The Business Atelier and Everyday Enterprise

The Business Atelier and Everyday Enterprise

In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett portrays the atelier in Medieval Europe as a social nexus of craft, technique, instruction and expression, driven by the tension between the guilds (associations of artisans who established self governance for the trades), the authority and technical expertise of the atelier’s Master Craftsman, and the relative autonomy of his skilled workforce, whose loyalty was above all to the trade itself, through adherence to the ethics and standards of the guild. In the mercantile cities of Europe, the atelier became a compact, highly skilled, and dynamic productive space, continually adapting, upgrading and revising its practices, internally through a close proximity of knowledge, skills and experience, and externally as part of a much wider professional network of trade guilds with access to technical, economic and cultural capital. The guild-atelier assemblage preceded the first universities of Western Europe, but played an important part in their foundation through the institution of technical expertise.

The contrasting modern workplace is often standardised, impersonal and uninspiring, the nearest thing to the atelier system being the architectural practice, design studio, couture house or Michelin starred kitchen; demanding but intensely meaningful work environments, which maintain a set of values connected to cultures of practice in accordance with the traditions of each profession. The cultural historian Raymond Williams would consider the traditional atelier system a residual form of production, set against the dominant work practices of contemporary industrial societies, but if we begin to extract its various components and re-assemble them into new applications, emergent forms of work design are made possible, which have the potential to give rise to new cultures of practice for small commercial organisations. A recent report by Demos, Everybody’s Business, defines the 21st century entrepreneur as a ‘micro-innovator’, whose persistence, passion and above all desire for self-determination, tends to be expressed in a close knit, dynamic workplace not unlike the atelier system, with the potential to respond quickly to cultural change. The challenge is how to translate this potential into future growth, not by ‘picking winners’ but in creating environments that optimise entrepreneurial cultures of practice in emerging small businesses.

Sennett’s ‘archipelago of workshops’ offer the possibility of meaningful work at the micro-innovative level by ‘doing business’ as a primarily symbolic and social process. Everybody’s business is an everyday activity where wealth creation and social well-being are the inter-connected products of an organisation’s capacity to create its own cultures of practice that exceed the immediate demands of the bottom line. In this regard, the business atelier supersedes the ‘creative workshop’ of the Arts Based Initiative or ABI, which tends to ‘add value’ in larger organisations as an ‘experienced based process involving and engaging people both rationally and emotionally through active or passive participation’. The ABI relates to the established business as an external agent, whereas the business atelier emerges from its own cultures of practice and actively connects them to potential points of value in the social network.

The work ecology of the business atelier can emerge in unexpected places, because it is not determined by an orthodox attitude toward profit and investment. The Green Bronx Machine exemplifies this entrepreneurial spirit born out of a sense of civic responsibility, its core values creating social and symbolic capital for what is principally a cultural practice. The project is an evolving curriculum of food technology for some of New York’s most disenfranchised high-school students who live in areas of extreme urban deprivation. The Green Bronx Machine taps into the social currency of food as a common learning resource across a vicinity of small spaces, where the classroom, garden, schoolyard and kitchen emerge as a learning ecology of cooking, gardening, farming, distribution and green grocery (the project has to date produced 25,000lbs of organic vegetables, prepared and served by students in the school restaurant and distributed to local neighbourhoods, including upmarket organic retailers in Manhattan).

Stephen Ritz, the project leader, plays down his role in the programme, describing himself as a teacher who values practical learning as the key to success in life, although in terms of micro-innovation he is a true social artisan who optimises an existing platform, The Edible Schoolyard Project, by extending its range and scale into a flourishing social enterprise that becomes economically viable through cultural transformation. As a refrain on our post, Education in General, it is perhaps no surprise that the restaurateur, author and food activist Alice Waters, creator of The Edible Schoolyard Project, has a degree in French Cultural Studies and is an advocate of the Montessori method, which values self-determination, liberty, and learning through creative experimentation. As a source of creative talent, the Arts and Humanities advocate a critical sensibility and creative imagination as key skills in the career path of the social artisan, who will shape the cultural fabric of 21st century business, the question is; what combinations of values and practices are necessary for its emergence?