Words by Grant Gibson, Illustration by Miguel Montaner
One of my favourite installations at this year’s recent London Design Festival was the Simplified Beauty show at SCP. It was seeing the display of traditional ceramics from Mashiko that made me realise how much British design has changed and matured since I started writing about it twenty years ago. Back then Sheridan Coakley’s store was the bastion of cutting-edge British design. It was Coakley who promoted the likes of Jasper Morrison, Terence Woodgate, Matthew Hilton, (the sadly late) James Irvine and Michael Marriott to an often ambivalent British public. In the mid-nineties design was tribal; you were either part of the nascent Shoreditch scene or a cushion scatterer from Chelsea Harbour; companies were either modern and innovative and exhibited at 100% Design or traditional and conservative in which case their natural environment was at Decorex, held in the leafy, suburban environs of Syon Park. Some of us on the side of progress genuinely believed we were contributing to a profound change in British culture, that with the likes of Blur and Blair we could somehow re-invent the nation in our own image.
However, nearly 20 years on it seems we’ve all learned to relax, the tribes are (slowly) converging. Pluralism reigns. Over the past few years SCP has exhibited at Decorex, for instance, alongside contemporary companies such as Pinch, Aram and Eley Kishimoto which would have been nigh on inconceivable even a decade ago. And there’s been no more obvious signifier of this change than the re-emergence of craft and the fetishisation of the handmade. Not so long ago craft came with largely negative connotations of a by-gone England. How things have changed. From being a dirty word, it has almost become a badge of honour. I edited the designjunction catalogue this year and it was fascinating to see how many exhibitors were desperate to emphasise their craft credentials. In an interview I did with Alberto Alessi, for example, he described his vision of the company as ‘a combination of fine craftsmanship and advanced design research, following the model of Wiener Werkstaette at the beginning of the twentieth century but rooted in contemporaneity.’ Suddenly craft, craftsmanship, handmade are seen as having cultural and (probably more importantly) commercial cachet.
So why has this happened? Well the fact of the matter is that the ‘make-do-and-mend’ end of the craft spectrum traditionally tends to thrive in times of economic strife, when people need to find ways of making their stuff go further. This has been compounded by the burgeoning inequalities of British society, in which the super-rich have got richer, meaning the luxury end of the market, which has always traded on hand making, has continued to prosper. Nearly fifteen years after Naomi Klein published No Logo it also seems that a strata of consumers (middle class, wealthy) are paying more attention to how and where their goods are made, aping a recent trend in the food market. In the same way that some shoppers like to know that their chicken breasts are organic, or corn-fed, or farm-assured, so products that haven’t been made under exploitative conditions have found a receptive audience.
I think it’s fair to say that the ambitions of many of the best, young designers have changed too. Whereas the ultimate aim was once to get spotted by a major (often Italian) manufacturer and create industrially-made products for the mass market, now many of the most interesting graduates are more intent on doing projects that critique consumerism and shy away from globalisation. Allied to this is the fact that many of those same (often Italian) manufacturers have become increasingly risk averse during the recession, relying on a small pool of globally renowned designers. Meanwhile technology has allowed micro-manufacturing to flourish and social media means that makers can now find a potentially huge market.
Arguably all of this means that the relationship between design, manufacturing and craft is more tightly knit than at any time since the industrial revolution. The perceived boundaries between craft and design are being broken.