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Graduate Dissertation.
On Cultivationism.

Introduction: Losing A Connection

In 1933, Japanese art critic Yanagi Sōetsu wrote of the need for ‘folk craft’ to be used as a building block, a cornerstone for society; that the inspiration and enlightenment it brought become the success of civilisation as a whole. He described how “if society contains a few outstanding individuals but the mass of people is mediocre, society as a whole will not prosper” (Sōetsu, 1933:7). While the implications of such a statement, especially within the historical context may perhaps be seen as inflammatory to many, its actual use was as a starting point to suggest that the creative output of the common people is partially responsible for the overall quality of society; “Folk crafts are the acme of all crafted ware. Their decline means the decline of all handicrafts.” (Sōetsu, 1933:8). For the critic, ‘folkcraft’ was the handmade, utilitarian items made by skilled common folk that were designed for daily function, not for decoration. He additionally understood that folkcraft was different to mass-produced equivalent items; “one essential feature should be that the objects honestly fulfil the practical purpose for which they were made. In contrast, look at the machine-made objects that inundate our lives in recent years, which have fallen victim to commercialism and the profit motive, usefulness shunted aside” (Sōetsu, 1933:5). While times have very much changed since the 1930s, and the limits to which machines can now be pushed often exceed even highly skilled workers’ abilities, certain realities found within Sōetsu’s writings are just as relevant now as they were back in a world before the advent of contemporary globalisation.

“In the past, everyday items were treated with care, with something verging on respect. (…) As our constant companions in life, such objects gave birth to a feeling of intimacy and even affection. The relation between people and things then was much deeper than it is today. (…) These days, however, the careless way things are made robbed us of any feeling of respect or affection” (Sōetsu, 1933:9). Whilst Sōetsu attributed this phenomenon to era-specificities, much of what he wrote about, of losing a connection to the world we have built around us, still applies just as genuinely and completely to this day. However; this paper proposes that there are now different causes for this ongoing reality, and that these causes now play a major role in affecting the condition of the planet and its environment both today and long into the future. 


This dissertation proposes a new conceptual approach geared towards designing, manufacturing, and consuming, as well as the crossover and coalescence of the three. The approach, titled ‘Cultivationism’, is less a rejection and more a reapplication and re-evaluation of already present values and themes found within the fields of craft, artisanship, mass production, and their respective literature. The next two chapters are used as a means to establish and assess issues that impact the theoretical basis for Cultivationism, using case studies and various related authors and their works as a means to ground the discussion. The second chapter delves specifically into two case studies, how they represent ideas extracted from the work of John Ruskins, and how this knowledge begins to form the basis for Cultivationism. The last chapter proposes the concept explicitly, following through into the conclusion. 

Chapter 1: Pseudonymity in Design 

Japanese-American watchmaker Bill Yao spoke of how he believed “Western Culture seem(ed) to struggle with impermanence; valuing imperviousness and seeking that which will appear unaffected by time, forever new, indestructible. (…) Pursuing this ideal requires not only constant effort, but ignores the reality of all things being truly temporary. Applied in the extreme, you’re left being owned by your things, versus owning them.” (Yao, 2019) In Yao’s interpretation as a watchmaker, this sees him witnessing an industry almost entirely pitched in a direction of improving quality, not only in the production of the items, but also in the development of new and improved processes, materials, and finishes. As a luxury industry, watchmaking affords itself the opportunity to excel in greater quality, but for most industries, at least at lower price-points, this simply isn’t possible. This is why we witness industries like clothing and fashion operating with foreign manufacturing on the other side of the planet to help reduce costs used in tandem with seasonal models of design output; together this keeps clothing cheaper, newer, and ultimately much more novel.

