Random finds (2018, week 2) — On beautiful businesses, the revival of artisanship, and Montaigne and how to remember what you read

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Housing pioneer and RIBA’s 2018 Royal Gold Medallist Neave Brown, probably best known for the Alexandra Road estate in north London, has died aged 88.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking.

Beautiful businesses and the revival of artisanship

Alan Moore, the author of Do Design — Why beauty is key to everything, in which he recommends 14 practices to create enduring beauty, has recently compiled a list of businesses which inspire a different way of looking at the world. “We celebrate people who explore beauty beyond the superficial and strive to deliver truth, meaning and authenticity through beautiful products, experiences and solutions,” he writes in 50 Beautiful Businesses.

“Things beautifully made with the latest technology or uniquely handcrafted, buildings that are beautiful in their conception and construction, food grown and cooked which is restorative and sensual, beautiful culture that will nourish one’s soul … all, Living Beautifully.”

At the top of Moore’s list of beautiful businesses is Brunello Cucinelli.

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“We are rediscovering the great ideals: the beautiful politics; the beautiful family; religion or spirituality,” Brunello Cucinelli said in his acceptance speech for the World Economy: Global Economy Prize 2017 at the Kiel Institute. (Photography by Sante Castignani)

In 2010, Rebecca Mead wrote an article about Brunello Cucinelli for The New Yorker, The Prince of Solomeo — The cashmere utopia of Brunello Cucinelli.

According to her, “Cucinelli has distilled an idiosyncratic business philosophy that draws on Renaissance humanism, Senecan stoicism, Benedictine rigor, and the theories of Theodore Levitt, a twentieth-century marketing scholar who argued that the purpose of companies is to keep and serve customers. ‘I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals,’ he told me. ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m trying. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be slightly more human.’ He went on, ‘I wish we could find a new name, instead of calling it capitalism. I like the idea of an enlightened principality. In the early eighteen-hundreds, in Germany, there were princes who built schools, streets, homes. I like that. But not the ownership of the people who work for you.’

Cucinelli pays his employees a higher wage than the market rate — in Italy, a factory worker typically starts at a thousand euros a month. And he attempts to infuse pleasure into the process of making clothes, which he describes as tedious and repetitive. The whole company takes a ninety-minute lunch break; employees can go home to feed their families or eat at the heavily subsidized company cafeteria — they pay less than three euros — and still have time for a nap afterward. (Given the quality of the cafeteria — where long tables are set with bottles of Pellegrino and wine, and local ladies serve minestre, pastas, platters of grilled meat, and salad — a nap is recommended.) Cucinelli has also installed a small library, near the theatre, where workers and visitors are encouraged to browse volumes that look as if they had been selected by an eager undergraduate: there are works by Dante, Kafka, Proust, Ruskin, Rawls, Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze, in many different languages.”

Last year, Luke Leitch visited Brunello Cucinelli’s “model factory in the heart of Umbria.” In The Philosopher King, he notes, “[C]apitalism and Kant don’t always go well together, and pleasing the stockmarket isn’t Cucinelli’s priority. His ideal growth rate, he says, is 10%: ‘the hedge funds aren’t interested in that but the pension funds are … we want only a smooth growth level. It must be gracious. Everything in this business has to be gracious. Profit is the gift when creation is perfect.’”

Companies like Brunello Cucinelli promote a fresh image of the artisan and have a very important impact on a new generation who are thinking in new and different ways about craftsmanship, says Stefano Micelli, a professor of innovation technology at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University and the author of Futuro Artigiano (The Future Craftsman). But it isn’t about nostalgia or going back to the past. “It’s about the future, technology, and being innovative.”

“Working with your hands is becoming interesting again,” according to Micelli, and Brunello Cucinelli certainly isn’t the only firm helping to revive the image of the traditional artisan, as also Moore’s list of beautiful businesses shows.

Staying in Italy, at the Italian menswear couture house Brioni, “There aren’t any smartphones distracting the budding couturiers at the tailoring school run by Brioni, the venerable menswear company, in Penne, a medieval town nestled in the heart of Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region,” Angela Giuffrida writes in How the return of traditional skills is boosting Italy’s economy. Instead, their nimble fingers are delicately sewing stitches on to jacket sleeves — nurturing the skills that could lead to a job in an Italian fashion house whose suits have been worn by kings, presidents and also James Bond.

According to Emidio Fonticoli, who oversees Brioni’s Scuola Di Alta Sartoria, the “artisanal tradition is a cultural legacy that takes decades to transmit from a seasoned master to a young talent and despite common thoughts, a large number of young people continue to express their desire and will to learn the secrets of those crafts.”

The group of 16 to have made the cut for the latest four-year programme at Brioni’s Scuola Di Alta Sartoria, are among a generation who are turning to industries that formed the backbone of Italy’s post-world war two economy, with some skipping university in the process, amid a lacklustre job market. “They join aged 13 or 14,” Fonticoli told Giuffrida. “It’s important that they start young, due to the sensitivity of their hands and fingers. It’s an important time for them to develop manual skills, so much so they reach such a level of tactility, they can work without looking.”

