Heritage. Authenticity. Integrity. There’s no doubt that the craftsperson’s lexicon has been taken up by the mainstream in the past few years. A new generation is discovering the joy of making, while consumers, still bruised by the global downturn, are spending more wisely on objects that are built to last. Big brands are following suit, easing back on the in-your-face, logo-heavy marketing approach of the Noughties in favour of a more considered emphasis on the quality and value of well-made goods.
This much we know. But does it amount to a genuine movement? And, if so, what needs to happen next to ensure the systems are in place for it be nurtured and grown? These are the questions we posed to our panel – consisting of legendary designer-makers, new kids on the block, educators and those who commission craftwork’s greatest hits…
‘I feel that bubbling away out there is a renaissance of the “cottage industry”, just like the Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century; a reaction to mass production and throwaway society,’ says furniture maker and antiques dealer Christopher Howe. ‘But there needs to be a catalyst to get the whole thing going. And I think it will pick up speed very quickly because there is a latent energy, both in terms of people who are concerned about it—who have the influence and the power to make things happen—but also the youngsters who have gained great respect and credibility by learning a trade and a skill. So there’s never been a better time for something like that to happen.’
The danger of course is that the traditional skills driving this burgeoning movement are at risk of dying out with the current generation—unless the knowledge gap can be plugged. ‘This really worries me,’ Howe continues. ‘Once these great craftsmen have retired, or died at their workbench, how are we going to stop this nerve from being severed for good?’
Furniture designer Sarah Kay picks up the theme, adding a note of realism. ‘If these skills aren’t to die out they need to be taught—but they also need to have currency. People can get too nostalgic and romantic. Skills evolve with needs and the invention of more efficient ways of doing things. What is important is that people understand how things are made, the value of materials and the skill involved to turn them into useful things.’
Designer-maker Gareth Neal agrees with this point. ‘Traditional skills and processes need to be appropriated within contemporary environments and revived for the modern audience,’ he says. ‘If we can communicate
the expertise involved and the time it takes to make work, I think people begin to appreciate the skills and understand the price point.’
Price is, of course, the elephant in the room here. Catherine Lock is a director of The New Craftsmen, the Mayfair store that commissions and sells work from some of Britain’s finest craftspeople, in their words ‘representing a vision of sustainable, real luxury’ and committed to elevating the role of the maker.
‘Obviously the people who buy into it just get it: they understand what they’re buying into,’ she says. ‘But there’s a whole re-education to be done for people when they’re not bought in. It’s a really exciting challenge. I believe there’s always a customer for everything, but it’s about finding and nurturing that person. What I’d really like to do is break down the price by hours. If you think about the hours of education that the makers have had, let alone the hours taken to make the actual piece—I think that would really resonate. Time is such a precious commodity for our market.’
Lock cites the designer Max Lamb, whose installation for the 2015 London Design Festival, My Grandfather’s Tree, sought to reconnect our sense of value with both material and process. Lamb sourced 131 logs from a single 187-year-old ash tree on his grandfather’s farm that was suffering from rot. After drying them for seven years, each piece was numbered and priced—from £100 to £14,000—to reflect the quality of the material. ‘I love the audacity of something like that,’ says Lock. ‘To say that tree’s been growing for almost 200 years, so why the hell shouldn’t my prices reflect that?’
Of course, Lamb’s project is an extreme example: one which sought to position his objects within the art market to challenge our preconceptions over price, but it serves to make a serious point. ‘When we set up, it was to be a business,’ Lock emphasises. ‘Many craft organisations are charities – and are run that way. It was very important that we were a profit-making business and the same ethos is passed on to our makers. I see them as small businesses and entrepreneurs – people who have really stuck their neck out.’ What The New Craftsmen hopes to do is to help their chosen makers to refine their businesses, scaling them up and building them into brands.
Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder and MD of Benchmark Furniture, picks up on the same point. ‘That is a rarer quality: to be a craftsman who can sell what they make. And that includes ideas. When someone buys a piece of furniture, it’s a whole story that they fall in love with.’
‘Many of the people we work with I really identify with,’ Lock adds, ‘because they have the right attitude and also the right product—they know what the market wants. They could easily become the future Hermès—the future luxury brand, if they so want that particular path.’
