London Craft: Doing the Experimental

London Craft: Doing the Experimental


Origin: The London Craft Fair brought together innovative and influential craftspeople-both established and up-and-coming-working with a wide range of media. At the exposition Sahar Freemantle displayed her handmade hats. Photo/Maria Moore

An abundance of events suggests that craft in Britain is banging and growing more than ever before.

In September 2006, the young ceramist Clare Twomey scattered 4,000 porcelain birds throughout the Victoria and Albert Museum and invited visitors to take one home. Then she sat back and watched. "Suddenly, this fine Wedgwood china was being 'stolen' from the V & A!" she recalls. "It was wonderful to see."

After all, everybody knows that you can't remove an exhibit from a museum. Until now. Twomey's "Trophy" exhibition is just one example of the experimental phase that craft is undergoing in London. "That's why the exhibition was successful," she says. "It's part of the current dialogue within London craft, which is about challenging conventions."

Craft has come a long way from the stale cottage industry of old. In 2007 Britain's Crafts Council (the flagship body for crafts in the U.K.) was restructured with a mission to make craft exciting and relevant to a broader audience. Together with the abundance of events currently happening-including Origin: The London Craft Fair, which took place in October and brought together over 320 established and emerging makers, and Collect, London's only international art fair for contemporary objects, which opens in January 2008-craft in Britain is showing signs of change and growth.

An example of this evolution was the opening debate, "Craft, Creativity and the Computer Controlled Age," at the 2007 London Design Festival-considered one of the most important design events in the world. The discussion explored the merits of mixing digital technology with craft. "These are the kinds of issues that make London such an exciting place for crafts right now," observes Rosy Greenlees, the director of the Crafts Council.

The Design Festival's director, Ben Evans, also feels the shift. "We've had an almost seismic change over the last 10 years. You know those tourist stores with their chintzy pots and mugs?" he asks. "They give a distorted view of the sector but, in a way, it was once a real view. Craft had been sidelined into this slightly pastiche, quasi-art world, and craft makers didn't know how to get out of it. Now, though, there's a new generation."

This new and progressive generation is the result of many influences: fresh teaching in art schools, a sophisticated consumer and a government that's supportive of the creative industries. There's also something deeper going on. "It's a revolution from the bottom," Evans says. "London's a magnet for people in creative disciplines. And that's a unique advantage."

Edmund de Waal, maker of porcelain vessels and one of London's most prominent craft workers, would go so far as to say that London is experiencing a rebirth. "The identity of craft is in transition," he says. "It's no longer seen as a slightly escapist, rural thing that happens down a lane somewhere. There's an acidity, a questioning."

De Waal cites the silversmith David Clarke and Twomey as two examples of this new, questioning craft maker. Clarke buys battered objects off eBay, cuts them up and re-fuses them with silver, lead and pewter. "The result is these wonderful, bizarre hybrid objects. They're beautifully made but also a fantastic commentary on commodities and buying and selling," De Waal says. "Clare does these very light-footed pieces, which play with people, objects and places. You didn't get people doing that 10 years ago."

Twomey also sees a strengthening in experimental craft and cites the new mission of the Crafts Council as an opportunity to fill the void, although she feels that it is still in the embryonic stages. "Experi-mental craft isn't as strong as commercial craftwork, which is bolstered by gallery attention," she says. "We need something permanent where visitors can see different things every week and say 'This is mind-blowingly crazy!' Right now, that doesn't exist in London."

"That doesn't mean that commercial craftspeople can't use it," she adds. "But it does mean that the Edmund de Waals and Clare Twomeys of this world can do something reckless with it!”