There are certain immediate results of a constant struggle for ‘newness’ in fashion that have to be acknowledged; first, that the industry creates an incredible amount of waste; in the UK according to WRAP approximately 350,000 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill every year (WRAP, 2020). In the world, “92 million tonnes” (Niinimäki et al, 2020:189) of textile waste is annually produced, and the EPA suggests that with 17,030 tons of textile waste generated in the US in 2018, 14,500 tons are either burned or landfilled, equating to 85% of all generated textile waste (EPA, 2020). For reference, “it is estimated that more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year” (Remy et al, 2016 cited in Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). Second, the clothing propagates a society based around short-term owning and appreciation habits; for the next season to have relevance, the last cannot be as significant as it once was, enforcing a degree of cultural and stylistic obsolescence. Third, the synthesis of the former; that the lifeline of a piece of clothing is seemingly short, seeing it used up until it falls out of style, only for it to be, most likely, destroyed or donated.

This problem, the extreme novelty of the pristine, is not limited to clothing, and can be found in all forms of design, even in architecture, in the way in which we build our homes and our neighbourhoods. Thus, if Yao’s statement applies elsewhere outside of fashion, so must the resulting implications of it, potentially leading to new architecture very quickly becoming stylistically and culturally obsolete, being demolished or heavily overhauled to adjust for changing tastes, and leading to a cyclical production of waste. This is made even worse when this inevitability is so often perceived and adjusted for negatively; the concept of graceful ageing is often rejected, regularly ignoring that “beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the circumstances, context, or point of view” (Koren, 1994:51) through the destruction of those circumstances, context, and especially points of view, often before they can even develop.

Combining these results of a western necessity for ‘newness’ with what Sōetsu described in his work as a lack of intimacy between a user and their item, results in people buying something new because its neoteric qualities obscure the item for what it actually is and what it replaces. Despite our heavily globalised society, and the incredible power social media has to connect individuals and groups together, there is still a large gulf between designers, manufacturers, and consumers. It is incredibly difficult to determine the origins and processes that have gone into any one piece of design, let alone the output of an entire company, so unless said companies wish to broadcast the inner workings of their design and manufacturing process, then from the perspective of the consumer those processes may as well not exist. These types of items could be described as pseudonymous, in that they are only identifiable by the name they go by, by the company who sold it to the consumer, and by the genre of product the item falls into the category of, yet all the while still being of an unknown origin; you only know what the item and creator, whoever that may be, wants you to know about it. 

These items lack a human quality, because even if they display signs of human interference, their lack of context, their lack of history, of people attached to them still makes them feel like they almost didn’t have an origin, and the stories attached through this origin is what allows us to all develop an emotional connection to the item. This human context is overwhelmingly important since “everything we do, every gesture and every movement is in fact art” (Juniper, 2003:91) and that it’s in “the way we are expressing ourselves in the face of the environment with which we interact” (Juniper, 2003:91) that gives shape and meaning to that very environment. By removing the artist from the ‘environment’ the latter loses its integral meaning, it becomes an aimless object.  

The practical reason why pseudonymous design exists is most likely due to the distance involved that separates the consumer from the manufacturer; the manufacturer can still achieve very high standards of quality, perhaps even excelling well beyond anything Sōetsu perceived in his lifetime, but the gap still remains. Due to the quantity of work being produced, and thanks to the short-term appreciative buying habits of society at large, a great deal of human effort, stories, emotion, and struggle either doesn’t get a chance to exist due to the time constraints, or will never be perceived or understood due to the lack of communication and understanding between the parties. In an attempt to provide consumers with a constant and ready stream of new produce, and in a means to provide an industry with an ever growing supply of capital, we have eschewed our stories of why, how, and what we create, and even how and why we consume, because to answer and explore these questions takes time, and the misuse of time is one of the easiest ways to lose out on profit. Yet, despite the impractical nature of it, reclaiming and retelling our stories is also one the truest and most important signifiers of humanity, of what may be sorely missing from our creative output.

