From furniture to crafting eco surfboards, how making can benefit health
Making can be exciting. Creating something from scratch and by hand may even help heal the soul and have wider health and wellness benefits, with the art of craft experiencing a huge renaissance in recent years. Independent boutique brands, focusing on small-batch hand-made production, were popping up all over cities and in the countryside even before the anxieties of the pandemic, and subsequent restrictions on our lives, accelerated the mood for making. But can anyone take up a craft – possibly even start their own cottage industry?
James Otter seems to think so. The award-winning designer and founder of Otter Surfboards is a passionate advocate of the art of making. His medium is wood, ecologically-sourced timber, and his goal is to design the ultimate sustainable surfboards. In the new publication, ‘Do/Make’ by Do Books – the pocket guides designed to inspire action and positive change – Otter shares his wisdom with simple tips for anyone interested in exploring making objects. His is an impassionate plea to let go of our preconceived notions of perfection, and simply start making what our hearts desire. Intrigued, we caught up with the maker and author to see how and why we should pick up the art of craft.
Spinach: Even before the pandemic, many of us were reconnecting with the art of making, and the process of creating. Your whole book is an ode to this concept. What made you decide to share your thoughts on this topic now?
James Otter: It was a complete coincidence of timing. We first agreed on writing the book nearly two years ago, and the majority of the book was written last winter so as to go to print early this summer. We discussed whether to mention the pandemic within the book but decided not to tie the book to a specific time period as we hope that it will go on to inspire people for a good few years.
S: It must have been very strange then to see some of what you’ve discussed in the book become even more highlighted as the pandemic swept the world.
JO: As we progressed with the editing phase during the start of the pandemic, globally, we noticed people reconnecting with their local environments, taking time to be with the people around them and, as you mention, reconnecting with the art of making. It just poured fuel on our fires to get this book out into the world. There is such a mental, physical and spiritual benefit to be found from reconnecting with our hands, so there was no better time than now.
S: In an age where health, wellness, mindfulness are becoming increasingly pivotal, how can we cultivate healthier lifestyles through the art of making?
JO: Mindfulness is the ability to be completely present in each moment, regardless of activity or state of mind. It is about being able to calm the mind, recognising thoughts, acknowledging them, then letting them pass to remain present in the here and now. When we embark upon any journey of making – be it as large as a home or as small as a cup of coffee – 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.
S: You write about the beauty in imperfection – a concept rooted in the ancient Japanese wabi-sabi philosophy and something that appears to be resonating more and more with modern cultures obsessed with perfection.
JO: Perfectionism is such a funny thing. Our western cultures celebrate it – tirelessly. But it is a completely unrealistic target for any of us to aim at. As a result, it is an unhealthy and often damaging way of thinking.
S: How has this impacted on you?
JO: 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. So your options are to achieve something that is technically impossible to reach.
I found that reframing my making into a journey of achieving excellence was a much healthier way of thinking. I love the wabi-sabi philosophy of celebrating imperfections, and 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.
S: What would be your advice to others battling this concept of perfection?
JO: Everyone’s creativity has likely been knocked back as a result of judgment from others or ourselves at some point in our lives. 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!
S: We like the idea of play as part of adult life. As we move away from the cult of busyness and shift our focus to the enjoyment of life, how best can we cultivate a passion for making?
JO: There are a few things that can help you get started on your making journey. 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 move out of your own way by releasing yourself from judgments by others and yourself.
S: What do you think holds people back?
JO: It is the fear of not being good enough that likely stops most of us in our tracks. So, recognise that 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.
S: You work with ecological timber for your surfboards and teach woodworking. How important is it for the design community to embrace sustainable materials and methodology?
JO: 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. And if we want to continue to make things (and survive on this wonderful planet), we need to put the environment first – always. The idea of sustainability is certainly nothing new and our ‘throwaway’ culture has been around for decades too. There is still a big shift that needs to happen in the world of design – and the world in general.
It is our job as designers to educate people about their purchasing decisions, and to take responsibility for everything we make and the impact that it has on the planet.
Images © ‘Do/Make’ by James Otter is published by Do Books, photography by Mat Arney.
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