“All the best Italian-made products meld tradition and technology in an indissoluble way: artisan expertise puts the finishing touches to products that are manufactured employing cutting-edge production methods, while intelligent hands lend sensitivity and emotion to industrial precision.” — Roberto Minotti in Why Italian Craftsmanship Is So Great

In Futuro Artigiano, Stefano Micelli explores the role of culture in the practice of making things. He wonders whether it’s true that the only path towards a healthy economy leads to getting free from manual labor and by the super-specialization of abstract knowledge. “We have believed this far too long, following passively the idea of ‘the Metropolis’ as the only possible place for scientific and technical innovation. A mistake that makes us underestimate a very specific Italian richness: the artisanal knowledge that has been the very cradle of Italian design — and still is, although we often don’t realize it.”

He believes it is important to trace and study the practices of craftsmanship. These practices are still at the core of the activity in Italian productive districts, in companies that produce small series and niche products, as well as in those that operate in much larger markets. Wherever the skills of the artisan are needed to transform insights and new ideas in prototypes and innovative products. Alan Moore’s list of Beautiful Businesses proves exactly this point.

Montaigne and how to remember what you read

“Montaigne complains unwearyingly of his bad memory,” Stefan Zweig wrote in his biography of Michel de Montaigne, one of the final works Zweig wrote shortly before his suicide in 1942.

“He regards this — together with a certain idleness — as the real Achilles heel of his being. His faculty for perception, his discernment, is exceptional. What he sees, what he observes, what he recognizes, he does with the lightning eye of a falcon. But then he is too nonchalant, as he is ever reproaching himself, to order these discoveries in any systematic way, to expand on them in a logical sense, and, as soon as he grasps a thought, he loses it again, lets it drift away. He forgets the books he has read, has no memory for dates and misplaces the momentous events in his life. Like a river, all flows over him, leaving nothing behind: no deep conviction, not solid opinion, nothing fixed, nothing stable.

This weakness, which Montaigne endlessly bemoans, is in fact his strength. An inability to remain fixed at a certain point allows him always to go further. With him nothing is ever set in stone. He never stops at the boundary of past experiences; he does not rest on his empiricism; he amasses no capital; before properly consuming them his spirit must acquire experiences over and again. So his life becomes an operation of perpetual renewal: ‘Unremittingly we begin our lives anew.’ The truths that he finds may in the coming months or even the coming years be truths no more. He must be forever searching. Thus is born a multitude of contradictions. Now he appears an Epicurean, now a Stoic, now a sceptic. He is at one and the same time all and nothing, always different and yet ever the same, the Montaigne of 1550, 1560, 1570, 1580, the Montaigne of yesterday.

Montaigne’s greatest pleasure is in the search, not the discovery. He is not one of those philosophers who seek the philosopher’s stone, the convenient formula. He cares not for dogma, precepts, and has a horror of definitive assertions: ‘Assert nothing audaciously, deny nothing frivolously.’ He has no defined destination. All roads are open to his pensée vagabonde. He is only a philosopher in the manner of Socrates, whom he revered above all others because he left behind no dogma, no teachings, no law, no system, only an example: the man who seeks himself in all and who seeks all in himself.”

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Me, Myself, And I — What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?, by Jane Kramer. (Illustration by Floc’H for the New Yorker, 2009)

“You could call this intellectual free association,” Jane Kramer wrote in Me, Myself, And I (The New Yorker, September 2009), “but it is far too sterile a term for the mind of Michel de Montaigne running after itself, arguing against argument, reading his thoughts and his aging body at least as carefully as he reads his books. (His copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, at the Cambridge University Library, is filled with enough Latin and French margin notes to make a book themselves.) But he thinks of himself as a browser, and in a way he is, because, by his account, a couple of interesting thoughts or stories in one book will always remind him of something smarter, or more interesting — or, better still, contradictory — in another book, and he opens that.”

If, like Montaigne, you can’t remember the books you have read “any more than the meals [you] have eaten,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson has famously said, Shane Parrish offers some advice in How to Remember What You Read.

“Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read,” Parrish writes. “The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them. Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?”

In This Simple Note-Taking Method Will Help You Read More (and remember what you’ve read), Ryan Holiday advises to make reading an active process. “Make notes and comments to yourself as you read (called ‘marginalia’). If you see an anecdote or quote you like, transfer it to a commonplace book and use a system to organize and store all of it.” Writing The Obstacle Is the Way only took a few months, because all the reading and research that went into writing this bestseller “were already there, systematized and ready to use, all thanks to my notecards and common place book,” Holiday says.