As such, this dissertation additionally proposes that a lack of human connection between the designer, manufacturer, and consumer results in creations of a poorer ‘quality’ and meaning. That this lack of an artful or human rationale as to why the creation exists other than to look and appear new results in an item or design whose long-term effectiveness and appreciation is severely and morbidly effected once it begins to lack its novelty. The drive for something neoteric is potentially just an internalized reaction to fill a void that implores for meaning, a gap that would have otherwise been filled with human stories and connections if not for our current production and consuming models.

Chapter 2.1: The Nobility in Folkhood

In his 1849 text ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, John Ruskins wrote that everything‘s “substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence” (Ruskins, 1849:142) and that “this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them.” (Ruskins, 1849:142) Ruskins identifies the significance of humanity in design, arguing that the lack of such a quality makes the design ignoble or lesser than a design in which the humanity is clear. Ruskins also states that this humanity does not necessarily have to come from the designer, it can also come from the consumer, from the “life which (…) they themselves enjoy” (Ruskins, 1849:142); in other words, the consumer response can redeem a previously ‘ignoble’ object, an object void of humanity, with the humanity and love necessary for it to become ‘noble’. However; this dissertation suggests that ‘nobility’ is not necessarily a binary, and that further nobility can be achieved if an object is capable of both presenting a ‘fullness of life they enjoy’ (Ruskins, 1849:142), or humanity in the consumer response, in addition to the ‘energy which has visibly been employed upon it’ (Ruskins, 1849:142), or humanity in the work of the creator. To reappropriate the terminology of Soetsu Yanagi, this ‘human quality’ shall henceforth just be referred to as ‘folk’. 

The presence of both forms of folkhood is what achieves an even greater variety of Ruskinian ‘nobility’. However; this dissertation also implores that there is an additional difference in ‘nobility’ present in the way in which those two folkhoods interact with each other; that ‘folk’ design inadvertently leading to a ‘folk’ consumer response is different from ‘folk’ design purposefully leading to a ‘folk’ consumer response. 

While on the surface the difference may seem minimal, the implications of the former’s nature being a matter of chance means it always runs a risk of simply achieving no folk consumer response at all. 

Chapter 2.2: Folk Design with an Inadvertent Folk Response

In 2007 an online exploratory project was launched in order to examine the concept of details hidden within artist and designer Fumito Ueda’s work of the same year. This thread blossomed into an almost decade-long tribute to the original work, and went on to inspire a great deal of new considerations and ideas separate yet derived from the original ‘text’. The thread was a piece of slow, intense, communal appreciation, exploration, and most importantly reapplication of artwork and environmental design found within ‘Shadow of the Colossus’; a sustained form of impassioned consumption that quickly began to derive something new from the work the more it consumed. Yet, despite the overwhelming ‘folk’ response, it must be acknowledged that there is no direct evidence Fumito Ueda ever intended on eliciting the response, however; this was not always believed to be the case.

In the beginning, various consumers of the product believed elements of the game’s spatial design and narrative hinted at further, hidden content. This belief wasn’t entirely unfounded either, with excerpts from the game’s development explicitly stating that additional content had always been planned. In reality though, there was no hidden content, and even though the aforementioned thread was started with the express purpose of finding these secrets, none would ever be found. 
Thus, the inadvertent folk response exists in a grey area; at no point was it genuinely purposeful from the perspective of the creator, but at least for a short time it was deemed genuine from the perspective of the consumer. 

Even after it was made clear no additional content existed, the thread continued, now genuinely inadvertent in its creation, yet perhaps emboldened in this knowledge as a result. The thread’s research was primarily technical but also delved deeply into narrative and theme, using literary analysis to dig further into the work’s story and spatial elements. This process continued for several years, a practice of consuming evolving into a practice of designing, to the extent that the community’s exhaustive efforts directly inspired the later remastering of the game. Their project provided the new team with both a comprehensive consumer report, but also behaved as a giant technical resource. Effectively, the consumer had interjected themselves into the design process ultimately unprovoked, took an original design they were passionate about, broke it down carefully over time, presented new ideas they believed would be a natural extension of the original, and finally both inspired and assisted in the creation of a remastering of the design. 

