Printing Utopia: digital fabrication and the meaning of craft

An excerpt from a feature for the September 2017 edition of boom saloon magazine. The great Victorian social critic William Morris feared the industrial age heralded the end of skilled workmanship. But do emerging 3D printing technologies open possibilities for a new era of craft, realised through techniques Morris could never have imagined?

At the turn of the 19th century the poet, artist, craftsman, philosopher and political activist William Morris imagined the fog-shrouded streets and squares of Victorian London transfigured into a radiant garden city.

Morris’s rustic utopia News from Nowhere pictures Trafalgar Square as a meadow, flowers growing round the base of Nelson’s Column, with Whitehall transformed into a tree-lined avenue leading down a gentle hill to the vine-strewn Houses of Parliament, now retained only as a storehouse for manure.

The great metropolis has become a patchwork of fields, hedgerows and trellised lanes interspersed with gabled houses, theatres, meeting halls and workshops, their doors open to the fresh air, furniture makers, tailors, shoemakers, embroiderers, bookbinders, typographers, jewellers and other artisans bending in concentration.

Their painstaking work, each item expressing something of the soul of its maker, is produced in such abundance that it is freely available for all to take as they require. Here everything is held in common, and work is seen as craft, an opportunity for the discernment of harmony, the intelligent synthesis of hand and eye.

Morris summoned his pastoral dreamworld in bitter opposition to the relentless processes of industrialisation he thought the enemy of life, producing choking factories that destroyed the body, and monstrous machinery that poisoned the spirit. In Morris’s neo-medieval landscape art has become such ‘a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces’ that it has no name.

Today’s London, though no longer the soot-blackened inferno of late Victorian capitalism, is further removed from Morris’s rural idyll than ever, every horizon a forest of cranes and steel and glass towers, pushing up past the remnants of the ancient city, the Shard looming over Southwark Cathedral, the financial district a sci-fi panorama beyond the dome of St Paul’s.

The city itself is now something of a colossal machine, alive with sensors, cameras and microphones recording the flows of traffic, the footfall of pedestrians. Everything is connected, automated: commuters brandish digital cards to hop on and off buses and subways, ride on taxis guided by satellites, and even allow their smartphones to direct their steps.

But the 21st century technologies that pulse through the modern city may open possibilities for realising Morris’s dream of a world from which scarcity has been banished and creativity set free, in ways he could never have imagined.

The full text is available in the September 2017 edition of boom saloon magazine.