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Milliners and Cobblers and Pencils

By Jd Michaels on Apr 18, 2012

Shortly before her retirement as a grade school teacher, my mother attended a meeting where the staff was politely asked not to use the phrase "like a broken record", as not one child was familiar with a phonograph. My mother made the point that there was not an adequate phrase to replace it, but the much less pithy "you're repeating yourself" would have to do.

My One Club Pencil, sharpened at both ends, is proudly displayed in my office. At one point last year a new employee told me that they thought it might have been a pencil, but it didn’t have an eraser. So I found myself explaining the phrase after which the award was fashioned. This is not a singular experience. While pondering the utility of Geritol as a cocktail mixer I have told young employees tales of print before digital printers, communication before mobiles, and chemical photo developing. The most common reactions of my more than patient listeners range between pity for a barbaric age and incredulity regarding the patience it required to do anything back then.

It seems to me a poetic loss, this shift of ages, from diamonds scraping through pits of jagged vinyl to my sports-car-glossy touchscreen device. Miracle upon battery operated miracle springs into the marketplace, but they are replacing more than tired modes and outdated technology. Such ease of awe overshadows PROCESS. I can't see how anything works anymore. Music emanating from a mysterious black disk was fascinating. I would spend summer days as a child watching albums turn in absolute wonder. I felt the same way about my awesome touch screens, to be honest, but I can't make something similar out of a nail and tin can like I did at Cub Scout camp. Their "how?" is completely obscured by their "wow!"

As it is my job to make things, I cherish the “hows”—I see a romance there. We in production, who work in departments named after the hotter and greasier parts of restaurants, battleships and factories, well understand our position relative to the showroom floor. But if as a child, you accompanied your parents to get the car tuned up, you remember the door to the garage opening to reveal the sound of pneumatic drills and smell of rubber and oil, or a car wash where you’d walk the glass wall to observe each phase of the cleaning. Even the "behind the scenes" features on DVDs demonstrates that the story of "how" still fascinates, and that backstage is as seductive as the red carpet, and no one would turn down a tour of a Crayola factory.

Though Build and Sell are separate, I believe the emotional weight of craft makes an item more special. When connected to a story, a history, time and space commingle into meaning and relevance. Plus, back in my day the brute physicality of objects made them precious. I cannot drop, crack, or scratch a digital file, and with the cloud it is now nearly impossible to lose one. So, no matter the level of convenience I will not cherish it the way I do my first release Beatles albums. Our new age is leaning back from Acquisition and more towards Access, from owning to streaming. Here again is that poetic loss, an experience at your fingertips that doesn't really belong to you.

I should talk. I live in a rented apartment and use a Zipcar, most notably owning my hat and shoes, but I care very deeply about their origin. I have good friends at the shops where I get them. I know how they are made, and have seen them repaired and worked on. There is, I think, a certain poetry in my shoes.

Ok. Time to stop now. I'm repeating myself.


Jd Michaels is Senior Vice President and Director of Tactile Production and Creative Engineering at BBDO, New York. Jd lives in Brooklyn.

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