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Make Britain make again: how to commission bespoke craft pieces

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For some, the word “craft” might bring about visions of a dusty village hall with stalls selling knitted doilies and a requirement to rummage. For others, it could imply gallery-like spaces housing unattainably expensive pieces, suitable only for the collector.

But craft encompasses so much more. Commissioning your own unique item of craftsmanship — a piece of furniture to fit an awkward space, a wall hanging in a colour you like or simply something original that you fancy — has never been more accessible. In times of mass-produced furniture, craft provides an outlet for authenticity and meaning.

In The Market for Craft Report 2020, a national analysis carried out by the Crafts Council, it was reported that in England 31.6m people bought a crafted item, compared with 6.9m from the previous report in 2006. According to the report, “growth in the public’s desire for authenticity, for experiences, for ethical and sustainable consumption” is a core reason.

“There is a strong link between participating in craft and buying craft, so the more uptake of craft activity there is — which happened during the pandemic — the more people appreciate and then buy,” says Natalie Melton, creative director of the Crafts Council. It is the “future heirloom that people really desire”, says designer Edward Collinson.

Edward Collinson’s Broad kitchen island, made to order in ebonised oak

The new “plugged-in global audience”, as London-based interior and furniture designer Charlotte Rey, co-founder of design studio Campbell-Rey, calls it, has played a big part in bringing an international and artistic “patronage” to bespoke craft. You no longer need to be a cultural attaché with a secret address book to be part of the buyers market.

The New Craftsmen was established in 2012 with a premise “first and foremost to dispel and dismantle the perception that craft is not high-quality, high-finish pieces”, says managing director Yelena Ford.

The organisation works with 92 makers to produce bespoke furniture and homewares, and provides a quick way to identify products and makers and navigate the commissioning process.

“Clients are welcome to visit the showroom in Mayfair, email or call to speak to a member of staff,” Ford says. The platform offers consumers a variety of benefits: a pre-edited selection of makers and their work (saving clients the time and energy of sourcing a maker themselves), an established rapport with the maker and, perhaps most appealing of all, someone to manage the client-maker relationship, which Ford warns can otherwise be “overwhelming”.

Penzance-based ceramicist Jack Doherty with Guardian vase . . .  © Rebecca Peters Photography
. . . and Paula Moss and Maxine Hall of Blackpop, a Derbyshire design studio specialising in fabrics, upholstered furniture and wallpaper

Material samples can be sent directly to the client’s home or office — which proved popular during lockdown and appeals to those who are time-poor or in need of creative direction. Clients can take advantage of the wide “commissioning spectrum” the business offers.

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Essentially, there are different entry points for clients to commission at, offering scope for people who are working to budget or to deadline. “You can buy a handcrafted and unique item ‘off the shelf’ from the showroom floor or website. Then there’s a sort of middle ground with made-to-order pieces which have built-in customisation options — where a customer can potentially change the colour, the handles or the tone of the wood,” says Ford. “Right at the other end of the spectrum there’s what I would call ‘true bespoke’, where a piece is designed from scratch.”

You can find and commission pieces directly, though. Makers like ceramic artist Jack Doherty, who works from his studio in Penzance, are able to offer variety. “I have an approach where I can make my work in ‘family groups’, varying the scale and proportion of the pieces,” says Doherty. “This means that I can often include smaller items which are less costly.” For example, Doherty’s small Conical Vessel V is priced at £350.

These independent artisans are, on the whole, seeing the benefit of social media platforms such as Instagram.

“I think Instagram has levelled the playing field for the more boutique makers,” says Fred Rigby, a furniture craftsman with a workshop in Stoke Newington, north London.

However, tactility prevails, and it’s the “in person” approach that skilled makers such as Rigby still claim to prefer. Rey describes this as an “interpersonal energy” that’s “inherent to the unique process” of ordering and owning something bespoke.

A chair from The Everyday Collection by the Fred Rigby Studio
A chair from The Everyday Collection by the Fred Rigby Studio © Renee Kemps/Vaernis Studio
. . . and the customisable Josef bench, made to order from Campbell-Rey

As a result, makers welcome those who come to see their work in person. The Crafts Council has, just this year, unveiled its newly designed gallery on London’s Pentonville Road, where it will run a free exhibition of craft objects called Maker’s Eye: Stories of Craft (until October 9). Across the capital, events such as London Design Festival (closing this weekend) and London Craft Week (October 4-10) offer prime opportunities for designers and makers to show their skill and the quality of their work.

This year, London Design Festival has played host to more than 300 designers from a smorgasbord of disciplines, promoting the city as “the design capital of the world”. Director Ben Evans says that workshops and demonstrations mean “visitors are able to learn about what goes into creating beautiful pieces from ceramics to furniture and textiles, and have the opportunity to connect with makers”.

