Small crafts workshops have to rise again. Made in Italy is in the balance. But to do so, they have to shrug off their fear of digital things, and learn to use them creatively. Not just for sales

* Alba Cappellieri is Professor of Jewellery and Accessory Design at Politecnico di Milano and Director at the Museum of Jewellery, Vicenza

The temptation is great to blame Covid for the dark and stormy night being experienced by Italian crafts. But the pandemic has simply sped up a process that over the last 10 years (data source; CGIA) has led 165,500 Italian micro-businesses (11.3% of the total) to close their doors. This is a national tragedy. Fine craftsmanship is the connective tissue of Made in Italy and one of the reasons behind its success in the world. Small quality crafts firms have an important place in Italian cultural and social life, and represent our excellence in the sectors of textiles, leather goods, jewelry, glass, ceramics, furniture and complements, all the way to food.

So what can be done to save them?

The first recommendation is obviously about economics and the emergency. Confindustria, vice-presidente of Confindustria, doesn’t hesitate: “we have to raise funds, gathering liquidity for small and medium businesses, and enacting the moratorium on mortgage payments foreseen by the ABI for the Covid emergency.”

But concrete economic measures need to be joined by an effort of vision, from the ground up. Which means courage, conquering new territories with a pioneering spirit of adventure. It is here that design steps in. To define new creative, productive scenarios, also of distribution and communication, to support crafts companies, building networks and partnerships to make them grow, developing services, reducing costs, enhancing products.

Unfortunately many of these marvelous little companies are trapped in the romantic rhetoric of hands as opposed to dehumanizing technology. But the Covid emergency has definitively revealed this as a fallacy. The only businesses that have weathered the storm, in fact, are those with a lively digital presence. Companies that have believed in online are the only ones still afloat, and in many cases they are prospering.

So the biggest obstacle to growth of small businesses, in short, lies within. The time has come to understand that if properly conceived and designed, digital technologies can save us from extinction. Research conducted at the Milan Polytechnic, which I coordinated, has shown that design can help to reconcile the slow pace of crafts, the love of details, the joy of doing and the force of ideas, with digital boosting to reach new markets, the creation of new forms of aggregation, distribution and communication.

Because online should not be seen merely as a sales platform. It implies an active digital presence, where activities of distribution have to be integrated with a strategy of communication aimed at activating relations with present and potential clients, understanding if and how their purchasing behavior has changed, identifying experiences of recurring use, developing new forms of storytelling that add value to products and respond to the desires of consumers, emotionally reinforcing the bond between client and craftsman. Professor Ludovico Solima aptly sums it up: listening, experience, empathy.

Of course it will not be easy. But it is necessary to grasp change instead of trying to fight it, because evolving is the only way to survive. Dear artisans, believe in the digital just as you have always believed in your hands!

Cover photo, hand-painted wallpaper by Elena Carrozzi.