However; it must be acknowledged that all of this positivity is just the result of a misunderstanding and miscommunication between the creator and the consumer; one that turned out extremely positively for all of those involved, and something that is infinitely alluring, and potentially necessary in the future, but one that could have just as likely never existed at all. Thus, it begs the question; how could a designer, manufacturer, and consumer create a similar effect on purpose, taking what occurred in a relatively inessential area of design and media, and apply it to an area of much more significance, for example, architecture? In addition, what processes would they have to undertake in order to guarantee this highest tier of Ruskinian ‘nobility’, and most importantly; what effect would this ‘nobility’ have on design if it could be achieved en masse?

Chapter 2.3: Folk Design with an Intended Folk Response

When Steve Nygren began what would eventually become the neighbourhood of Serenbe in 1991, he likely didn’t realise that he would be undertaking a thirty-year-plus process, a living form of palimpsest, a long display of cultural and communal osmosis. His creation was and never will be finished. There is no end product, only the maintenance of a core set of basic values and ideas, and these ideas will continue as long as there are those who intend to cultivate them. As Leonard Koren described in his seminal work, “all things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as ‘finished’ or ‘complete’.” (Koren, 1994:49-50) There are various ways to interpret and move forwards with this information, but to fully embrace it, to understand that while we as humans like to see everything in a somewhat binary, definable manner in a world that is anything but requires a great deal of endurance, not least dedication. 

Serenbe stands apart from many, often now defunct, utopianistic planned communities thanks to one dominant characteristic; time. This concept is expressed through the extended length that time has been spent on the project as a whole, on the time permitted to allow the community to grow naturally, and on the time spent studying and engaging with the consumer and users, amongst other expressions. In contrast to various planned communities that took, albeit well studied, assumptions on how the community would and should be used, Serenbe is a form of ‘utopianism’ that is reactive in nature, adjusting to external stimuli to re-appropriate its core tenets, rather than to attempt to “engage in (…) naive and ham-fisted social determinism in the belief that form not only could influence behaviour but could actually shape it by transforming the individual and social life that came in contact with it.” (Coleman, 2014:5) 

Serenbe’s slow, reactive process of creation is the answer to replicating ‘Shadow of the Colossus’’ positive miscommunication; it details the lengths to which the designers, manufacturers, and consumers must communicate and interact with one another, take over each other’s responsibilities, and allow products to outlive their original creator if what was seen in the folk response to Ueda’s work, and all of the positivity and renewability it brought, is to be achieved again.

Serenbe, as an example of New Urbanism, “drew on (…) tenets of design that emphasise walkability, public green spaces, and mixed-use development (…) creating the conditions for a balanced and fulfilling life.” (Kirk, 2018) The town obviously isn’t the first to promote these faculties of lifestyle and urban planning, but when examining certain sources, predominantly early French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, we can see how and where the town took inspiration. Fourier’s writings “inspired now-defunct intentional communities in France and the United States. (…). Such settlements were precursors to the “garden cities” conceived by (…) British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, which, like Serenbe, aimed to give their residents the best of both the country and the city.” (Kirk, 2018) Fourier promoted small-scale utopian projects of folks with shared interests, which in turn would inspire the types of jobs the residents would perform. Of course, this is once again an example of prescriptive planning, rather the reactive style of development found in Serenbe, however; other examples from both Fourier and Howard’s work shine through, particularly in how “production was organised for local demands with the goal of creating self-sustaining communities” (Clark, 2003:87). Serenbe is reliant on exactly this, a community that has only been manifested through the development of a relationship between the designers and the consumers, perhaps to the extent that the two classifications have begun to blur; there is no longer a traditional folk designer and folk consumer, they are becoming one and the same. For example, buildings on separate plots of land are framed with not just greenery but often agricultural spaces that require constant cultivation and physical upkeep from the residents to remain functional; it isn’t just a by-product of the designer, it’s a by-product of the consumer. This is one of the reasons why the operations and appearance of the town are so effective and well appreciated, even now two decades after the initial development of the town began, and is what has given it the ability to be an expression of generational palimpsest rather than a mimicry of it. Everyone is involved, and everyone cares and understands the project. 

