However elusive perfection is, at least it is tangible. Subjective, but definable. Imperfection is harder to quantify; it could be equally favourable or detrimental to the end product.
Mass production poses an interesting case for the pursuit of perfection - it perhaps is the birthplace of positive imperfection. We have lost trust in the reliability and the quality of products we purchase, so ironically it is in imperfection that we seek comfort and confidence in certain items - a sense of humanity. To find the imperfection, you cannot commit to the template and consistency of the mechanical process, it demands a different kind of judgment.
When there is no template, it eliminates the need to replicate exacting copies to amortise costs. There is an opportunity to take the production process for granted, in trusting our knowledge to carry our craft. This allows the possibility of interpretation and variation from the mould.
It can be alluded to by the slight misalignment of a chisel on a gauge line, a tiny gap in a joint or a slightly irregular spacing of dovetails - all a result of the human hand. However this is not to be mistaken for a lack of skill in the maker, moreover it is the acceptance the perfection is elusive and almost an impossibility, as hard as we may try.
When mass production was taking a strong foothold on manufacturing late 19th and early 20th century, John Ruskin rallied against the tyranny of the machine and the rigidity it placed upon the craftsman. On Art and Life, a collection of essays on Gothic architecture, Ruskin argues ’You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both’. I had trouble grasping this quote for some time, then I started crafting furniture and eventually I began to understand. You have a choice as a craftsman, become a tool for lifeless reproduction or ignore the seduction of quick profit and pursue a style of creativity and expression. Paraphrased, Ruskin goes on to say in the Seven Lamps of architecture that “…there will come careless bits, and fast bits; and here the chisel would have struck hard, and there lightly…and if a mans heart went with his work..will be like that of poetry well read and deeply felt”.
Perhaps now when we are at the point of being able to download and print a perfect reproduction of nearly anything we can imagine, the ideas around perfection and imperfection need to be reimagined. When the need for a suite of tools and knowledge on how to use them is omitted, where does that really leave us? Perhaps it is archaic to be slightly concerned of this reality, but for all the advancements since Ruskin wrote those words, maybe all we needed to do was to learn to mis-strike a chisel.
Rennie Mackintosh, another contemporary of the Arts and Crafts movement, and a key pillar in the foundations of modernism, epitomises the sentiment. ‘There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perceptions of the mere stylist’