…and the workshop lures forever

For the work to succeed, everything must go hand in hand: a student doing delicate brazing work at ZHdK’s goldsmith workshop. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK.

At ZHdK, digital processes such as 3D printing have long been part of everyday student life — although students also appreciate traditional craftsmanship. This interest is in keeping with the spirit of the times, because do-it-yourself and upcycling are trending.


The ZHdK workshops seem to emit a special attractant. It calls students in droves to the workbenches and machines. They explore and process textiles, design with clay, metal and wood. The digital natives are interested in craftsmanship. The experience of making things by hand remains attractive even in times of digital manufacturing. Creating an object is fun and satisfying: “it’s my work!” is the motto.

Tool making already gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for survival. Clever handling supported speech and brain development in the history of evolution, as the anthology “Die Hand: Werkzeug des Geistes” (2005) points out. Today, neurologists use imaging techniques to visualize how the cross-linking of neurons densifies in certain brain regions, for example in musicians who specifically train their fine motor skills. Accordingly, our brain has an affinity for craftsmanship.

Is craftmanschip becoming superfluous?

Technological innovations such as “Industry 4.0” or “digital production” once again raise the question of the importance of craftsmanship. Perfecting a craft requires many years of training. Yet more and more often, adaptive circuits and digital controls are replacing fine motor manual work. What happens, though, when dexterity and hand-brain interfaces are used mainly to operate keyboards and joysticks? How does software-supported design affect the style of graphic artists, architects and sign writers? How do computer-aided production methods such as 3D printing and robot production change our fine motor skills? What happens to our brains when we only give spoken instructions to digital aids?

From an educational perspective, the relationship between “hand-”workers and “head-”workers is particularly interesting: when and to what extent should manual skills be fostered? Currently, teaching materials are being developed that train design-oriented and artistic action while involving new technical means. Analog and digital processes are already blending into a new whole in school-based production processes: the “knowing hand,” to borrow a term introduced by the historian Rainer S. Elkar, is supported by artificial intelligence. School curricula are attaching greater importance to such skills. Experimenting with artisanal materials and experiencing what can be created by manual skill boosts self-confidence. Do-it-yourself and upcycling, i.e. upgrading waste products into new products, are becoming more important in a world of dwindling resources. DIY is trending.

Craftmanship feels good

Besides stimulating the brain and enhancing autonomy and sustainability, the above-mentioned elation also speaks in favour of craftsmanship. Though developing well differentiated dexterity is complex, the brain rewards any such effort: when our brushstroke becomes more secure, when a characteristic style develops, when our joinery becomes more elegant and robust and when our will to express ourselves becomes distinctly recognizable, we experience satisfaction through the release of endorphins in the limbic system. The motivation to invest more time to achieve expert status is growing. More moments of happiness are guaranteed.

Peter Truniger (peter.truniger@zhdk.ch) is head of the Bachelor in Art Education and a recreational percussionist. He observes the artisanal heritage with a forward-looking view and is interested in the psychological aspects of creative activity. Stefan Wettstein (stefan.wettstein@zhdk.ch) is a silversmith, jewellery designer and lecturer in the Bachelor in Art Education. He was responsible for planning the workshops at the Toni Campus. He is currently leading a project dedicated to developing a teaching aid for textile and technical design at lower secondary schools.
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