While the town may lack its own extended history, its willingness to learn from not only the past but also its resident’s learned and lived experiences means that, as Machado described of palimpsest, “the past is seen as a complex package of interrelated repertories, of things already built, drawn, and written. This repository is there to learn from, to copy, to transform.” (Machado, 1976:48-49) Despite that aforementioned lack of history, the town and its stories are still incredibly important; it cares about its narrative, and people have responded overwhelmingly positively to it. While it may be too early to call, it is quite possible that the town has subverted the usual expectations of utopianism through cultivating not only itself and its design, but also through allowing and embracing others to be involved in this process as well. Serenbe is an expression of a folk mentality; the understanding that design is generally for the people, and that it can’t always be designed and manufactured in a near vacuum. In addition to that, the town understands that it is a form of design that wants to live on well after the current inhabitants and its founder, Steve Nygren, have long moved on; it cannot stubbornly “appear unaffected by time, forever new, indestructible” (Yao, 2019).

In understanding this process of genuine renewability, Serenbe achieves true Ruskinian ‘nobility’, of ‘Folk’ design purposefully leading to a ‘folk’ consumer response, and, to quote myself, embracing all of the slow, intense, communal appreciation, exploration, and most importantly reapplication of the work that will consequently develop afterwards.

Chapter 3: Cultivationism as a Societal Process

Like a farm, as with the literal process of cultivation, the practice of using time and care to tend the fields, the seed, the crop, and the harvest, inspires and permits the continued practice of process. This is the basis for what this paper proposes as the concept of ‘Cultivationism’. Cultivationism is the act of slowing down and more deeply engaging with the design, manufacturing, and consuming processes, as well as furthering the stories involved in each, in order to improve the long-term appreciation and effectiveness of the creation. 

Cultivationism relies on three pillars that have been derived from previous case studies and examination; understanding, vulnerability, and quality:

Understanding: that there is a relationship between the design, manufacturing, and consuming processes, and that these stories and narratives are critical in the act of a piece of creation maintaining and profiting off possessing a human quality. 

Vulnerability: that the creation accounts for yet embraces change. A design that is only ever negatively affected by the aging process, be that in function, aesthetic, or form, as if it was only ever intended to be used or seen at one point in time, lacks the understanding that “it is the impermanence of the piece that makes it so special” (Juniper, 2003:94), that even if aestheticism is entirely subjective, people will continue to acknowledge an item well beyond the state at which it ceases to be presentably ‘new’.

Quality: that the creation, to within the best of the designer’s and manufacturer’s abilities, is most appropriately suited for its situation. This could involve the creation taking on the more traditional elements of quality, of artisanship and craftsmanship, but could also see a creation performing its task with greater efficiency and fluidity; one an artful rendition of quality, the other, more scientific. The synthesis of the two would perhaps even reach higher standards of long-term sustained appreciation and effectiveness within its audience; artful efficiency and performance. 

By maintaining and upholding these pillars, the process of Cultivationism offers all parts of the designing, manufacturing, and consuming processes the opportunity to create products of potentially far greater import.

This would certainly not be the first time such a proposal has been made, with many historic art and design movements with lofty ambitions having seen both great success and failure. Some of these movements have already been touched upon within this paper, but half, with the exception of the Minjei movement and New Urbanism have ultimately struggled to fully realise their ambitions, we neither live in a Modernist utopia nor an Arts and Crafts-based economy. Sōetsu provides commentary that stands in contrast to other movements, that folk craft “should not be the result of an extraordinary sense of awareness; it must be something ordinary, born from the ordinary.” (Sōetsu, 1933:23). It promotes acceptance of the current reality, rather than the promotion of a new realty as seen most clearly within Modernism. Even the Arts and Crafts movement has origins in societal manipulation: “Arts and Crafts people had ambitious ideas about the nature of work and the improvement of design, and they were always, if obliquely, concerned with modernity. (…) Some of the most important figures in the movement were also part of the early Socialist movement in Britain.” (Crawford, 1997:15)

