge customer reaction, the interior was designed using recycled leather and natural dyes, the stitching prominent to create a very unique interior ambiance for a very different message.

We sit down with Müller-Ötvös in the personalisation room following the tour. I put to him how far is he willing to expand the model range? ‘Our intention is not to go into Bentley production numbers,’ he says, adding passionately: ‘Rolls-Royce needs to remain highly, highly exclusive and we certainly don’t want see a Rolls-Royce at every single street corner. These cars are so rare that they are perceived as being very special.’

Nevertheless the carmaker has expanded its model range to include a smaller, more driver-orientated Ghost. Around 80 percent of Ghost buyers are new to the marque, and Rolls-Royce is looking into creating derivatives of this model.

Incidentally, we drove the car a little wile ago, in mid-winter as the country was covered in a thick layer of snow. The cabin proved to be the perfect refuge – beautifully presented, the dash a wink to the glamourous films of Cary Grant (think To Catch a Thief), the atmosphere  cosy, the sheepskin rug underneath our feet soft and comforting.

In terms of attracting younger buyers Müller-Ötvös says: ‘We are working to speak with younger people through Facebook and iPhone apps such as our Phantom Configurator, not to attract them necessarily to the brand but to keep it relevant and to tell our story.’

This is clearly not the world dreamt up by William Morris & Co at the start of the last century. But nevertheless despite the lack of accessibility of these beautifully crafted objects, it is still a delight to see a car manufacturer working in this manner. On our tour we encountered younger technicians on apprenticeship programmes whose dream had been to make Rolls-Royce cars. This just added to the nostalgia of this journey.

Only around 2,700 new Rolls-Royces were sold last year which naturally adds to its exclusivity of the marque. Much like haute couture’s role in fashion, these are the ultimate in luxury and perhaps there will also always be a spot for cars like the Phantom in the world of the automobile.

Read my interview with Rolls-Royce’s chief executive officer Torsten Müller-Ötvös as published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

We found this video on YouTube taken a few years ago that captures the workings at Rolls-Royce.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Book review: Hella Jongerius Misfit

Hella Jongerius: Misfit is a handsome book, its design, by fellow Dutch designer Irma Boom, reflecting the imaginative work of the maverick product designer.

Hella Jongerius Misfit Book Cover

Born in 1963, Jongerius graduated in industrial design from the Eindhoven Design Academy in The Netherlands coming to prominence in the early 90s with a series of designs for the influential Dutch conceptual design collective Droog Design.

Jongerius set up her own Rotterdam-based practice Jongeriuslab around the same time, relocating to Berlin in 2008, collaborating with the likes of Vitra, Royal Tichelaar Makkum and Swarovski. Her own work is held in the collections of MoMA, the Stedelijk Museum and London’s Design Museum.

Hella Jongerius at work at the IKEA-UNICEF project in India in 2008

Hella Jongerius: Misfit aims to capture the designer’s juxtaposition of seemingly opposite ideologies and practices: fusing industrial and craft, traditional and contemporary to create work that is tactile, a little unpolished – almost handmade – and always created with a sense of humour.

Jongerius is interested in old and new technologies, and the process itself. Thus her creations, be it a sofa or a simple vase, carry an intriguing narrative.

Hella Jongerius Frog Table

Jongerius is also keen to bring individuality to the manufactured object. Her B-Set of porcelain crockery, for instance, is fired at too high a temperature during the manufacturing process, so that the clay deforms slightly, giving each set a completely unique shape.

At the very core of the designer’s beliefs is that it is only in the ‘misfit’ objects (hence the book’s title) that quality craftsmanship is present, and that the imperfections of these products show the process and reveal the maker. Colour is pivotal to her work and to highlight this the book features over 300 images of Jongerius’s work arranged by colour.

Hella Jongerius coloured vase

Written by Louise Schouwenberg, Misfit also contains contributions from the design critic Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of architecture and design at the MoMA.

Hella Jongerius: Misfit is published by Phaidon.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Purchase this book here on the DT Bookshop.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©