Accomodating well made things: interview with Leslie Williamson

Interview by Enrico Grigoletti
Images by Leslie Williamson

Week 41

Nobody wants to be an apprentice in this field anymore. This seems to be the standard complaint if you converse with any Italian artisan. It seems that younger generations from our Bel Paese have lost interest in working with their hands…literally. In the meantime the rest of the world has come to experience a ‘Renaissance of Craftsmanship’ which has been evolving over the past five or six years. Cobblers, leather and furniture makers, but also coffee roasters and butchers have developed into contemporary aspirational role models, embracing simple and honest work and life values.
We discussed this and more with Leslie Williamson, author and photographer of Handcrafted Modern and Modern Originals, two of the most important titles that have spurred this new wave of interest in craftsmanship.

Enrico Grigoletti) Hi Leslie, each good interview commences by asking the background of the interviewee and how said person has shaped his or her professional path. So tell me, what’s your story?

Leslie Williamson) Well, I started as a photographer of course, shooting for almost 15 years without shooting houses. I shot people and then I started my own personal project because of my natural interest in architecture and design. I think the spark that pushed me to do that was mainly because I was not happy with the design books I saw and that’s why I started to shoot everything I wanted, the way I wanted. That’s why Handcrafted Modern feels to me like a real personal project. After shooting for Handcrafted Modern I was looking for a publisher but I ended up writing the book myself, which wasn’t my initial plan. I found myself really enjoying writing about what I saw through my pictures, so now I write books too.

EG) How did you become interested in the mid-century modern aesthetic, and the architecture and design from this period?

LW) I think I was naturally interested in it, probably because my father was really into this particular architecture and furniture. So I realize now that it’s likely because I grew up surrounded by Danish modern furniture. But when I first started shooting it, I didn’t make that connection. I only just realized that it was in my bones somehow. My interest in design reaches far beyond the 20th century but I ended up photographing modernist houses because it’s the era that’s disappearing the quickest.

EG) Is your interest in crafts strictly related to the product itself… or rather, are you more interested in the fact that everything made by hand has deeper human involvement, compared to today’s mass produced goods?

LW) I always find myself more interested in things that you can see the human hand in. I think I have a huge appreciation of craftsmanship on any level, and I feel there’s something really beautiful in those imperfections that happen only in something made by people’s hands. It’s a one of a kind quality in things made by a person and not a machine. I think there’s a beautiful soul and humanity in those objects and environments that I’m naturally drawn to.

EG) Do you think there’s any particular reason why craftsmanship is experiencing a Renaissance of its own? And I’m not only talking about products but also how this affects people and their daily lives.

LW) In a lot of ways the resurgence of craftsmanship and the return of things that are “more human”, could be a natural reaction to the excess of technology and mass production of products coming from the 80s and 90s. It’s a natural backlash to the way things were going and how things are still going. I feel technology often takes us out of society and so there’s a natural craving to connect in human ways… like having a specially roasted coffee that takes longer to get but ultimately tastes better.

EG) In your opinion, what is modern craftsmanship?

LW) I think it’s different for everything. A lot of people are continuing to learn or teach themselves how to make things by hand. I don’t know if there’s a modern interpretation of that, I think craftsmanship is just craftsmanship. The book is not only concerned with how people decorate their houses, but it is more about how houses have been made overtime and how objects are displayed in their living spaces. We change things to accommodate how we live in them.

EG) Do you think that there are different perceptions on the idea of craftsmanship for different geographical areas?

LW) Well in the US there’s definitely a huge resurgence of interest from younger generations into artisanal professions like leather making or textile weaving. Also, from the connection I made with people in Europe, I know that craftsmanship is becoming stronger in Belgium and the UK as well.

EG) Is there anything new that you’re working on right now?

LW) At the moment I’m working on two new books. One is about California and how we live in California. The other one is an artist biography.

EG) Well, I can’t wait to see them on the shelves. Thank you so much for your time

LS) Thank you too!

Leslie Williamson’s work explores people and the spaces they inhabit. Trained as a portraitist at Art Center College of Design, she has straddled the line between fine art and the commercial world for her entire career, preferring the space in between.