Once again, there appears to be a contrast between prescriptive and reactive methodologies, a divide that was seen clearly in the case of Serenbe’s purposefully slow, folk-led, Cultivationist response to urban planning and development. Reactivity in design more deeply involves the engagement of the consumer within the design and manufacturing processes; if a creation with a slowed-down development is allowed to accommodate the consumer response in a meaningful and substantial manner, it potentially allows for the formation of a deeper connection to develop between all parties involved. 

Cultivationism would differ from conventional craftwork due to a reaffirmation of values that currently does not exist within the craft sphere: Craft is “a dimension that underpins almost any work of art (..) Further, craft pertains to those everyday items, mostly mass-produced, which are nevertheless manufactured (manually created) (…) in part by hand. (…) Craft is pervasive and multiple.” (Smith, 2016) The simple act of being hand-made is not in contrast to mass production, it is regularly one and the same, yet continues the pervasiveness of pseudonymity in design that has been made the main critical focus and critique of this paper. 

Despite this, the association of the handcraft and its cultural weight has permitted and sustained certain traditional values only through the invocation of the term ‘craft’, particularly practices that abstain from the profit motive, highlight personal or communal production, and allow for certain beliefs importantly associated with Cultivationism to exist.

Based on this, Cultivationism does rely upon the existence of craft, but it seeks to go much further than what craft currently limits itself to. Cultivationism, in contrast to what craft is today, does not seek any intrinsic value in the ‘handcraft’, in the idea that to be made by hand is to contain greater meaning and value, but instead promotes that the specialness of not just craft but all design comes from the unignorable imprint of the people, the folk, involved, in the effort, energy, ingenuity, and time spent on it, in the “enormous strength of the traditions of workmanship.” (Pye, 1968:18) 

Yet, it is not enough for design to just tell a human story, at least not when this work is mass produced; only through referring back to the first pillar of Cultivationism, ‘Understanding’, are we provided with the philosophical conclusion to this endeavour. The phrase, ‘Understanding’, was specifically picked because it refers to the way in which we should be able to respond to a creative output; with knowledge, awareness, and sympathy, the folk consumer response. When this output contains a human story, and we are able respond with knowledge and sympathy, we achieve something great, something that the consumer can respect and care for, and something that the designer and manufacturer can be proud of. But as a reactive methodology, not a prescriptive one, all Cultivationism can do is promote understanding and education in the consumer, it cannot rely upon it. Thus, for understanding to occur, the manufacturer and designer must be more careful with who they are targeting and who they are designing for, in a way the opposite of Sōetsu’s “craft of the people” (Sōetsu, 1933:7), likely leading to consumer design becoming more niche, and public design growing more intelligible, not just for those select few who have the ability, education, and privilege to understand it. 


The projection of our stories and the process of Cultivationism allows disparate humanity to form connections through creation and appreciation. The process of design, manufacturing, and consuming must all slow down because not only is that the only way for people to allow themselves to leave their impression on their work, but also the only way that allows consumers to really involve themselves in the creations they’ve purchased, to understand and appreciate them on a much deeper and more emotional level, to achieve a ‘folk’ state. It is the only reasonable way to severely cut back on the quantity of waste we produce. 

 “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking” (Sennett, 2008:9), and when properly understood can result in the craftsman allowing themselves to develop a rapport and affinity with not just their work, but their processes, even to the extent that it can bring some degree of enlightenment to their daily rituals and the quality of the lives they lead. Cultivationism simply asks that this connection be something everyone has the opportunity to experience, that the inspiration and enlightenment that these processes bring become something all folk can have in their lives.

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