Keeping it real: the craft skills renaissance

Craft skills are riding a wave of appreciation at present, which is only to be welcomed, says Veronica Simpson. But while handcrafted goods are being snapped up, often at eye-watering prices, where’s the recognition (and generous reward) for the craftsman and craftswoman creating them?

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Craft skills and authenticity were officially declared as 'having a moment' at last year's London Design Festival, when Design Junction hosted a debate on the value of craft, inspired by the Crafts Council's excellent Added Value exhibition (still touring).

Happily craft is well and truly surfing that wave of renewed interest and appreciation, as evidenced by a slew of new and existing high-profile awards this year. Two new awards schemes have been launched: the Craft Skills Awards, set up by the Creative & Cultural Skills network, to celebrate the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next; and the Perrier-Jouet Arts Salon Prize, won in its inaugural year by ceramicist Hitomi Hosono, who receives a £10,000 grant towards the development of her career as well as getting a solo exhibition.

Craft-inspired designers and promoters were also garlanded with awards in the Queen's Birthday Honours - including Thomas Heatherwick, Grayson Perry, Emma Bridgewater, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Pippa Small, Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish (of notonthehighstreet.com), with Heatherwick and Barber Osgerby also coming up trumps in the D&AD awards.

Two major trends play into this renaissance of craft skills. As austerity continues to leave teeth marks, making stuff (sewing, knitting, weaving, growing and cooking food) has emerged as both a pleasurable and an economically prudent way of investing our spare time - hobbies that pay dividends in terms of replenishing our wardrobes and cupboards and enhancing our skills and bank balances. You could call it slow consumerism, as people increasingly turn away from the mass-market homogenisation of the high street and everything available in it in favour of something more personal and meaningful.

Maggie’s furniture

From a sketch by architect Edward Cullinan, local artisan Ben Atkinson refined and honed this pivotal piece of Maggie's furniture

The second and maybe more bittersweet trend is the unceasing drive to add to the exclusivity (and justify the cost) of luxury goods which has capitalised on this new craft sensibility, from the bogus personalisation of Levi's 'crafted' campaign to the trumpeting by Hermes of its artisanal connections (leading to record sales, it seems, despite the recession).

Rosy Greenleas, the Crafts Council's executive director, said in a blog about the Perrier-Jouet award that 'finding corporate sponsorship is the Holy Grail in the arts world in these days of austerity'. She continued: 'Historically, craft has never quite had the same cachet with big brands as fine art and design, but perhaps as consumers pay more attention to how and where their products are made this is beginning to change.' Maybe we could take a moment to think about who and what is being appreciated when the big brands move in. Yes, it's a fantastic thing when Perrier-Jouet highlights and rewards those unsung heroes quietly going about their vocation of making the ordinary, commonplace and unremarkable into something beautiful. It's great that Hermes is keeping hundreds of highly trained leather workers in food and rent (though wouldn't it be a more enlightened act of patronage if who they are, where they live and how they are paid were transparent in the process?). And it's wonderful that the sale of so many of Swarovski's kitsch crystal animals and jewellery diverts large sums of money towards high-profile collaborations with artists and designers who rarely, in tight commercial markets and time-frames, get the chance to simply play with materials for the sake of artistic expression and experimentation.

But are people buying those expensively tooled handbags because they appreciate the skills that went into making them or because it justifies the price tag - because it's all part of the allure and glamour of the brand? Glamour, it may be worth pointing out, comes from an archaic word meaning 'a magic spell or enchantment'. Its contemporary meaning is 'an air of compelling charm, romance and excitement, especially when delusively alluring.' If the perceived authenticity and integrity of craft is a vital part of that allure, why not ensure that the craftsmen involved are given due credit?

These thoughts were reinforced by a recent visit to the newest Maggie's Centre in Newcastle. Designed by Cullinan Architects as a charmingly humane antidote to the hostile hospital environment around it, it features a handcrafted kitchen table by local designer/maker Ben Atkinson, who happens to be a friend of mine.

Atkinson’s reward for designing a beautiful kitchen table was the commission to design this outdoor table as well

Atkinson's reward for designing a beautiful kitchen table was the commission to design this outdoor table as well

Before the opening, Atkinson was apparently quizzed by a Maggie's PR executive who was anxious to know how special it was to be working for Maggie's (Atkinson, at the time, hadn't heard much about Maggie's; he had simply been asked by the interior design company working with Cullinan's to create a table that roughly corresponded to Ted Cullinan's sketches). So Atkinson, with refreshing honesty, said: 'It doesn't really matter who I'm making for; I could be making radiator covers for the Queen and a kitchen table for a bloke in Burnley, and I would take greater pleasure from the kitchen table because it was a more interesting commission.' Needless to say, Atkinson's words didn't make it into the press release. But they struck a chord with me, because of their integrity.

As anyone familiar with Maggie's cancer centres will know, the kitchen table is a pivotal piece of furniture within the Maggie's concept: it's the friendly alternative to a hospital reception desk - the key device uniting random groups of people, who feel immediately entitled to gather around it to share experiences and offer support. (To his credit, Atkinson was untroubled by his PR 'gaffe'. 'The table will do its own PR,' he told me. And, sure enough, he's been rewarded with additional furniture commissions in both Newcastle and Nottingham Maggie's Centres.) It's the beauty of the thing itself we should enjoy, the skill of its maker, the ease and grace with which it does its job - not the kudos or additional 'glamour' it adds to the brand behind it.

While craft is having its extended moment, perhaps designers, craftsmen and those who appreciate their output should seize the initiative to educate more consumers about the value of craft and craft skills; we should take pains to throw an equal amount of glory on to the creators as we bestow on the patrons who have been clever enough to single them out. If we really mean to shift to a model of more considered and sustainable consumerism, people should know the difference between patronage and exploitation - knowing the name of the person who made your underpants or jeans doesn't necessarily bring with it any appreciation of their craftsmanship or any tangible reward beyond the (hopefully) minimum wage they were paid to create them.

Maybe if more people thought this way, they'd ponder carefully before handing £500 to a corporate global brand for a bag or a piece of furniture and give it directly to a talented local maker who could create something just as beautiful and twice as meaningful and receive an appropriately generous payment for their efforts.





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