One of the pleasures in life is going into a quiet cafe and relaxing with a book. Perhaps I have lunch, or just sip my coffee. My small city offers lots of choices, with and without students from the local arts college, which means with and without a racket of noise. My favorite place for a quiet moment is a small French bakery where few people go. The storefront is really meant to draw customers in for special orders for weddings and other events.
The glass-enclosed case of baked goods is limited to croissants, breakfast pastries, and cookies. No bread, no sandwiches, no dinner rolls. This is really a sweets bakery, with a case of specialty desserts and another of cakes. I rarely pay attention to the sweets, heading instead for the croissants. But the last time I was there the baker had put on display some of his handiwork to promote his wares. And they were stunning. Yes, those are real cakes decorated with real sugar, including the two vases with flowers.
There’s no chance I’m going to take up baking any time soon (or ever), but I was drawn to the detail and perfection of craftsmanship in these sample cakes. Everything is real except for the cake inside, which has been replaced with a clay that won’t deteriorate. I studied the flowers and decorative flourishes with amazement, thinking about the sheer physical discipline required to get each little piece made and then in place.
Craftsmanship is something I admire, and wherever I come across a demonstration of skill and quality, I stop to look and learn. I notice the color choices, the design overall, the delicacy of the sugar pieces. It’s easy to admire a painting hanging in a museum or art gallery. We’ve been taught to accept as great art certain works, and to admire them when we encounter them in the appropriate spaces. But there is art everywhere, and most of it isn’t admired or even recognized as such.
I pass a number of nineteenth-century cast-iron mailboxes every few days, delight in their sinuous vines, and then I walk on. We’ve replaced things like this with a single steel box hanging on the house, or, at most, a painted steel box set on a post. We buy new clothes every season, and think nothing about it. But I found an old dress my mother had remade from an older one, and the nap on the fabric meant that the wool would last for eighty years or more.
Craftsmanship is taking the time to care about our work, and to understand what makes something better. I recently read a novel that was written by a woman who normally wrote poetry. I could see the attention she lavished on each word choice and each sentence. The writing wasn’t fancy, full of figures of speech and platitudes that sounded wiser than they were. She didn’t try to impress with vocabulary or literary allusions. It was a simple story made rich by the care of the author in building clarity and depth into the characters.
We can’t all write great books, make sumptuous jewelry, or craft a stair railing that will win an award. But I still look for examples of work made by those who cared to take time, to get it right, to want to add beauty to the world.
The cake in the bakery was gorgeous, and if the baker’s cakes are anything like his pastries, the eating of it would be just as wonderful.