by Alexander Freeling

Unless you’re a professional, practical work comes in two forms: the kind that needs doing and the kind it’s fun to attempt. How big each of these categories are, and what they contain, depends on your personality and preferences. I like to cook, so that’s a hobby; I have less appetite for decorating, so that’s work. I am faced with cutting my own hair at the moment, so that’s a disaster.

Economists sometimes define hobbies as inefficient work. In other words, if you could pay someone to do your gardening and thereby gain time or money, that’s an efficiency. And if, in spite of the efficiency, you’d rather do it yourself, that’s a hobby.

Aside from the fun or relaxation of doing something practical, there’s also the chance for insight. I’ve been repairing and adjusting clothes, largely by trial and error, for a while now. It started with losing a button and replacing it using one of those little kits you used to get in hotels. After that, a loose seam or a trouser hem. Good DIY demands patience with your imperfections and a desire to overcome them. But it also teaches you how things work: the way that a running stitch will undo itself the first chance it gets; how seams tug and twist the cloth if they’re not quite balanced. 

The Italian designer Enzo Mari died last year. He was known for his Autoprogettazione system: a kind of self-assembly project that supplied the pieces and principles to create many possible designs. This is not the IKEA kind of DIY (where you’re locked in to making an identical product every time) and it’s not even IKEA hacking. As historian and curator Glenn Adamson wrote, “Mari wanted to put the means of production back where he thought they belonged: in the hands of the people. He therefore conceived a family of forms that could be made by anyone out of cheap lengths of pine and some nails, using the simplest of joints.”

Mari’s designs flowed from his politics. It’s sometimes summarized like this: he cared about design from the point of view of producers, not consumers. But he wanted everyone to be a producer. This means seeing workers as craftspeople, not interchangeable labor. But it also has practical wisdom: who really knows what makes a good table? Me, browsing a showroom, or the guy who builds tables? I’m going to fall for a thin veneer of quality every time. The carpenter never will. Mari once explained in an interview: “my values concern the quality of work. When I am asked what is the best thing I have done, I never think of the best form, but I can describe situations in which l have been content to work.”

For the amateur, the enemy of quality is impatience, for the professional it’s cost. But beyond the inevitably limitations of precision and skill, to be a hobbyist is to experience work as a kind of joyful diversion. This raises the question of whether professional work could, under the right conditions, also be joyful. Not easy, but then little of value is easy. But joyful in its difficulty. I think this is what Mari was getting at. The best designs, and the best products, are the ones that permit the best conditions for making them. Products whose limits equal the limits of our ingenuity.