For the past few days I have been watching the new BBC2 series Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution with mixed feelings. I really started watching it because one of my friends took part in it and I went along to watch the series being filmed at Amberley Industrial heritage Museum back in the summer. What struck me about the finished series is that despite having a Curator from the V&A, and two Designer/Makers/Promoters as judges, the range and quality of the craftsmen and objects varies considerably from beautifully made pieces of furniture and jewellery to the outright bizarre (and frankly quite ghastly) knitted rag rugs and felted objects with no clear purpose. I think also what comes through (to me at least) is that the programme is really very ‘lightweight’ in content and format. I don’t feel it promotes a craft revolution in the sense that it encourages people to want to purchase handmade items, mainly because so many of the items featured on the show are not that well made and there is far too much gushing of emotional ‘baggage’ by the makers in relation to their work. Obviously there are exceptions, and these pieces speak for themselves being useful, well made and well designed objects showing the maker’s skill in use of their materials. At the time of writing this the series is not over and we do not know who has won the prize of having their work placed in the V&A (alongside some of the best craft in the world) – actually this in itself is a bit of a misnomer, as the prize is actually for the work to be featured in the V&A Shop – something quite different. Still, it will be interesting to see who is the overall winner.
Today I visited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Now I have been wanting to visit this gallery for some time, but the last time I was going to go it was just about to close for a major refurbishment and closed for 2 years! Finally I managed to get there today, and was not disappointed. Morris was the ultimate craftsman and supporter and promoter of craft and the handmade, and it was a delight to see some of the items produced by his company together with many paintings and drawings by Morris and his circle (can’t wait until the Pre-Raphaelites show opens at Tate Modern shortly). However, the actually highlight of todays visit was a small temporary exhibition called “Everyday Encounters” by the Society of Designer Craftsmen.
The catalogue opens with a quote from Morris:
“I cannot allow that it is good for any hour of the day to be wholly stripped of life and beauty.”
Morris indeed practised what he preached, as the gallery bears testament, but what this small exhibition seeks to explore is how relevent are Morris’s ideals and designs relevent to modern everyday life? Is it still possible to have “Nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”? The designer/makers of the Society of Designer Craftsmen took up this challenge and created a wide range of beautifully crafted functional objects which make us stop and think; these objects tell stories that can enrich our everyday lives. What makes so many of these objects fascinating is the unintentional links that they seem to have with each other, for example the lamp made from old books and the small books made from recycled glass, these accidental connections makes them take on new meanings as objects and causes us, the viewer to see them with a new perspective.
The overall standard of the work on show is of the highest standard, showing craftsmen and women who are both innovative in their thinking as well as in their skilled use of materials. A few of my particular favourites are:
Judith Battersby’s paper porcelain bowls entitled ‘Nacre’ the layering of the porcelain references the process of nacre being laid down in an oyster shell. Delicate, beautiful and intriguing.
Jenny Ford’s hand stitched textile sculpture called ‘Shoal’. This sumptuous organic form was inspired by the “simple beauty of a single pearl growing quietly inside and oyster shell”, and indeed this fascinating and unusual piece is designed to hold jewellery.
Simon Jewell’s amazing Tea Caddy, updated internally to accommodate both loose tea as tea bags or sachets. the casket itself is meticulously made from english burr walnut inlaid with a variety of other woods including maple, sycamore, satinwood, holly and masur birch. the inside of the box is decorated with the William Morris Acanthus leaf and there is also a secret compartment containing a set of handmade silver spoons. I love boxes and wood items and this tea caddy is shows how such a traditional item can be reinvented to sit comfortably in the modern world.
Armando Magnino has created what he calls “The Waltham Cabinet” from ripple sycamore and cherry wood. Interestingly the inspiration for this cabinet came from the organic painting of Georgia O’Keeffe, not someone who immediately springs to mind as inspiration for a piece of furniture, yet somehow it works and it works well. This cabinet has smooth flowing curves to the top and sides, and the contrasting colours of the unadorned wood give it a sexy appearance. I would have this in my home and it definitely fulfills the Morris maxim if being both useful and beautiful.
Sumi Perera’s stunning pages from artists books are wonderous to behold. Each page features typeface from Morris’ own designs from Kelmscott Press and have been further embellished using various techniques well-known to printmakers including etching, chine colle, incising and embossing as well as stitch. The work on show includes a beautifully leather-bound compendium of codex books which turn around allowing only one book to be opened at a time.
Sally Reilly’s ceramic Ice Buckets again fulfill the Morris maxim of functionality and beauty. Reilly has made pieces of high quality ceramic tableware with the unusual twist of the addition of acrylic handles and handmade beechwood tongs. This combination of traditional and contemporary materials shows how traditional functional objects can be brought up-to-date with imagination and innovation.
Waring Robertson’s Hall Mirror is simply fantastic! An organic offset elliptical shape, this is no ordinary hall mirror; it is also a fully functioning cupboard. Made from ebony and rippled sycamore the central hinge supports the large mirror fronted door to reveal a small set of drawers and key hooks. A most unusual and visually stimulating piece.
Jeanne Werge-Hartley’s delicate and unusual pieces of tiny silver tableware. A perfectly formed set of Pickle Forks and Olive Spoons shows a silversmith at the very height of her chosen calling.
And finally, my most favourite piece in the whole show – Susie Vickery’s “i-bandolier”. More of a Fine Art piece than a functioning piece of everyday design, this tool belt calls into question the young Chinese factory workers living in dormitories far from home and family, making the technology that connects us in the West with our nearest and dearest. The handmade silk tool belt pockets and pouches containing USB cables, smart phones, memory sticks and other components which anchors the modern technological world with the inherited skills of the skilled craftsman, thus reminding us of the human hand behind mass production. Constructed from linen and Chinese Brocade and embellished with hand embroidery, the i-bandolier is for me, forms the perfect bridge between the hi-tech world of mass production and the gentler highly skilled world of the craftsman.
Unfortunately because of copyright restrictions it has not been possible to show any photographs of these pieces of work; but the artists can be found through simple internet searches, or even better, if you are in London between now and 13 February 2013, go along to the William Morris Gallery and see this free to enter exhibition of the very best in contemporary craft and design. Now this really is a Handmade Revolution!