Otherwise, there’s always Seneca to turn to, who wouldn’t have been very enthusiastic about what Umberto Eco called his ‘antilibrary.’ In his second letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Letter 2, On Discursiveness in Reading, in a translation by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long):

“Be careful, though, about your reading in many authors and different types of books. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it. You must stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if you mean to derive anything that will dwell reliably with you. One who is everywhere is nowhere. Those who travel all the time find that they have many places to stay, but no friendships. The same thing necessarily happens to those who do not become intimate with any one author, but let everything rush right through them.”

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“One who is everywhere is nowhere.” — Seneca in ‘On Discursiveness in Reading,’ his second letter to Lucilius

And also this …

The American-born architect Neave Brown, who reminded us council housing can be beautiful, has died following a battle with cancer. “He was the architect of what is widely considered the finest housing built in Britain in the last 50 years,” Mark Swenarton writes in an obituary in The Guardian.

“What distinguished Brown as an architect of housing was that the technical ingenuity of his planning was matched by his passionate empathy for the people who would be living in the homes he designed. His flat and house plans were a masterpiece of compression, with not an inch of space wasted — allowing him to create in Britain, within the space and cost constraints of local authority housing, interiors that felt remarkably open and spacious. But these plans he saw not as an end in themselves but as the setting which the various residents would take and use as they wished. This humanistic quality was fundamental to his approach,” writes Swenarton.

“[I]t took only a few minutes of conversation for the penetrative power of his intellect to become apparent. He was in a now rather old-fashioned sense a ‘public intellectual,’ with a voracious appetite for the latest writing on every subject, but especially politics and history.”

According to Ben Derbyshire, the president of RIBA, architecture has lost a giant. “Neave was a pioneer: he showed us how intellectual rigour, sensitive urbanism, his supreme design skill and determination could deliver well-being to the local community he served so well in Camden. His ideas, for low-rise high-density housing with private outside space for all residents, still stand as a radical antidote to much of the unthinking, not to say degrading, housing product of the era.”

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Neave Brown’s “vision and ideals live on in the generations of architects, whom he has inspired. All his UK projects are listed. That they are loved by their communities is clear — the residents of Alexandra Road [Estate in Camden, London] nominated him for the 2018 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.” — RIBA President Ben Derbyshire
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High density without high rise — Brown “showed how to achieve successful high density housing without high rise.” (Photograph by Martin Charles/RIBA Collections)
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Concrete vision — Brown’s Winscombe Street terrace of houses in Camden, London. (Photograph by Martin Charles/RIBA Collections)
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Upside down thinking — A middle-floor kitchen on Winscombe Street, Camden, London. (Photograph by Martin Charles/RIBA Collections)

In this in-depth biographical video, the Italian architect Renzo Piano, known for his delicate and refined approach to building, talks about, amongst others, his earliest influences, the pleasures of drawing, what creativity really means, how “computers are a bit stupid” and the way “beauty can change the world.”

Most interesting of all perhaps are his thoughts on team-work, how “creativity is only possible when you share creativity,” and how it is only by fully embracing mistakes that one can partake in the creative process — something that he good-humoredly offers as advice for the young: “If you say something stupid, don’t worry, if you say ten things and five of them are not stupid, that’s really quite good.”

But ultimately, architecture’s essence, for Piano, is contained in what he calls “beauty.” Beauty not in the purely cosmetic sense, but in terms of “discovery, light, space, compression, expansion, shadow, and a sense of lightness, maybe eventually with something that is called language.”

On the Shoulders of Giants — “If you are missing the capacity to create emotion, then it doesn’t work, it’s not enough.” — Renzo Piano (Video by Louisiana Channel)

For over 60 years, the French artist Pierre Soulages has injected poetry into radical abstraction with paintings comprised of a single material, black paint. In Outrenoir (meaning ‘beyond black’), director Barbara Anastacio captures a rare moment of Soulages, as he reflects on his career.

The need of what he does leads him to use a certain tool, he explains. “But the real tool it’s not here. It’s during work … the light that is the real tool. Because it’s always whatever is happening on the canvass that directs me.”

In a short article for NOWNESS, Shirine Saad writes: “Liberating his style from centuries of Western decorative painting traditions and drawing from prehistoric cave art, Soulages’ work is a pure celebration of the very essence of painting: the primal instinct to create, and the spiritual power of lines and movement. ‘Outrenoir is not an optical phenomenon,’ says the 95-year-old French artist captured here at his Paris studio of the gleaming, luminescent quality of the work. ‘It’s a mental state that you reach when you look deep into it, it’s beyond black.’”

Outrenoir — “I don’t work with black. I work with the light that reflects it.” — Pierre Soulages (Video by Barbara Anastacio)

“Progress depends on a very special kind of virtuous cycle: yesterday’s research becoming today’s innovations becoming tomorrow’s utilities. This cycle is precisely what is stopped up now — also in a very special way. Today’s innovations rarely become tomorrow’s utilities anymore. And so tomorrow’s research crumble and withers, too — because who needs to invest much in genuine breakthroughs if you’re sitting pretty on a cash cow that lasts forever?” — Umar Haque in Why Progress Doesn’t Begin or End With Innovation

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