Preservation society: meet the craft revivalists
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Interest in craft is booming. A report released by the Crafts Council last year revealed the number of people buying craft between 2006 and 2020 had more than quadrupled, from 6.9m to 31.6m people in England. And international online marketplace Artsy reported that sales of ceramics and textiles rose. This trend has also been witnessed globally by 109 and 95 per cent respectively in 2020.
But what of the flute-makers? The clog- makers? The wainwrights and tinsmiths? All of these artisan roles are classified as endangered – in some cases “critically endangered” – by the Heritage Crafts Association, a UK advocacy body established to safeguard traditional craft skills. Since 2015, it has been assessing the vitality of traditional heritage crafts in the UK and identifying those most at risk of disappearing. The Red List includes four crafts that have become extinct in the last generation, including cricket-ball-making and gold-beating. In 2019, once-thriving industries such as industrial pottery and damask-weaving were added to the 37 “critical” entries amid concerns that their specific skills would not be passed on to the next generation. A decline in many traditional skills is being experienced globally, from the creation of sea silk from clam secretions – a rarefied skill, literally hanging on by a thread on the Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco, where artisan Chiara Vigo is believed to be its last practitioner – to Chinese bamboo-weaving.
In 2016, however, the latter was listed as an intangible cultural heritage in Zhejiang and is now showing encouraging signs of revival – as are other crafts. In Japan, where a law passed in 1975 protects “traditional techniques or craftsmanship that are indispensable to the preservation of cultural property”, the lost 19th-century craft of Satsuma kiriko – colourful cut glass – has been vibrantly revived through painstaking research. In the UK, the Endangered Crafts Fund, which awards grants to practitioners of Red List techniques, last year enabled Glasgow bookbinder Gillian Stewart to learn and then teach the disappearing art of fore-edge painting (creating images on the edges of book pages). And thanks to the dedicated work of cockle fisherman Colin Davies, who started making sieves and riddles (the traditional tools for harvesting shellfish) in 2018, the craft has been brought back from extinction.
Institutions such as Scandinavia’s Safeguarding Practices and the American Craft Council in the US are also focusing on preservation, while the Heritage Crafts Association is partnering with the Michelangelo Foundation to take the Red List to a European level. Individual efforts, meanwhile, include the 8,000sq m workshop near Paris run by Carpenters Workshop Gallery – a leading name in collectable design – to uphold the skills of the French arts décoratifs, and the charitable Hong Kong gallery Crafts on Peel, which was opened last year to perpetuate craftsmanship grounded in Chinese cultural heritage by giving it contemporary relevance. For creative director Penelope Luk, “traditional craftsmanship should not only be combined with innovative ideas but also with modern aesthetics”. And a wealth of designers and makers are doing just that: reviving centuries-old methods with 21st‑century verve, firing up old factories and bringing back near-forgotten ways of working with wool, clay or hand-harvested bulrushes, from Stoke‑on-Trent to Sydney.
“The British ceramics industry is on a cliff edge,” says Emily Johnson, whose forebears founded the now-defunct Stoke-on-Trent pottery Johnson Brothers in 1882. That date is also the name of the Hanley-based venture Johnson started 10 years ago alongside her father, Christopher, to breathe new life into the industry that used to thrive in her hometown. Her plan? “To keep ceramics production in Stoke-on-Trent and bring innovative designs to a traditional material, while celebrating heritage crafts skills,” she says.
Johnson started with a series of chunky, irregular but functional tableware conceived by furniture designer Max Lamb. “People looked at me as though I had just landed,” she says of the moment she shared these designs with the city’s potters. “They were like, ‘You want to make that in our beautiful bone china?’” There was, however, one potter prepared to take the project on, using plaster models, hand-carved by Lamb with stonemasonry tools, to slip-cast the avant-garde jugs, plates and bowls – called “the Flintstones” by the factory workers.
