Saturn in Virgo: Handmade Nation

Folks, something really big is happening out there. As usual, I’m late to the party and I’m going to wax nostalgic about my Army brat childhood somewhere in this post.

First, kudos to Gastriques, my faithful tipster, who sent me a link a few weeks ago about Etsy, a eBay for handmade crafts. Duly noted, but not yet a trend in my mind. Then, last Thursday, while I was reading The New York Times (which used to benefit from the insight of Gastriques), I noticed an article in the Home section about the modern-day mother of Handmade Nation: a crafty chick called Faythe Levine.

So far, so good. Then I noticed that Jim Kunstler, my guru on the post-oil future, has written a book called World Made by Hand, a novel about an apocalyptic future where we’re not knitting sweaters for fun or to express our creativity. Handmade Nation, World Made by Hand: I sense a trend here.

Today, I stopped on Main Street in Beacon, N.Y., to participate in our “Second Saturday,” where there are always lots of gallery openings and other interesting happenings (as they used to say on Mod Squad. I stopped by Paper Presence to admire the window full of origami cranes, a continuation of the dream of Hiroshima victim Sadako Sasaki, and then stepped into a garage-cum-workshop with saws, hammers, and other tools artistically displayed on the wall.

This was the venue of the Handmade Calvacade of Etsy vendors that rolled into Beacon. The vendors were mostly hipsters from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who had to restrain themselves from rolling their eyes when I asked: “What’s Etsy?” Of course, I knew, but the journalist in me had to play dumb to get information. I bought a couple of really cool tote bags made from embossed Indian burlap sacks and decorated with ribbon and beads.

The Handmade Calvacade seems to be a younger, groovier version of the craft bazaar that is well-known to church ladies and militry wives. I remember in the early Seventies when my Mom complained that the general’s wife at Fort Riley, Kans. was snubbing her because she didn’t knit enough hats for the Officers Wives Club’s Christmas bazaar. Yes, crafty folks can get catty and petty.

What’s driving all this hipster interest in making things by hand? It’s definitely Saturn in Virgo, which is fueling an appreciation for craftsmanship. But I believe this trend is being electrified by the opposition with Uranus in Pisces. By buying something handmade at Etsy, I’m declaring to the world that I’ve rejected the crap at the mall in favor of unique things made by hand, and I’m on the cutting edge.

The handmade movement seems a little more gritty and low-budget than the upscale arts and crafts exhibition held in places like Lincoln Center and Grand Central Terminal in New York. It also seems more political than artsy-fartsy.

Making things by hand can indeed be revolutionary. Think of Gandhi with his spinning wheel, exhorting Indians to reject the textiles made in British mills.

Who is the loser in the handmade movement? Wal-Mart, with all its cheesy Chinese goods. Who is the winner? Wal-Mart, the only store in my neighborhood where you can still buy fabric by the yard, an embroidery hoop, thread, and other tools of the crafty trades.

Let me leave you with my reminiscence of the coolest mall I ever visited. It was in Japan, where peak shopping experiences abound. The mall that blew my mind was near Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. This was a place where you could drop in unannounced and learn how to make handmade paper, arrange flowers, or do calligraphy. Yes, I was a consumer. I was spending money. But after two or so hours, I left with something I had made by hand.

What did the adults do with the kids? Well, this crafts center mall had day care, a working farm, and a petting zoo!

I’ve got to study Japan’s chart, but I think this nation epitomizes the yen (pun intended!) to make something by hand. I also think the Land of the Rising Sun has a great appreciation for nature and generally knows how to live in a civilized fashion, though I can do without the special slippers for the loo.

I’ve written previously about the Japanese version of Ikea, a store called Muji, which I think epitomizes Saturn in Virgo.

Obviously, the crafts revival has been percolating for quite while in the U.S. It never went out of fashion if you were a member of 4-H and working on a quilt for the county fair. But the handmade movement seems ready to go mainstream in a big way.

What are you making by hand? It’s not too early to start making your holiday gifts because I’m predicting this will be a Handmade Christmas, Yuletide, Saturnalia, Hannukah, and Kwanzaa.

It’s a Muji, Muji, Muji, Muji World

If there is a retailer out there that captures the essence of Saturn in Virgo, it’s Japan’s Muji, which adheres to the philosophy that “modesty and discretion are, together, the better part of style.” 

Modesty? Discretion? Yes folks, the times they are a-changin’. It’s my belief that the glory days of flashy designer labels ended when Saturn left Leo on Sept. 2, 2007.  As the economy turns sour, even rich people are going to stop flaunting their wealth, unless they happen to be in China or India.

Ralph Lauren, one of the smartest businessmen around, is rolling out the American Living line at J.C. Penney (JCP). Although Isaac Mizrahi and others have been doing cheap chic at Target for some time, now that Ralph is going mass market I’m sure a downturn is coming. Want more proof that a recession on the way? Lauren’s selling shares in his company, Polo Ralph Lauren. According to the AP, he recently exercised options for 5,200 shares at $19.13 and sold them for $65 each. (The stock closed Mar. 27 at $61.)

O.K., enough about Ralph already. Back to Muji. In my humble opinion, Muji is the perfect (there’s a Saturn in Virgo word for you!)  embodiment of the new low-impact ethos. Its first New York store opened in Soho last November . Here’s the link to the Muji Web site: http://www.muji.com/

The site is pretty minimalist. To get a better idea of Muji’s product line, which includes things like cardboard speakers, you may want to click on: http://www.mujionline.co.uk/

Muji reminds me a little of Ikea, but with better quality and more eco-consciousness, and also of the now-defunct Conran’s before Sir Terence overextended himself and the chain went down the tubes.

When it comes to conserving energy and minimizing waste, we have a lot to learn from the Land of the Rising Sun. O.K., maybe the rest of the world doesn’t need more Hello Kitty! merchandise or special slippers for the bathroom, but Japan really got the energy crisis the first time around, in the Seventies. There’s not a lot of room for waste in Japan because it’s one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with close to 130 million people on that archipelago, or 343 persons per square kilometer.

As the only country in the world that has been the recipient of a nuclear bomb, Japan and its citizens have a unique perspective on the damage that man can inflict on his fellow man and on the environment. Yes, I know that this is the same country that gave us the Bataan death march (http://www.bataanmarch.com), but some people actually learn from their mistakes.

Maybe the cruel samarai is still hiding behind those smiling faces. Nevertheless, the Japanese seem to do a good job of sublimating their sadistic tendencies with anime, as opposed to starting wars on false evidence of nuclear weapons production.

Lest you think I’m nuts for Nippon, I’ll admit my feelings were a little hurt after all the Japanese got out of the mineral bath when this Amazon gaijin jumped in. But I’m still mad about Muji!