The return of the artisan

Around the time that Margaret Thatcher came to power, I learned a new word: artisan. My Cardiff High School history teacher, the excellent Dr Davies, explained that an artisan was a skilled manual worker. The question was prompted by Dr Davies’s lesson on the  reforms of Benjamin Disraeli’s first ministry, including the Artisans’ Dwellings Act 1875.

Little did I imagine back in 1979 that the word would become a marketing buzzword in the 21st century. Yet it has, as Kathryn Hughes examines in her column in today’s Guardian. As she puts it:

“The implication is that everything in these charming, gentle spaces has been done by hand, from scratch and on the premises. The coffee beans are ground to order, the soup was simmered in a battered old saucepan, and the cakes were made overnight in the basement kitchen. The interior design too hints towards “artisanal” without quite spelling it out. There are old refectory tables, chairs from an abandoned cricket pavilion and some mismatched crockery that came from someone’s granny.”

She draws parallels with William Morris’s arts and crafts movement of the 1870s (by coincidence the decade of that famous act of parliament). Morris was keen to improve the lives of workers. Yet few of those workers could afford the hand made furniture inspired by the movement. In much the same way, the new generation of artisanal products and shops carry a steep price tag.

I wonder if the coffee tastes better?

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