Trend forecasting, in common with consulting crystal balls and tea leaves, can be an unreliable science. But when leading design magazine Wallpaper* devotes not merely an entire issue but a hugely well-attended exhibition during this year’s Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile to handmade products, it is time to take notice. Included in the comprehensive and intriguing show were 100 different items – ranging from an elegant bespoke bicycle to furniture, clothing, cosmetics and even goat’s cheese-flavoured potato crisps – all specially commissioned to extol the virtues of items made by individuals rather than machines.
This renewed interest in manual skill lends itself to numerous interpretations. Perhaps it is a refuge from the world’s recent economic and environmental turmoil and the impending threat of austerity looming like a cloud of volcanic dust? There is certainly a new desirability in owning something made by hand, often from organic, sustainable materials. Instead of striving for anonymous perfection, people are regarding small imperfections as an indication of authenticity; something made by a human being is not incapable of error.
Imperfection is, indeed, becoming a state that is sought after. Linda Brothwell, who refers to herself as a “mender and repairer”, is being inundated with commissions from clients who want her to restore or reinvent everything from an important piece of jewellery to furniture and ceramics. Her repairs turn a damaged object into something characterful and original, similar to Kinrande, the technique used in the Ming dynasty when precious vessels were damaged and repaired with gold, turning something flawed into a treasure.
Handmade work is “an expression of individuality, originality and close to the soul of design”, according to Tricia Guild, founder and design director of textile design company Designers Guild, which sells embroidered textiles made using a mixture of handmade and machine work. Samples are always hand sewn to ensure the final product has a handmade appearance.
Dutch designer Hella Jongerius similarly taps into the trend by combining craft with manufacture. Her distinctive, limited-edition ceramic vessels with decorative embellishments stitched through the clay are found in major museums and private collections all over the world but she also designs for high-end companies such as Vitra and Royal Tichelaar Makkum – where her “B-set” range of tableware makes a virtue of slight imperfections in the glaze to give it “handmade credibility” – and mass-market manufacturers such as Ikea (a ceramic vessel still bears distinctive Jongerius features but retails for about £22).
Until recently, even top-end ceramics were considered too “crafty” to be shown by fine art galleries. Anything handmade was deemed aesthetically inferior unless it was incorporated into a piece by an artist such as Tracey Emin or Grayson Perry. In recent years, however, British ceramicist Edmund de Waal has seen prices for his pieces rocket and he has staged international museum exhibitions and sell-out gallery shows. This year De Waal’s exquisite pot installations were included in the Basel art fair.
London-based designer Martino Gamper made his reputation with “100 Chairs in 100 Days”, a collection of reassembled furniture salvaged from skips, and makes 90 per cent of his products by hand. “Things shouldn’t all look the same – smaller production allows for more details, more variations and individuality,” he explains, extending this philosophy to his own life. Those attending one of Gamper’s occasional Trattoria Sociale dinners – part of another project that saw him turn a London art gallery into a trattoria for four weeks, furnished entirely with his designs – will find him and his team smoking fish in cardboard boxes on the doorstep of his studio, preparing vegetables grown on his allotment, making pasta and churning ice-cream the old-fashioned way.
According to Marco Tabasso, creative director of renowned Milan lifestyle store Rossana Orlandi: “Handmade products are coming back in different ways, sometimes as an addition to the industrial process, giving a more human and irregular feature to a piece. Often things are handmade in the east or Africa. [Design company] Moroso uses artisans in Senegal for its ‘M’Afrique’ furniture collection and for B&B [Italia] with designer Patricia Urquiola’s chairs. In Italy many wonderful small artisan workshops – from mosaics to glass-blowing, wood carving and ceramics – are closing down. By employing these skills in a contemporary project it is possible to preserve both their business and also tradition and history.”
Lace-making is a current fascination for designer Tord Boontje, whose chandeliers for Swarovski have been mass-produced and sold by UK-based high street store Habitat for £15 each. He is continually researching new techniques and inspirations for creating fresh ways with traditional materials, and after his recent experiments says: “‘I started to realise that the value of lace is not the material but in the time spent making it.”
Thousands of visitors flocked to the recent exhibition of quilts at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, and knitting clubs in the UK appear now to be competing in popularity with book clubs. Men are apparently becoming ardent knitters – including short-tempered film star Russell Crowe – and a London department store even offers strictly men-only classes.
There are, however, other skills for those who would prefer to create in more robust media. Ambrose Burne graduated from the blacksmithing, metalwork and welding course at Hereford College of Arts in western England in 2007 and immediately found huge interest in his contemporary forged metal gates, doors and sculptural garden pergolas.
He soon had enough commissions to make a decent living using traditional craft skills regenerated for modern taste.
And one of the UK’s most respected silversmiths, William Phipps, who died last October, worked from his garage workshop in London’s Notting Hill Gate creating sculptural, highly labour-intensive objects with an almost zen-like purity and beauty. Whether a spoon, ladle or christening cup, Phipps’s work is the personification of the very best, most joyful, functional art, only possible because it was lovingly made by hand.
Linda Brothwell, www.lindabrothwell.com
Designers Guild, www.designersguild.com
Hella Jongerius, www.jongeriuslab.com
Royal Tichelaar Makkum, www.royaltichelaar.com
Martino Gamper, www.gampermartino.com
Rossana Orlandi, www.rossanaorlandi.com
Tord Boontje, www.tordboontje.com
Ambrose Burne, www.ambroseburne.co.uk