Take for example Sebastian Cox, the woodworker who is well on his way to becoming his own brand (so much so that none other than Sir Terence Conran says of him, ‘I’ve been making furniture for 60 years but I’m still learning from Sebastian’). ‘Cox is a really good example of someone who’s really organised himself,’ says Lock. ‘His father ran his own successful business, restoring buildings and employing craftspeople—which I think has really benefited Seb. You sustain your practice by becoming the go-to person so, in many ways, that dying craft thing can be of benefit to some people.’
Understanding what it means to be a craftsman is one thing; the crucial next step in a young makers’ education is to make them mindful that their craft is also business. Polly Macpherson is associate professor (senior lecturer) in 3D Design at Plymouth University’s School of Architecture, Design and Environment—one of the prime educational facilities in the country seeking to bridge the divide between craft and technology. Her emphasis is on ‘how things are made, how things can be made better… and how this can be taught.’ Key to this is a reconnection with what it means to be a designer-maker.
‘From day one, our course introduces making skills,’ says Macpherson. ‘It’s easier to do the head stuff—students are used to that nowadays. So they need to “unlearn” certain things. Learning by doing is key to the maker movement, so in the first four weeks, they have inductions into the workshop, which goes straight into making and tooling, to show them its relevance.’
Neal, who lectures at Brighton University, feels that more courses should follow suit – and with government support. ‘University education should be free to encourage greater diversity – and the teaching profession needs to be better paid,’ he says. ‘Subjects like design technology are being undermined in Secondary education and young people aren’t exposed to enough experimental hands-on making. Screens are taking over. I think people will always be fascinated by the process of making, and in a world of growing screen-based communication, physical skills and materials are becoming even more important in our lives.’
This is something that they also seek to address at Plymouth. In a copy-and-paste landscape, skills and experience lend products additional value that the modern consumer can appreciate. In short, they want to be able to connect with the making process: ‘People will invest in something if they feel it’s imbued with meaning.’
This theory of connectedness goes beyond the academic; it is supported in practice, too. The course also encourages work placements to give students real-life, hands-on experience. ‘The bigger set-ups can engage with this better than smaller businesses due to the peculiar demands of taking someone on,’ says Macpherson. ‘We currently have a student at Benchmark —they are able to do that because they have a body of people there, as well as insurance and Health & Safety for all their tools and machinery set up.’
They also have a graduate now working with Sebastian Cox, who Macpherson describes as ‘a unique character—working with him, someone can learn additional real-life business skills, too.’
At the other end of the food chain, yacht designers RWD provide a service that they describe as the modern-day equivalent of commissioning a stately home. ‘You get your stonemason in, and your woodworker and your horsehair plasterer,’ says co-founder and director Justin Redman. ‘All these specialist trades that have somewhat died out now, other than for restoration work. Not many people are building new monumental country houses using all those old craftsmen. But some of that is still contained within our industry.’
Their high-end clients buy into that same idea of a product that’s imbued with meaning. ‘There are those who say, “Here’s a vast fortune, and I’ll see you at the launch”; we don’t tend to attract those sort of people,’ adds Redman. ‘Perhaps because of the way we are, the way we like to tell the story of what happens on the journey—“the journey” has become a bit of a naff phrase, but anyway that’s what it is. It’s this sense of all these people doing their amazing little thing to make it all come together. It’s quite a thing.’
RWD creative director Toby Ecuyer recalls a trip to gunmakers Holland & Holland, where he watched the painstaking work of an engraver; they had spent 300 hours working over tiny hairline scratches—that you can only make out with a microscope—to produce a finished piece. ‘It sets up that mindset; when you need a silver detail, you think, “Well those guys up at Holland & Holland are amazing at engraving, let’s get them to do that.” It’s about the provenance, the tiny details and the linking of ideas together.’
But we can’t rely solely on the restorers of stately homes and the designers of luxury yachts to keep a nation of makers afloat. There needs to be a trickle-down effect, whereby the average consumer buys into the notion that things made properly are worth investing in—and don’t have to cost the earth. ‘People say to me, “Oh it’s all very well for you, but we can’t afford that, we have to go to Ikea”,’ says Sutcliffe. ‘But if I want something cheap, I go round the local junkyards. I like the fact that good things last. I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head saying, “But will it last? Is it well made?” – even when I’m buying a pair of trousers!’
‘My philosophy is always to celebrate the maker,’ says David Linley, no stranger to stately homes himself. ‘Being a craftsman is a profession as important as being an architect or lawyer: if a society doesn’t have makers, what’s going to happen? The more that we can do to acknowledge and praise and give credit to those with these immense innate skills, the better… It’s the excitement and celebration of people who are good at doing something really well.’
