Is it time to reclaim the real meaning of 'artisan'?

* 4 min read

We’ve finally reached peak ‘artisan’. The term, originally associated with craft and making things by hand, has come to mean something quite different. Just last month Costa announced its first artisan outlet. Even pub chain Wetherspoons has joined in on the action.

Would the skilled artisan workers of old be turning in their graves? Fortunately, some of them are still around – making food and drink in the traditional way using high quality local ingredients. But at the other end of the spectrum, the word has become a signifier of premium on fast food menus and on mass-produced foods. Domino’s has trialled its “premium artisan pizzas”, Starbucks has created an “artisan bread roll” and McDonald’s has launched an “artisan chicken sandwich”.

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It’s easy to see how the term has been hijacked so readily. A little bit of handcrafting and quality ingredients alone do not make a product ‘artisan’. It appropriates the word, but not necessarily its meaning and values. Surely the real power of an artisan proposition is derived from the skill of the maker, the wealth of knowledge around traditional processes and the sense of community and history behind every product.

The term artisan should have powerful emotional resonance. A decade or so ago artisan foods were being talked about as something exciting and new. Greater accessibility through early farmer’s markets and the rise of speciality high street shops offered a novel, intriguing, sensorial experience with a local identity.

We loved the way the sellers expressed their enthusiasm for their products –simply-wrapped cheeses, bacon made from pigs who had lived a happy life and jam made with fantastic, locally-grown fruit. It’s an environmentally-friendly approach too. Products weren’t over-packaged and locally-sourced produce meant lower carbon emissions. The buzz words at the time were ‘natural’, ‘local’ and ‘green’.

True artisan brands today have taken these human values a step further, injecting a genuine social conscience and a strong sense of purpose through all they do. Take Shinola, a Detroit-based artisan goods company, which made a stand against the throwaway society by celebrating the importance of the craftspeople at the heart of its business.

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It believes “a true manufacturing company is built not by the things it makes, it’s built by the people who make them”. Shinola places value in preserving craft knowledge, ensuring that its veterans train and mentor each future generation of makers.

The promise of a real human being behind the making of a product is increasingly important. Felice Limone, translated as Happy Lemons in Italian, is another great example. It’s a Limoncello brand that builds this into the heart of its packaging design. Its artisan makers customise each label by selecting from a set of stamps, showing images that capture the sentiment behind “making lemons happy”. Each label is a quirky, fun and truly individual expression of the maker’s personality; the antithesis of mass production.

Felice Limone is a sign of the artisan aesthetic extending into new categories. Take health and beauty brand Green Gate, whose founder Innessa Bauer, went the extra mile to source and create the company’s unique superfood blends. Working with the brand, we created a design to reflect Green Gate’s origins – crafting a logo that was illustrated, labelled and foiled by hand. Other illustrations on-pack showcased the products’ ingredients, using a rich, exotic colour palette to signal their far-flung origins. Whether its Limoncello or something more contemporary, provenance is key.

Bigger ventures are putting handmade first too. Clever retailers are now capturing the heart and soul of the individual artisan and making it accessible on a much greater scale. Eataly is the largest Italian marketplace in the world, having grown out of the Slow Food movement. It brings to life an artisan experience in a space that celebrates the joy and sociability of Italian food. The New York Times has described it as a store that "combines elements of a bustling European open market, a Whole-Foods-style supermarket, a high-end food court and a New Age learning center.”

Eataly is a runaway success, with its second New York City store opening in Spring 2016. The project is proof that a retailer can deliver artisan values on a large scale without diluting its real meaning. It promotes inclusivity, not exclusivity.

In spite of the efforts of corporate giants, it shows the spirit of the artisan is alive and well. We’re seeing the rise of a new breed: one that keeps the craftsman at the heart of the proposition, but engages at a deeper human level too. It’s about a love of product that has a social conscience, a sense of purpose and shared values.

True artisan values have a meaningful space at the heart of our community and will always stand apart from those that simply borrow the label. Big brands, take note.