A few months ago I was lucky enough to get to see a small exhibition at the William Morris Gallery by the Society of Designer Craftsmen, I was really impressed by the standard or craftsmanship and the imagination and thought process behind some of the work; so when a friend asked me if I would like to see a larger exhibition by the same group I jumped at the chance.
The 23rd Annual Exhibition by the Society of Designer Craftsmen (www.societyofdesignercraftsmen.org.uk) is currently at the Mall Galleries in London (running until 3rd February 2013) and features an incredible variety of arts and crafts work keeping true to the traditions and sentiments of William Morris; “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The work in the Mall Galleries exhibition covers a wide range of craft mediums including Ceramics, Furniture, Glass, Jewellery, Metal, Mixed Media, Textiles and Wood and stylistically ranges from the very traditional to highly conceptual to the down right quirky. Entry to the show cost £4 with a free catalogue, although not all the artists showing work are fully listed.
The Mall Galleries space is not vast and this exhibition filled every spare square centimetre, covering walls and floors as well as free-standing panels, and this to my mind gave the whole show a somewhat ‘old fashioned’ and somewhat ‘overhung’ look to the display; but what was worse was the difficulty in progressing round and between exhibits without being constantly aware that something could easily be knocked over or otherwise damaged; and this is a shame. This is definitely a case where less would have been more!
However the overall standard of the work on show was high, although in my opinion there were a couple of exceptions. For the highlights of the show (for me) were the beautiful lace dresses made from recycled Sainsbury carrier bags by Judith Hammond and Sue Stone’s (www.womanwithafish.com) quirky stitched pictures showing 3 women in 1950’s style coats and hats against a graffiti wall and 3 cartoon boys each holding a fish. Other work on show re-imagined traditional handicrafts such as Rag Rugging which Caroline Marriott (www.carolinemarriott.com) uses to create colourful flowers and hats (as well as cushions and rugs); while some of the furniture makers were simply stunning such as the smooth and very sexy sinuous curves on pieces by Armando Magnino (www.magnino.co.uk).
Not all the work on show was of functional objects, and some of the artists have a more conceptual approach to their work such as the figurative porcelain pieces by Gary Betts (www.garybettssculpture.com) depicting what to me looked like somewhat sinister and slightly anguished figures smelling roses or with a knife in their chest. Betts often describes his work as enigmatic, but his inspiration comes from his childhood growing up on the edge of Epping Forest – hmmm, odd sort of childhood! Even more bizarre are the ceramic figurines by Gin Durham (www.gindurhamart.co.uk) which at first glance look like cute (if somewhat kitsch) soft bodies dolls and plushies, but on closer inspection the motifs and decoration reveals imagery depicting contemporary social tensions in childhood; interesting work indeed!
There was so much work on show in such a wide variety of medium that I felt the exhibition lacked focus and had the feel of a craft show. I think what I came away thinking was “what IS a designer craftsman in the 21st century?” and from the work on display I think that the answer is probably that a “designer craftsman is an innovative conceptual thinker highly skilled in the use and manipulation of their chosen materials and medium.”
Sadly due to copyright it was not possible to take photographs at this exhibition, but I have tried to include web links for artists whose work I particularly enjoyed. More information can be found on the website of the Society of Designer Craftsmen (www.societyofdesignercraftsmen.org.uk).