Today, these bold, contemporary interpretations of Stoke-on-Trent’s industrial heritage can be found in the Louvre’s collection of arts décoratifs, and the father-and-daughter team has gone on to work with the likes of fashion designers Paul Smith and Peter Pilotto and architect John Pawson. Up next is a range of vessels for Jo Malone – candle and diffuser holders created with set designer Shona Heath (“One of the most beautiful things we’ve done, and also the most complicated”) – followed by a collection with Spanish designer Jaime Hayon. This year, 1882 Ltd will also take on its own space in the factory of another pottery stalwart, Wedgwood.
Success stories are being written elsewhere in the city. From a once-derelict Victorian factory taken over in 1996, Emma Bridgewater now produces 44,000 pieces of her hand-sponged earthenware pottery a week, supplying some 500 international stockists. And at the Grade II-listed Middleport Pottery, Burleigh celebrates its 170th anniversary this year. There, it “continues to do what it has always done, making fine blue-and-white earthenware using traditional methods”, says commercial director Jim Norman, adding that sales have increased by a third in the past five years, buoyed by collaborations with Ralph Lauren and Soho Home. It is now the only pottery in the world to use tissue-transfer printing, a process whereby patterns are transferred first from hand-engraved copper rollers to tissue paper, then onto the ceramics – a highly skilled craft it is nurturing via apprenticeships.
Such traditional skills also underpin craftsmanship further afield. When Devon-based husband and wife Jeremy and Cath Brown, founders of Feldspar, decided to make their pottery hobby a business in 2016, they turned to a Stoke-on-Trent factory to produce their elegantly uneven “objects for life” in fine bone china. Today, the majority of their ceramics are made in Devon, where they are currently tripling the size of their workshop in order to keep up with demand. “All the processes we use are listed as being critically endangered, from mould-making to slip-casting,” says Cath. “In a tiny way, our Devon workshop and its team of 10 is keeping those skills going.”
Jessica Light is widely known as the “The Tassel Queen of Bethnal Green”. From her east London base she brings a fresh, almost anarchic sensibility to the precious craft of passementerie – an endangered skill that encompasses dyeing, cord-spinning, weaving and tassel-making to construct the decorative fabric trimmings used in interiors and fashion. “I sometimes use unusual materials such as horsehair and paper, and striking colour palettes to create pieces that have a very individual, non-traditional aesthetic twist,” she explains.
Light trained in the craft more than 30 years ago, in one of London’s last remaining factories. Her client list includes Vivienne Westwood, Giles Deacon, Burberry and Firmdale Hotels – as well as the Queen, for whom she created the bright gold fringe that adorns the balcony on state occasions. More recently, her reinterpretations of this traditional craft have included a collection of sherbet‑coloured tiebacks with ombre‑dyed tassels, and wide, handwoven loop braids that intricately weave together unexpected material combinations such as black leather and apple‑green wool.
The craft is thought to have originated in the 15th or 16th century in France, where only a handful of workshops remain. Passementerie Verrier is the last workshop of its kind in Paris (and a supplier to high-end fabric store Claremont Furnishing in London, New York and Los Angeles), and Les Passementeries de l’Ile de France is a fourth-generation family-owned business in the village of Belloy-en-France, where each design is painstakingly drawn by hand.
Back in the UK, Derby-based Heritage Trimmings, founded by Nick and Karen Tubbs in 1991, took over a historic factory in 1998 to make the gold, silver and silk passementerie for the restoration of the King’s Apartments at Hampton Court Palace, and continues to specialise in the reproduction of historic examples of the craft.
A newcomer to the passementerie scene is interior designer Kit Kemp, who recently added trimmings to her collection of designs for Christopher Farr. Realised by artisan embroiderers in Kerala, India, the designs take inspiration from various sources, from a length of ribbon Kemp had stashed in a drawer for years to the work of abstract artist Terry Frost. All are fun and colourful.
In the hands of Elizabeth Ashdown, however, embellishments are taken into the realm of contemporary art. Ashdown joins the intricate, small-scale components together on a loom to create large, vivid wall-hangings. Each playful piece combines rare hand-weaving techniques with lively colour combinations and intense, rhythmic patterns. “My work is not about historical recreation,” she says. “Nor is it about heritage preservation for the sake of posterity. My role as an artist is not only to respect this traditional craft, but to move it on, to unleash its potential.”