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Don’t be fazed by the volume of makers and events on offer. There’s a helpful website (londondesignfestival.com) where you can search events by design districts, disciplines and dates. Similarly, the Crafts Council offers an online directory (craftscouncil.org.uk), as well as a dedicated page called “How to Commission a Craftsperson”.

‘Maker’s Eye: Stories of Craft’, an exhibition running at the Crafts Council’s gallery in London until October 9

This year at London Design Festival, furniture makers Jan Hendzel, Benchmark and Sebastian Cox took part in Designposts, a series of “sculptural waymakers” created for each of the design districts taking part and designed in collaboration with 10 furniture students.

The Royal Exchange hosted The Makers’ Market, giving crafters such as Blackpop and Rekha Maker an opportunity to display their work. LDF has also played host to Arts Advisory, where craft expert Preston Fitzgerald brought together emerging makers working with 3D clay printing to exhibit pieces labelled “worthy of collecting”.

London Craft Week involves more than 250 artisans: individuals such as textile artist Ekta Kaul, who explains that she began stitching maps more than a decade ago “as a response to exploring what ‘home’ — London and India — meant to me”.

The lead times for different processes can vary, she says. “Embroidery is a slow process, so it is good to allow several months for the embroidery, especially if it is a large piece.”

However, she can also create speedier painted pieces and smaller maps, so it’s worth asking. A made-to-order British Isles Map can be purchased for £2,400 via ektakaul.com.

A carpenter in his workshop
Darta Shokrzadeh at the Jan Hendzel workshop during London Design Festival. Shokrzadeh was one of 10 emerging talents to take part in ‘Designposts’ project

Kaul will be taking part in an event on October 6 called Textile Talent — an open studio and talk with fellow textile artists Eva Dennis, Hannah Refaat and Richard McVetis. This is part of a series of events organised by Cockpit Arts to showcase a diverse selection of craftspeople working in similar disciplines.

On approaching the commissioning process, “it is a good idea to do some research before you even contact a maker, to make sure your aesthetics align,” says Rey. “When you start the commission, remember to ask lots of questions at the beginning — it will potentially save time and it irons out any issues early on.”

Comparing timescales and cost? Generally, makers will go to great lengths to accommodate tighter lead times and stricter budgets (working to smaller scale, say, or adapting the piece so that it is less labour-intensive or intricate). Ford even describes a bespoke cabinet as having a “comparable lead time” to that of a high-street manufacturer, quoting 12 weeks.

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London Story, a map quilt made by textile artist Ekta Kaul, who began stitching maps ‘as a response to exploring what “home” meant to me’

However, bespoke work will inevitably cost more in comparison to the high-street offering. It is a sign of skill, quality and time spent.

Ceramicist Chris Keenan says that ultimately makers aim to “give the client an understanding of the processes related to the specific material”, which “helps manage expectations”.

Rey agrees. “The beauty of a truly handcrafted and bespoke piece is universal. Things that are well made by hand — their inherent quality is non-subjective and will always be desired.” We are talking about potential heirlooms, after all.

What to see at London Craft Week

Textile Talent, with Cockpit Arts 

Textile artists, designers and weavers Ekta Kaul, Eva Dennis (whose piece is shown above), Hannah Refaat and Richard McVetis will be speaking about their work during a “curated tour” on Wednesday October 6, 6.30pm-8pm, Cockpit Arts. Tickets £15 via londoncraftweek.com

Maker’s Eye: Stories of Craft

This is the first exhibition to take place in the new Crafts Council Gallery at 44a Pentonville Road, London N1. Having questioned what craft means to 13 different makers, the exhibition offers a cross-section of disciplines. It runs from October 6-9, 11am-5pm daily. Booking via londoncraftweek.com 

An Evening with Freya Bramble-Carter at Petersham Nurseries

Celebrate the art of “slow craft” and spend an evening with ceramicist Freya Bramble-Carter. October 7, tickets £15 via petershamnurseries.com. 
The accompanying exhibition runs from October 5-10, and entry
is free.

Atelier LK and No 43

A month-long exhibition showcasing an array of 20th-century furniture, art and design in the former home of artist and flamenco dancer
Ron Hitchins. Curated by Atelier LK founders Lisa Jones and Ruby Kean, the exhibition will run until the end of September and visits are by appointment only via @atelier_lk_

Craft by Residency for London Craft Week

Future Icons will work with Residency to showcase 14 craft practitioners, taking over a space in Islington Square with examples of pieces curated for both private and commercial residencies. There will be daily makers’ demonstrations running October 4-10, alongside new multidisciplinary craft installations on show. 

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