Category: Craftmanship

The bricoleur vs the engineer

On “The Savage Mind, chapter one: The Science of the Concrete”

by Claude Levi-Strauss (1962)

The first edition of “The Savage Mind”


In the first chapter of his book “The Savage Mind”, Claude Levi-Strauss distinguishes two different approaches towards acquiring knowledge. He explains how primitive societies used ‘mythical thought’ – or what Levi-Strauss calls ‘science of the concrete’ – to make sense of the world. He explains this science of the concrete as the primitive logic of understanding the environment through smell, taste, texture and interaction with the environment. The idea that the logic of the world reveals itself through a very hand-on subjective approach.

Using mythology as a way of illustrating this science of the concrete, he states that all myths are bases on a limited number of core ingredients, and all that the mythical thinker does is recombine these elements into new variations.

In contrast, modern (western) science has a much more deterministic approach, and tries to explain that which cannot be experiences or sensed, resulting in new knowledge that was not existing before.

Elaborating on this definition of mythical thought, he introduces the concept of ‘bricolage’ (a French term that roughly means ‘tinkering’). The bricoleur uses the tools and materials available to him, and although there may be a vague imagined outcome, the endresult is predominantly shaped by the process, and will therefore “always be removed from the initial aim” (p.21).

On the modern scientist he writes: “The engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them.” (p. 19)

In the last part of the chapter the connection is made to art and the tension between working with the materials (letting the available materials determine the process) or with a model (blueprint, or pre-imagined outcome).

And finally he compares art to mythology, where art is the outcome of objects that are shaped through events, and myths are the outcome of events that are shaped through objects.



Levi-Strauss has an anthropological perspective based very much on linquistics. His writing is extremely dense, and on the face of it, it may seem that he prefers the modern scientist over the inherently limited mythical thinker. The engineer over the bricoleur.

But apart from acknowledging that the “difference is … less absolute than it might appear” (p.19), and “both approaches are equally valid” (p.22), he also also states that “art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (p.22).



Although the name of Levi-Strauss is only mentioned once in Richard Sennets book “The Craftsman”, Sennets thoughts on craftmanship are building on his ideas.

In my research I am exploring the idea that there is a lot of value in integrating the thinking and making when applied to making visual effects for cinema. In this context the term ‘bricoleur’ and its relationship to craftsmanship becomes important.

Although (or maybe because) Levi-Strauss’ writing is somewhat opaque he has influenced a lot of later thinkers and writers on the subject of craftmanship.

“The engineer works by way of concept, and the ‘bricoleur’ by way of signs.” (p.20)

The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas.” (p.25)

 These quotes show that Levi-Strauss must have had an influence on Richard Sennett, who elaborates on his own ideas on this subject in the book “The Craftsman”.



On material consciousness

On “The Craftsman” (Richard Sennett) Chapter 4: Material Consciousness

In The Craftsman Richard Sennett explores the the idea of craftsmanship, the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Very broadly speaking the book deals with the integration of thinking and making.

In the chapter about material consciousness he specifically discusses the relationship between a craftsman and his materials and tools. “

“The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stephane Mallarme, “I have a wonderful idea for a poem but can’t seem to work it out,” whereupon Mallarme replied, “My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” (p.119)

Sennett proposes that a craftsman is driven by the ability to change things, and that their thinking revolves around three key issues: metamorphosis, presence and anthropomorphosis.

Through three stories on pottery, brick making and stucco, Sennett argues that these crafts and the thinking about them have developed over the centuries through intimate interaction with the materials, through trial and error. Gradually perfecting techniques, or applying them to a different context. But also identifying themselves in and with the work by leaving makers marks or signing. Sennett uses brick making as an example of how anthropomorphism becomes part of the discourse:

“Honest”brick describes brickwork in which all the bricks laid, say, in a Flemish bond course come from the same kiln, and even more, “honest” brick evokes a building surface in which the brick work is exposed rather than covered over: no cosmetics, no “pots of whore’s rouge” have been applied to its face”. (p.140)

This is in contrast with the developments in stucco, which could be used mimic other materials, or hide any underlying materials. This sparked a modern debate on the virtues of naturalness, and the contrary freedoms of fantasy artifice, with brick embodying the Enlightenment desires to live in harmony with simple things.

The projection of human qualities to materials (anthropomorphism) leads to a philosophical debate on simulated materials or objects, made to look like they were hand-made.

Position of the author

Sennett is not one to take a very explicit position but throughout the book it is clear he is proposing the craftsmans integrated thinking and making as a model for living a productive and meaningful life. On multiple occasions he is critical of the split between thinking and doing that has been central to a lot of western thinking since Plato.

Why is this relevant

Within the last century effects for cinema have moved from physical and photo-chemical to much more metaphorical using digital tools.

My argument is that although digital visual effects may not have as much of the tactile physical interaction that, say, clay has – it can be seen as craftsmanship in that the result is shaped through integrated thinking and making. For most visual effects artists, their craft is part of a way of life, and they are driven by a desire to do great work for its own sake.

Second: I am exploring the issue of material ‘honesty’ and how it relates to digital work. On the ‘surface’  it would be convincing to propose that digital effects are to traditional effects as bricks are to stucco (which according to Sennett renowned historian John Summerson classified as ‘fake material’ p.139). This would imply that for instance brick (and especially hand-made brick) have an intrinsic honesty whereas stucco is actively trying to fool people.

Upon further thinking this concept seems more and more ridiculous. Or better: it is a cultural construct. But nonetheless an important part of my motivation.




Source: “The Craftsman” – Richard Sennett

My father was a carpenter and woodworker, as were both my grandfathers. I grew up in the wood workshop and have been tinkering my whole life.

No wonder that I feel that thinking cannot be separated from making – and the dialogue between the hands and the brain is what shapes my work. Even though nowadays I spend most of my working life on an office chair looking at a computer monitor I still feel the same.

So the notion of craftmanship is central to how I see myself as a designer. I don’t ‘sketch’ so much as that I ‘shape’ or ‘sculpt’.

To be continued.