Sutcliffe echoes this: ‘It’s pretty shocking how little regard we have for craft in this country,’ he says. ‘Even now in the 21st century, it’s still considered somehow second rate. I don’t think that what the people in my workshop
do is second rate: it’s world class.’
Elevating the role of the maker is the first step. The next is reflecting that attitude in whatever system we use to train the younger breed. And, as excellent as the work being done in Plymouth and elsewhere is, that doesn’t always have to mean higher education. ‘I didn’t go to university,’ says Linley; ‘I had the privilege of being taught by the famed John Makepeace at Parnham House School for Craftsmen in Wood.’ The Makepeace approach is, as the man himself says, ‘to provide a good grounding in tradition; a recognition of the way natural evolution resolves problems with results that are invariably elegant and enduring, together with an understanding of the way in which technology and individual craftsmanship enable new possibilities.’
Inspired by Parnham, Linley has now set up his own Summer School at Messums Wiltshire. ‘It is my passionate belief that we should utilise the imaginative and creative resources of this country to their maximum potential,’ he says. ‘And with workshop spaces and hands-on making courses disappearing at an alarming rate, I hope the Linley Summer School will be the beginning of a new Arts & Crafts movement in the 21st Century.’
There’s another reason why this approach might be preferable to apprenticeships. ‘Taking on an apprentice can be costly and time-consuming,’ says Kay, ‘only for your apprentice to clear off, just when they’ve started to be value for all the effort! It needs proper government backing to help make it an attractive proposition to employers.’
There are, to be fair, schemes in place to do just that. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has set out to achieve three million apprenticeships in the UK by 2020. To facilitate this, they have pledged to spend £2 for every £1 that businesses put in to the scheme. Notably, at the 2016 Creative and Cultural Skills National Conference (‘Building a Creative Nation: Putting Skills to Work’), it was apparent that the ‘traditional’ model of apprenticeships—usually associated with heavy industry—is now being extended to include the Creative Industries. As Chi Onwurah MP, shadow minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, made pains to note, ‘Culture isn’t just about consuming but about people creating things too.’
There is of course a major issue with apprenticeships: all the form-filling. That may sound flippant, but there’s a serious point here. As Howe explains, ‘Health & Safety regulations immediately rule out the current old workshops of these individual makers.’ But he has a solution: if you can’t take the eager apprentices to the old workshops, how about taking the mentors to them? Here’s where Howe’s grand vision comes in. After discovering a beautiful—and empty—historical building near Bristol, the penny dropped for him.
‘It suddenly dawned on me,’ he says. ‘There must be houses like that all over the country. And if they could be taken over by the government or some sort of trust, and set up like an academy, then those craftsmen from the region could go there. They’d be set up as workshops, all the machinery and equipment would have passed Health & Safety. It wouldn’t take away too much from their working timetable… and between them all, a college would be set up—and, because they’re all in one college, they would all be pooling their ideas together. So an upholsterer, a furniture maker, a metalsmith, a ceramicist, a textile artist… it wouldn’t just solve the teaching problem, it would do much more than that: it would bring together all those people into one environment.’
Kay reiterates the importance of togetherness. ‘If you want to be a professional maker, don’t underestimate the importance of learning to design,’ she says. ‘Apart from that: collaborate—work with as many different professionals as you can. It’s really enriching.’
So: a case of ‘Makers of the world, unite’? Why not? It’s clear that makers are having their moment—and that this renewed interest in their art has given them a momentum that should be capitalised upon. ‘Yes, I definitely feel there is a growing appreciation of the handmade, and general making processes,’ says Neal. ‘People are intrigued by how things are made, and it has brought makers into the limelight and created a community.’
The interest is there, the expertise is there, and the willingness seems to be there too. Surely by pooling all this talent – not to mention the latent energy that Howe has identified—and channelling it towards a common goal, something altogether more substantial and permanent can be built by this disparate band of talented mavericks.
If you can get them all under the same roof, sharing their experiences and skills with those eager to learn—and to do so before it’s too late, before their knowledge and craft secrets are lost to us—why wouldn’t you jump at the chance? To not only keep this movement alive, but grow it?
As Linley puts it, ‘It’s important that we look through all the things we’ve been really good at—the ways we can explore what this inventive, island nation can be capable of—and celebrate it.’