When Australian industrial designer Adam Goodrum met Parisian master craftsman Arthur Seigneur, a wild kaleidoscope of furniture ensued. Since one of the duo creates products for the likes of Cappellini and Alessi, and the other is a specialist in the arcane 17th-century craft of straw marquetry, together they bring something new to the Rumpelstiltskin-like art of turning dyed stems of rye straw into intricate surface patterns. “The way the straw is inlaid transforms its curled stalks into an iridescent substrate,” says Seigneur. “It is a natural veneer that plays with light like no other lacquer in the world.”
As A&A, the two creatives made their debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2018 with Bloom – a huge, vibrant circle of a cabinet bedecked in a geometric floral motif, which was acquired that year by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. “There is a wonderful tension in the juxtaposition of our natural aesthetics – Arthur is more traditional while I am more modern,” says Goodrum. “We’re working on a collection of three new pieces that continue to evolve our exploration of form and 3D geometry, to push the boundaries of craft, design and art.”
Before moving to Sydney, Seigneur learnt his trade in the Paris atelier of Lison de Caunes – a linchpin in straw marquetry’s revival who took up the craft in the 1970s. “For years, I was the only one. Even 10 years ago there were only about three or four workshops that specialised in straw marquetry in the world,” says de Caunes. “My goal was to make this completely forgotten craft fashionable again.” She has done so with wall panels and doors in Cartier and Guerlain boutiques, and collaborations with designers such as Peter Marino and Cristina Celestino.
The current vogue for straw marquetry is not exclusive to interiors. Cartier has dedicated marquetry artisans at its Métiers d’Art workshops in Switzerland who painstakingly piece together watch faces, while Piaget has used the technique both on watches and on high jewellery created with specialist marqueteure Rose Saneuil. In Berlin, Tabea Vietzke also creates jewellery pieces, as well as small boxes, and is currently working on a wall panel for the Homo Faber exhibition by the Michelangelo Foundation, taking place in Venice this September. And these are works that benefit from being seen in the flesh, concludes Seigneur. “Responses vary from intrigue and amazement at the iridescence, to happiness, wonder and joy at the realisation that humble straw can be transformed in this way.”
In 2013, Felicity Irons travelled from her home in Bedfordshire to the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire Valley. She spent the next 10 days weaving rush wall panels for one of the many chambers – for the first time in 500 years, the panels were being put on the walls. As the château’s conservator couldn’t find specialist rush-weavers in France, she called upon Irons – one of a handful of people in the UK to practise the craft, which has been around since Anglo-Saxon times. “When the conservator walked into the room at the end of the project, she started to cry,” recalls Irons, who punts down the River Ouse to harvest bulrushes for her work. “She was so moved that we were able to recreate what was once there.”
A more common application of rush work today is chair seating, a speciality of young furniture-makers Sam Cooper and Richard Platt. They have recently taken on the Marchmont Workshop in the Scottish Borders – the last remaining full-time rush-seated chairmakers in the UK, with a lineage dating back to 1890 – with the financial backing of the digital entrepreneur and art collector Hugo Burge. Here, their historic ladder-back chairs and settees are made from locally sourced wood and woven with rush they have harvested and dried themselves. Demand for finished pieces has been high. “Since opening mid-pandemic last July, we’ve had to increase our waiting list from six to 14 months,” says Platt.
Back in Bedfordshire, Irons’ small team of weavers creates bespoke rush matting, tableware and basketry, and her skills have been called upon by designers including Tom Dixon and Faye Toogood. A recent collaboration with South African designer Christopher Jenner resulted in the Rush Chair – an undulating oak form cradling a tightly woven rush seat. With each seat taking about 200 hours to weave, it is also a labour of love. “It just takes a shape,” she says of this painstaking but ultimately satisfying experience. “That is the beauty of rush.”