‘At the Sign of the Cross in St James’s Street,
When next you go thither to make yourselves sweet
By buying of powder, gloves, essence, or so,
You may chance to get a sight of Signior Dildo.’
So wrote John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in 1673. But the era of having to go to St James’s Street to buy dildos appears to be drawing to a close: the Daily Mail reports that owners of 3D printers can now design and make their own, thanks to a website that lets users ‘create different shapes and adjust the height, curviness, colour and angle of the toys to make a 3D model’. With a suitable printer, they can then produce their own silicon sex toys, ‘the likes of which may not be on offer at places such as Ann Summers’.
I can’t help wondering what the great Eric Gill would have made of this. Penguin recently reissued his Essay on Typography; its cover is handsomely set in his own Gill Sans, the font immortalised by various incarnations of British Rail, the Church of England, the BBC and the civil service. As well as his contributions to typography, Gill was probably best known for his modernist sculptures at Westminster Cathedral and at Morecambe’s Midland Hotel. Somewhat overshadowing these achievements, Gill is also now remembered for his sexual conquests of his sister, his children and his dog – making randy Rochester look a bit prudish by comparison.
Gill devotes much of his, er, seminal essay to the growing gulf between pre-industrial craftsmanship and modern methods of mass production, and to the aesthetic consequences of this gulf. The Victorians (as he saw it in 1931) had failed to grasp that the triumph of the factory had made it dubious and dishonest to try to recreate the individualism and ornamentalism of the workshop, which was why they made so much ugly and ridiculous stuff. Gill was perhaps the most convincing advocate of the idea that form should follow function: ‘Handicrafts standards are as absurd for mechanised industry as machine standards are absurd for the craftsman.’
Beyond industrial manufacturing, though, form often still refuses to follow function; in architecture – the arena in which that maxim was first put forth – it’s now more likely to follow ego. (Ayn Rand might approve, but are Zaha Hadid’s increasingly banal glass ‘n’ steel squiggles what she had in mind?) Although its consequences affect all of us, ‘iconic’ architecture is the top-down work of a handful of very well paid individuals; and the dismal Noddy boxes most British people now live in are built not so much by architects as by accountants. But with 3D printing entering the realm of housing, it’s easy to foresee a surge of re-energised artisanship giving us much more choice over what kinds of buildings we inhabit (though our planning laws might need to catch up first).
Anyway, if I owned a dildo factory in Shenzhen, I’d be a worried man by now. And, totemic as they are, it’s not just dildos: all aspects of our complicated global supply chains are threatened by the 3D printing revolution. The implications of this – of being able to cut out the middleman in consumer products, as we’ve already done in services like buying books, watching films and ordering taxis – ought to temper Western assumptions that economic power will only keep shifting eastwards. And, in turn, there are less obvious social and cultural implications: the ‘two worlds’ Gill identified as ‘absolutely distinct’ can at last become one again, as artists utilise modern computer-aided design and production techniques to deindustrialise manufacturing and create cottage industries in both new and traditional crafts.
‘The divorce between them [the ‘industrial world’ and the ‘humane world’] is even more complete, and the sphere of the handicraftsman even more curtailed,’ Gill added in an updated 1936 edition. But from 2014, it looks more like industrial technology, having suspended the craftsman’s trade for a couple of centuries, is now at last enabling its renaissance. I like to think Gill would have enjoyed the 3D-printed dildo as much in principle as in practice.
Nicholas Mayes is an editor and journalist based in Singapore