On Craft.

My fiancée gave me a leather jacket for Christmas. A nice leather jacket. A really nice leather jacket. An impeccably built, timelessly styled, embarrassingly expensive leather jacket. A Schott Bros. leather jacket. In case you’re unfamiliar with Schott, they are makers of the archetypal leather motorcycle jacket, the type of jacket you think of when you think of leather jackets. Made in New York City (and now Elizabeth, NJ) for nearly a century, Schott’s iconic products define the cliché “often imitated, never duplicated.” Trust me, you’ve seen their jackets. Built from impossibly soft, yet seemingly bulletproof cowhide and heavy gauge hardware, Schott makes the type of jacket you can wear for 40 years, then pass down to your son.

Schott cares about craft.

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Across the bay from Schott is Greenwich Village’s Minetta Tavern. The Minetta Tavern features a hamburger that many burger enthusiasts tout as the finest in the world—the famed Black Label burger. The Black Label burger is a cocktail of prime Creekstone Farms beef—over 8 ounces of brisket, skirt steak, and wildly dry-aged ribeye from NYC meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda, seared on a plancha grill with a terrifying amount of clarified butter, seasoned liberally, capped with weapons-grade caramelized onions, and served on a buttered, toasted, sesame-studded brioche bun from sister restaurant Balthazar’s bakery. Lest you think the Black Label burger is a paean to gluttony, note that there is no cheese. “I don’t think it needs the cheese,” says Minetta chef Riad Nasr, likely owing to the presence of the telltale musky, blue cheese notes that come from dry-aged beef. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the best burger in the world is served with a heaping helping of Balthazar-style french fries, arguably NYC’s best.

The Minetta Tavern cares about craft.

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What is craft? The Free Online Dictionary defines craft as “skill in doing or making something.” The verb form goes one step further, “to make or construct something in a manner suggesting great care or ingenuity.” When we think of craft, I’m willing to bet that the same image flashes through our minds: a man in his late-40s or early-50s, with a craggy face and possibly a mustache, lovingly running a weathered hand against a freshly-planed piece of wood. He’s also probably wearing overalls. However, the concept and application of craft extends beyond the idyllic woodshop. I, for one, became acutely aware of it when I was in design school. During 3D design and structure courses, my professors would exalt the craft of some students, and decry the craft of those less fortunate. “Watch your craft,” they’d say, defined in this instance as the degree to which your edges were cut crisply, your corners were dead-on-balls 90° true, your glued surfaces were smooth and not rippled with adhesive. Whether your project was founded on sound design thinking seemed to be of secondary importance to whether it was made well. Craft was a tangible object, possessed by some but unreachable by others. I would’ve given myself an B+ for craft.

So where does craft come from? What do Schott and the Minetta Tavern know that other leather merchants and burger-flippers don’t? How do you transcend being a mere maker to become a true craftsman? You work at it. You sweat the details. You source the highest-quality materials. You research, and experiment, and test, and re-test, and re-re-test. And you don’t settle. For Schott and Minetta, being good isn’t good enough. Being the best isn’t even good enough. They need to be the best best. Schott’s famed Perfecto jacket has changed countless times since its debut in 1928, each change introducing new details that inch it ever closer to the Platonic ideal. The chefs at the Minetta Tavern constantly tinker with the makeup of the Black Label burger, adding or subtracting cuts of beef, adjusting their ratio. All this near-perfection comes at a premium, however. My Schott jacket was nearly $500, the Black Label burger, $26. It turns out you have to pay for craft.

Finally, since this is ostensibly a web design blog, how does craft apply to web design? A Working Library’s Mandy Brown—in her coincidentally titled blog post announcing her exit to Etsy—explains it better than I could:

In this manner, the web is itself an enormous place for craft—in that every bit of markup or CSS, every decision about font-size or color, every float, and every sentence have within them the opportunity for craft—the chance for the maker (be it the designer or the engineer or the writer) to put more of themselves into it than they have to. The tools have changed—from wood and blade to keyboard and cable—but the craftsmanship is hardly diminished.

So the next time you open your sketchbook, the next time you fire up Photoshop, the next time you sit down to pound out a few lines of code, ask yourself: am I a designer? Am I a writer? Am I a developer? Or am I a craftsman?

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