In the center of Bogotá, there is a small space that has been one of the great inspirations for the Normalem project. From the outside, you can see many pieces of leather, a bit of a mess, and a man who works on a table. In this place, César has been working leather for more than twenty years through the techniques of traditional leathercrafting. He is a craftsman, in every sense of the word, and with him, we have begun to understand what it means to live life in these terms.
César is a recognized figure in the neighborhood: everyone knows that he is there, that his products are top quality, and that they are expensive. However, few people had come to talk to him and tried to understand how he was working, few had asked him why he had decided to work this way.
We met César because we were looking for sources of inspiration to start a new business, to better understand what our concern with work really was, and how alternative responses to the mainstream work culture were performed. Around our first meeting, we were reading Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman, and we were blown away by the ideas it proposes. So, we set about the task of finding artisans and craftsmen who could tell us what it was like to live in such a way, who could tell us what the work meant to them, and, above all, who could shed some lights on the experience of working this way.
The smell of leather floods the entire store/workshop. When you walk through the door it is as if the aroma hits you and sends a very clear message: “here something different happens, here you work in a particular way”. Once inside, one acquires a slightly more complete impression of what is happening: in that large table, perfectly illuminated by lamps and projectors, objects are displayed in a particular way that one cannot really grasp. On that surface objects dance, in an order unknown to the newcomer, a whole set of materials: scraps of leather (many scraps of leather), blades of different sizes and grips, materials, tints, slats for measuring, paper to sketch. On that same table where César works the leather, our coffee cups were laid, and we talked for the first time.
We must admit that we were fascinated. We saw in his life a reflection of Sennett’s thorough research, we found in him a perfect example of those men who for centuries earned their prestige by what they could do with their hands. Our feeling, even though there was a clear intent to talk with him, was that of someone who has found something extremely valuable by pure chance; at that time, in the midst of a certain upheaval, we came face to face with a response that allowed us to articulate part of our discomfort with the working and business world.
César’s image seemed like that of a man who has found meaning in his work, who managed to create a space where he could connect with doing, with his body, and with his products. In our search to connect with this way of working, we agreed on an exchange, in which we attained the possibility of learning to work leather according to the traditional techniques of leatherwork. In them, all the work is done by hand, from the beginning of the piece to the most specific finishes. That is, we cut, sewed, and made finishes without the help of machines.
It was about a two-month process, where we set out to finish a leatherwork from scratch. In this process we understood how complicated, and therefore frustrating, it can be to acquire new skills, to learn to work with our hands-on something we have never done before. Likewise, we also find the meaning of working this way to build products with soul, how the whole process goes from the conception to an impeccable finish according to the criteria generated by experience. We learned from how to handle a blade, to how the raw material is made. We discovered from the disgusting smell of leather preserved in tanneries, to the soft (and even elegant) aroma that gives off a well-worked leather piece.
But, even more importantly, we got to know Caesar in-depth, and with him, we tried to reveal some central aspects of his ethical worldview. We have incorporated some elements of his vision into the way we believe companies should be built, and we would like to talk about them in this experiment. For example, César sees quality as a non-negotiable criterion, meaning things must be well done. The mere fact of reaching this standard provides a sense of joy that would be hard to find elsewhere, and that allows to find deep meaning in the work. Likewise, César greatly values discipline, as a necessary tool to build both a company and well-made products. In one of our many conversations, he told us that an entrepreneur should have self-discipline, understanding that the “key to success” (if there is such a thing) is to work on one myself and build an ascesis that allows having clarity in the purpose of the work. Finally, César told us that for him aesthetics were important, that is, the possibility of creating products that are beautiful, well achieved, that help the customer look good and feel good.
In that place in the center of Bogotá, we had a close experience with craftsmanship, one that allowed us to approach a different view of work, distance from the haste, the senselessness, and the ambition of our contemporary working world. So, we kept thinking about how we could integrate these ideas into our work as founders of a new business. For now, we just know that we want to continue in this conversation, we want to bring our ideas beyond ourselves, and we want to create spaces where we can follow the path of finding a better way to work.