Allison Taylor used to ask her husband and family for vouchers for luxury body-care products and Tiffany jewellery for special occasions. These days the 37-year-old from from Connecticut, US, says without any hint of regret that her wish-list is made up of tools. Taylor has used her growing collection of saws, hammers, screwdrivers, drills and so on to install light fixtures, lay a laminate floor, refit a bathroom and do her own plumbing.
“It all started a few years ago when I moved to a small apartment in New York City with two roommates,” says Taylor, a former men’s accessories and footwear designer who now runs jack-webster.com, an online food, wine, travel and entertainment products company. “We only had one phone jack and the phone company said it would be over $300 for them to come and install two additional ones. A week later we had phone trouble at work and I asked the service man why it was so expensive. He said it shouldn’t be, gave me a quick tutorial on how to split the wires, gave me the wire and hardware I needed and within 20 minutes of walking in the door of my apartment that night we had three jacks. That was the moment I realised that with a little know-how you can do a heap of stuff.”
Taylor is just one convert of a do-it-yourself craze that has spread across the world. While it is hard to pin down how many people are following the trend to grow your own, make your own and make do and mend, my fellow hands-on types and I (my projects have included re-landscaping our garden, converting a bathroom into a reading and a laundry into a computer room) are leaving enough of a trail that shows its sweep is widespread.
Author Faythe Levine, who recently released the DVD documentary Handmade Nation as a follow-up to her book of the same title, says: “There’s too much interest in DIY not to acknowledge that something very big is happening.”
Of course, DIY is not new. It has been a fact of life for much of our history. From the 1960s, however, greater personal wealth side-lined it to the extent that it became a hobby and by the latter part of the past century it had become associated with “people of a certain age” and hippies. In recent years, though, it has undergone a modern makeover and is now not only an acceptable pastime for well-educated and reasonably affluent homeowners ranging from stay-at-home mothers to company directors in search of balance of life outlet allowing them to disconnect from career stresses but also an ultra-hip one, especially among those in the 20-35 age group.
Take Californian photographer and blogger Lisa Welge, 25. She was so proud of having made her own bridal gown for her wedding in August last year that she posted pictures of it on her blog (lisawelge.com/blog/2009/08/our-wedding-the-dress), prompting one reader to write: “Lisa, your dress is totally fantastic … Would you be willing to publish how you did your petticoat?” In contrast, for my peer group 20 years ago “cool” meant fashion labels.
Many reasons drive this wave of activity. Although for some people it is about saving money, for most (despite the economic downturn) the main driver is personal. This ranges from a desire for tactile experiences as a reaction to the dominance of computers and other technology in our lives to the pursuit of a creative outlet in response to the cookie-cutter aesthetic that shapes what is on the high street to a rejection of mass culture and consumption because of environmental concerns or a hankering for an alternative way of living. Says Levine: “DIY is not just a term but a way of life.” It even has its own church, churchofcraft.org, with chapters all over the US and in the UK and Greece.
DIY is fuelled by an ever-expanding list of resources, including books and magazines, classes and workshops and easy-to-use, low-cost tools but it is the internet that has turned it from a niche pastime into a worldwide movement in the past 10 years. Never before have so many people been able instantly to access information for free, to network and collaborate on just about any topic, thus perpetuating the movement. For instance, Wikihow, a web-based how-to manual that anyone can write and edit, claims that 177,227,479 people from 241 different countries visited in 2009.
Author Andrew Keen, however, sounds a note of caution about the movement. In The Cult of the Amateur he argues that online participation by ordinary people through blogs, pseudo-encyclopaedias, YouTube and similar sites blurs the distinction between amateurs and professionals and undermines quality and expertise. “People idealise amateurism but it’s a narcissistic thing that is bound up with the 1960s countercultural revolt against authority and existing social structures,” he says. “The reality is that going on the internet isn’t necessarily going to make you an expert, in the same way that cooking spaghetti doesn’t make you a chef.”
On the flip side, Charlie Leadbeater, a UK author on topics such as creativity and innovation, says in The Pro-Am Revolution: How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society, that while the 20th century was shaped by the rise of professionals, in the 21st century highly educated and networked amateurs who work to professional standards in areas as diverse as astronomy, banking, politics and technology will have a revolutionary effect on society, especially around innovation.
For example, Jonathan Oxer, a 39-year-old author who runs online software company Internet Vision Technologies, has made radical DIY alterations to his home. He does not carry keys for the house he shares with his wife and two young children in suburban Melbourne, Australia: he enters simply by swiping his left arm, which is implanted with a microchip typically used to tag pets, over a scanner by the front door. Furthermore, he can use a laptop or smartphone from anywhere in the world to open and close the curtains and windows, lock and unlock doors (he can let in friends or contractors remotely), control lights, adjust heating and cooling and turn appliances on or off. To further underline his commitment to DIY, he engineered these technologies using Arduino, open source programming software created by DIY electronics enthusiasts working together on the internet.
DIY is a force that unites many ordinary people doing extraordinary things. “Anyone can do anything as long as they’re willing to learn and have the patience to work through it,” says James Gardner, 30, from Somerset in western England, echoing many DIYers’ attitudes to their various pursuits. With this attitude, he has been visiting www.diydoctor.org.uk for “a little advice and help” for renovation work. His domestic projects have included merging two rooms into one, adding a porch and installing a new bathroom, shower and downstairs toilet.
DIY enthusiasts have done much to soften the battering that the DIY market took during the downturn, says Keith Taylor, a director of UK-based market research company AMA. According to his company’s report “DIY Multiples Market – UK 2010-2014”, following a 4 per cent decline in market value in 2008 the UK DIY multiples market (which takes in the vast majority of DIY activity) was worth just over £7bn ($10.5bn) in 2009, a rise of just under 1 per cent since 2008 and 3 per cent less than in 2003. “When you look at how new housing completions have gone down 34 per cent between 2007 to 2009, these figures could have been a lot worse,” says Taylor.
In the US, analyst David Lockwood of market research company Mintel says the home improvement market fell 4.2 per cent in 2007, 3.3 per cent in 2008, and 1 per cent in 2009 but is now starting to recover.
AMA says the main things that have taken a battering in recent years are big-ticket items such as kitchens and bathrooms, mainly because of falling house prices, low consumer confidence and a low level of house moves. However, it identifies lighting as well as decorating and garden projects as performing well. In the US, Lockwood points to sales of eco-friendly building materials and energy-saving devices, which continued rising during the recession or slowed to a “steady” level, and adds that products that allow for partial customisation, such as Ikea tables, the Martha Stewart collection and modular carpet systems, were also top performers. “Interchangeable, mass-produced parts allow consumers to ‘design’ their purchase in the store and change it with relatively small expense later. That meticulously upholstered chair of yesterday is now just as likely to have an expensive fabric but it is also likely to be attached with velcro. This way, consumers (and manufacturers) can change styles quickly and with less expense.”
Gardner, echoing other DIY enthusiasts, says the main driver is personal satisfaction. “When you contract someone to do your work you don’t always know what you’re getting,” he says. “Sometimes, you might find that they might try and cut corners to get the job done. But when I do it, I do it with love and care. I take a lot of pride in my work. DIY is all about attitude.”