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Strategies of Handicrafts

Seven portraits of unusual projects in Europe. Published by Hans-Joachim Gögl and Claudia Schwartz ISBN 3-258-06924-7

When looking for sustainable answers to the question of handicrafts in Europe, we come across a common denominator:  Every solution mentioned in the book depends on co-operation.  The professionally navigated fleet of the small businesses as an answer to the tankers of the corporations on the global market.

His eye (and ear) witness reports about the economic strategies of handicrafts and the surprising chances for development in the rural area.

The Bregenzerwald Workshop is an alliance of branches in which craftsmen from a small region in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg, have come together.  They were supported by an economic policy measure initiative to fortify the region.  The culmination point of the many club activities is a design contest that takes place every three years, in which the participating craftsmen work together with designers.

The concept of culture

The popular definition, of culture by William James Durant which doesn‘t include prehistoric culture,  in his book, „The history of the culture of mankind“, was as follows:  

„Culture is social order, which fosters creative activities.  These are made up of four elements:  Economic precautions, political organisation, moral traditions and the pursuit of science and art.  It begins where chaos and insecurity end.  Curiosity and creativity are set free when fear is overcome and man uses his natural drive to move towards understanding and improving his life .“

Albert Schweitzer defined culture as „The material and intellectual progress of the individual as well as the collective.“  Progress means that „the individual‘s as well as the collective‘s fight for survival is minimized“.

Handicraft Culture in the Bregenzerwald

How should we understand this?  Schwartz wrote in his Strategies of culture:

You can talk to five craftsmen in the Bregenzerwald and hear five different work philosophies.  However, the first thing you feel is the strong ancestry consciousness.  Most of the individual family histories have a tradition of craftsmen throughout the generations.

Even today, the houses and the workshops are built close to each other.  The children move around the shop naturally, and visitors are watched with curiosity.  Today‘s contractors are yesterday‘s children;  they inherited the workshops from their fathers, where they grew into the trade easily while building soap boxes or just hammering on something.“

The opinions of the people here are stronger than in other places.  They are embedded in their living and working conditions and in the stories about the old days, and what it is like or how it should be today.

You can only understand how the people here work and live if you know their history.  People who visit the Bregenzerwald quickly get the feeling of a cultural phenomenon.  In this case we talk about a higher regional identity.  It is even internalised in the name of the exotic take away in the capital city of Bezau - Waelder Kebap or Forest Kebap - which in turn shows that in the Bregenzerwald, everything has its limits.  A higher regional identity is also a good prerequisite for taking a position in the ever increasing global competition.  This socio-cultural feeling of togetherness creates a common denominator, especially in small business that are in competition with each other.

Building culture and Living culture

Since the earliest times, building and living culture have been seen as being the same.  This is why the development of the Bregenzerwald handicrafts can only be understood in context with the architecture in Vorarlberg.  The Freilicht Museum in Stuebing near Graz shows how the Bregenzerwald house became an model as early as the 18th century.  It was built at a time when people in other areas were still sitting in smoke filled rooms while those in the Bregenzerwald,  sat in the comfort of a tiled oven and wood panelled walls.  This example still relates to the architecture in Vorarlberg today, which has noted an unsurpassed revival during the past 30 years.

Starting from the work of a few pioneers in the 1960‘s, a regional movement was formed which joined together art, handicrafts and industry.  Many of its representatives come from handicraft families - an aspect that shouldn‘t be underestimated.  They didn‘t come back from their studies outside the Bregenzerwald as theoreticians, but as insiders with new ideas in their suitcases.  These architects didn‘t just think about the roots of the regional architecture, but also about the local traditions in highly valued handicrafts.  The regional identity of the architects brought new incentives to the handicrafts of the Bregenzerwald.

Founding of the Workshop

To strengthen the spirit and cultural development in the sense of Albert Schweizer‚s definition, the competing businesses are carrying out a healthy competition.  As a collective, they create common strategies which preserves their individuality and develops their identity.

In 1999, the craftsmen of the Bregenzerwald finally founded a union.  Right from the beginning, their credo was to let sensibility rule when it came to the different business and product philosophies.  

The name, Bregenzerwald Workshop stands for their collective public appearance to the outside world which signalises the regional authenticity and at the same time, freedom of movement for the individual.  They draw attention to an arena of productivity and yet each individual business completely keeps its independence.

The Culture of Handicrafts becomes an impressive marketing tool

The architect, Hermann Kaufmann, who teaches at the Technical University in Munich says that of course, the craftsmen within the region don‘t need any advertising because everybody knows each other here.  However, in general, trades people, like architects are saying that there is a shortage of craftspeople in Europe who can guarantee precise work and individual pieces as well as large orders at a realistic price, brought about by the dominance of industrial production.

Apart from the fact that a collective appearance to the outside world would have a stronger effect than individuals could make, the forming of this kind of union has created a feeling of trust because the buyer recognizes quality and corporate stability.  

There is also a lot of praise coming from the architects regarding the self reflection of the craftsmen.  This, in turn, strengthens the relationship between the architects and the craftsmen.

Above all that, the workshop serves as a showcase that allows a glimpse into the commonality, or regional idiosyncrasies like the distinctiveness of the designs, the absence of embellishments in the design, the elevated identity with the material and a functionality that lends the furniture flexibility, mobility and makes it suitable for every day use.  The workshop, which came out of the region, strengthens the authenticity of this trade mark.  In the five years since the union was formed, the craftsmen have been able to conquer a niche in the market.  The Bregenzerwald Workshop has become a house-hold name!

Back to the future – How one co-operation follows another

The workshop returning to history is not just theory.  The Training Workshop where apprentices learn the old methods on the job, was brought to life by the initiative of the Bregenzerwald Workshop.   The century old houses in the Bregenzerwald present challenges on a daily basis for the handicraft enterprises.  Often, it is the craftsman that the private owners of a house turn to when their house needs to be restored.  The more a craftsman knows, the better he can carry out memorial like restoration of the house when he is able to create an awareness of what the old house was like in the owners.  He should also be able to carry out the traditional handicraft techniques with modern, existing tools.

The workshop found a partner in the village of Alberschwende which formed a workgroup years ago for the artistic improvement of the town centre.  The town council provided a building which made the necessary training for a concrete project possible.   An empty, hundred year old barn in the centre of town is being renovated by senior master builders and apprentices.  Once finished, the building will be available to the township of Alberschwende and the Bregenzerwald Workshop as a show house and for exhibitions.  This is a project that offers technical advancement and education, keeping the old traditions in mind.  It makes a co-operation between politics, the responsible monument conservators, and the union possible. It also values the team work between young and old and offers an attractive place of training at a real renovation site.

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