Preserving the Heritage of British Craft

Preserving the Heritage of British Craft

Preserving the Heritage of British Craft

Roddy Clarke explores the role of craft in a contemporary design scene and the importance of preserving such valuable skill sets today.

With its historic legacy of craft and making, Britain is steeped in a wealth of talent still today. Industries have thrived with a rich tapestry of skillsets being honed and developed over centuries as crafts have been passed down to oncoming generations. However, as technological advances increased and digitalisation occurred, many crafts began to diminish, and younger generations turned away from practical careers. Now, as we have become aware of its importance, alongside the reignited desire for investing in independent designers and brands, we are seeing an uptake of such occupations again, as creatives seek to follow their individual passions. Going forward, merging these talents into a contemporary design scene is key to ensure their fruition in the future as well as preserving the quality and intricacy of such artistic techniques and abilities.

Highlighting how our passion and appreciation for craft in the UK is rising once again, the Crafts Council’s 2020 Market for Craft report is a good indicator in the shifts which have occurred within the sector in recent years, considering data secured both prior and post the COVID-19 imposed lockdowns. Stating that 73% of UK adults had bought craft in 2019, it brought up interesting factors such as the increasing interest from younger generations (a third of today’s buyers are aged under 35) and the rise of online purchasing from makers and craftspeople (10.3m Brits are buying craft online).

When it comes to keeping individual crafts alive, commercial relationships can be pivotal in their survival. Jake Solomon, the Managing Director of Foresso, says creating a profitable space for craft is one of the main roles he sees for interior design studios and architectural practices. Previously known as Solomon & Wu, and focusing on architectural mouldings, the company rebranded as Foresso to apply their craft and knowledge to greener production and materials. Speaking of his relationship with David Collins Studio, he says, “They have always had faith in the individual and been prepared to take risks, at least in my case. For me that meant an opportunity to work with people who demanded work to be thought through and would present new ideas to me, in a collaborative spirit. Often Simon Rawlings would introduce me to some technique I had never heard of and suggest we could try and develop it. It didn’t always work but it always felt like progress.” Thanks to this collaboration, alongside others, Foresso has established itself as a true example of contemporary British craft. Handmaking surfaces and furniture using recycled materials, and paying detailed attention to its impact, Solomon approaches traditional techniques with a modern vision and renewed mindset. “These crafts play an integral role in the creation of a circular economy and have the potential to become even more relevant,” he continues. “We must rely on ourselves to make change to create a better future, we cannot rely on others to point the way. To bridge the gap, craft must embrace modern manufacturing methods and the reality of supply chains in a global economy. There is no point pretending we live in some bucolic past where our decisions have no larger consequences.”

This forward-thinking attitude is one which many artisans share in the UK. “Traditional crafts should not be ring-fenced,” comments Tim Butcher, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Fromental, creators of handmade, bespoke wallpapers. “To be preserved they must remain valid and that means commercially viable. That means understanding that to do something special and with the finest quality it will cost what it needs to cost. I think interior designers like David Collins Studio are champions of craft because they value the cost of quality and ensure their clients understand that.”

Placing this significance on craft is fundamental in its preservation and is why the British craft sector has managed to continue throughout different design eras over the last few centuries. While there is a risk of certain crafts becoming extinct, years of economic stability has allowed space for innovation and experimentation. However, it is important that going forward we make way for a further development of techniques and the cross fertilisation of ideas, especially looking at the presence of British craft on a global design scene. Fromental, who works with artisans in China practicing traditional techniques used on its wallpaper designs, see the benefit of merging cultures when it comes to applying craft to design projects today. “Where different patterns collide, a new third pattern is possible,” Butcher explains. “I began my travels in China in the 1990s and being able to see the fruits of another culture with an outsider’s eye meant a different perspective could offer a unique third element.”

Recounting Fromental’s collaborations with David Collins Studio, which include hand-embroidered maps of Hyde Park on the walls of a London Hotel and even a personal project in the home of Collins himself, Butcher reveals how the creative process was always a very real and testing challenge. “They will always push very hard,” he says, “but it is rewarding because it is a push with a clear direction. Many designers we work with will say it’s not quite right but surprisingly few can articulate why. What is special is how they also respect the detail and limits of the craft. There is drive and experimentation to push the limits but also a respect of the boundaries of it.” Maintaining this respect to uphold the integrity of the crafts employed on a project ensures an optimum result is achieved without any compromise.

Despite the spike in interest from upcoming generations, the acceleration of e-commerce during lockdown, and the rise of conscious consumers, there are still many niche skillsets at risk of extinction here in the UK. The Heritage Crafts Association, who produce a researched report titled ‘The Red List of Endangered Crafts’, shared their last findings in 2021. Exploring specific independent crafts, the report highlights those which are in danger of dying out and those which already have. With crafts such as traditional damask weaving, kishie basket making and tinsmithing some of those currently labelled ‘Critically Endangered’, the report is key in helping us understand ways in which we can preserve such artistries. It is important to also note the need to maintain the integrity of the crafts, considering their original methodologies and processes. Textile designer Jude Cassidy designs each item on the loom as she says every yarn reacts differently and only by seeing this as you hand weave can you get the best out of each yarn and therefore the most interesting fabrics. “I prefer to design using traditional techniques than by computer software,” she states. “My craft is a skill that has been taught and perfected after hours of learning and hands-on teaching. That’s why it is always so exciting working with the design teams today as they have such interesting ideas that I enjoy creating and perfecting the exact colours for each project they commission.”

As we look at the depth of UK craft which has influenced many areas of our culture and society, the benefits of investing into independent makers and artists are clear to see. Not only do they provide a transparent and conscious alternative to mass-produced items, the stories and narratives behind each piece add a beautiful flair to the spaces they inhabit. “Applying craft to major interior design projects showcases how it has a place in high end design,” Cassidy continues, who’s first commission came from David Collins directly to create a lavender hand-woven trim for a pair of curtains. “Some people perceive craft as homemade, or a lesser standard of production, but in fact, you’ll find skilled craftspeople can produce to a higher standard than most factories.” Cassidy also offers internships to help pass on her skillsets to students who are interested in expanding their relationship with the craft. Thanks also to organisations such as the Crafts Council and QEST, there are avenues for graduates and young creatives to explore within the sector which will hopefully keep as many crafts as possible alive through intergenerational crossovers. For makers, craftspeople and artisans who might be looking at how to sustain their businesses going forward, it is evident how relationships with larger interior design studios and architectural practices can help provide a clear route to success. “Decide how you want your products to sit in relation to the real world not just the craft world,” Solomon concludes, “no one works without an impact on others.”

So, as we reassess the role of British craft and its presence in a future global design world, it is exciting to see the opportunities arising and how, through the power of collaboration and industry partnerships, its beauty and heritage can be preserved for generations to come. And it remains clear that, through celebrating and maintaining the integrity of it, interior design studios can play a pivotal role in its future success and prosperity.

Roddy Clarke is a freelance interior design journalist based in London.