The New Craftsmen: British Craftsmanship with a human touch

TNC_part44753Just this once, Artisan London is not featuring an artist or an artisan but a driving force behind the silent but definite revolution that is happening, before our very own eyes, in the world of arts and crafts in the British Isles. Catherine Lock is one of three founders at the helm of The New Craftsmen, an organisation that “works with a selection of Britain’s finest craft makers to showcase the materials, skills and craft products of the British Isles”. Armed with a degree in Fashion from University of Northumbria at Newcastle and a personal obsession with how products originated, Catherine embarked on a worldwide tour in the most far flung places. During that year out, she travelled with a particular aim in mind. Wherever she went, she was on the lookout for the everyday items that constitute local distinctiveness: the clothes people wear or even the baskets used in markets to hold vegetables. Things that might otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, she was keen on knowing the provenance of things.

Enriched with that knowledge, she started working upon her return, for Habitat. It was an exhilarating time. Habitat, whose reputation was well established, was experiencing a renewal at the time. Tom Dixon, who had become Head of Design in 1998, then Creative Director in 2001, surrounded himself with a team of established or up and coming specialists in everything from furniture to fashion. Together, they revolutionised the way we look at furniture and design in our homes. Dixon was a very influential designer and Habitat acted as a launching pad for many young and innovative designers. Catherine Lock was involved in the product side (buying) but an important part of her job was understanding where the products came from and getting the staff enthused about them.

Grant_McCaig_Fine_Silver_Carafe_£2,075_Silver_Beakers_£820Fine silver carafe by Grant McCaig

After Habitat, she worked for the British Council for a while but very quickly realised that she missed actually working on product sourcing and development. This was second nature for her. Catherine joined Sainsbury’s as a product trend and brand developer. There, she still had at heart the desire to locate the origins of the items that were sold on Sainsbury’s shelves. Moreover, Sainsbury’s was quick to pick up on consumers’ changing tastes and expectations. Every time a new product appeared in Sainsbury’s, you could be sure that they knew that it was in demand by the general public. During that time, Catherine Lock familiarised herself with the Far East market. She travelled to China and discovered what the Chinese could offer in terms of skills, quality and productivity from the entry level to the design level. Around that time, things started moving in Great Britain. Along with the Fair Trade movement, which had gained momentum, the farmer’s market was popularised thanks partly to Rick Stein and his TV programme which talked about the provenance of food. Suddenly, the consumer, a person with a conscience yearned for more… more authenticity and more originality.

Sainsbury’s announced plans to relocate its design team to Coventry in 2010. Catherine wanted to stay put. The travel bug having caught up with her again, she packed her bags and this time went on a tour of the British Isles. She went to remote and beautiful places as far as the Shetland Islands and the Faroe Islands. She went on a quest to meet regional craftsmen and traditional manufacturers to build her knowledge of materials, processes and provenance and to understand what is so distinct about the British market. Besides her personal interest in encountering people who had dedicated their life to a particular craft, she found an instant gratification in being able to put a face to a trade and to converse with people who shared her passion. But more importantly, she understood how these ancient crafts perpetuated from generation to generation and were intrinsically connected with the way these people lived their lives. The materiality, the processes and the actual pieces themselves were connected to the needs of their local communities and were very much a response to their local environment. She understood how it all fitted together and that she had touched the roots of craftsmanship in this country.

Laura_Carlin_Animal_Mural_Ceramic_Tiles_£1965Animal murals by Laura Carlin

She came out with an extraordinary wealth of contacts, experience and a knowledge about what is made in the British Isles. She also came away convinced that the revolution that was happening in England regarding food would soon enough concern non-food products and the consumer would very rapidly be keen on and proud to buy original and authentic locally produced goods rather than imported mass-market and homogenised products, even if this was at a higher cost.

Helping one of her friends who had a stand at Decorex, the show for the finest British and International suppliers of luxury interior design, she met Natalie Melton who managed Crafted, a mentoring scheme pairing skilled craftsmen with leaders from the luxury sector. In one of those serendipitous moments, Natalie introduced her, in turn, to Mark Henderson who was none other than the director of Walpole (the UK luxury industry association) and who was one of the mentors at Crafted. Mark has worked most of his life in luxury goods and is the chairman of Gieves & Hawkes, No 1 Savile Row. Mark had come to the realisation that these skilled craftsmen from around the country did not have a decent platform to sell their pieces and London was the ideal place for buyers. Over the course of the next couple of years, the three of them met repeatedly. Bouncing ideas back and forth, they elaborated a plan to open a shop that would do justice to the hard labour and beauty that is exemplified in every piece produced by artisans from across the British Isles.

Silvia_K_Ceramics_Painted_Dish_£240Ceramics painted dish by Sylvia K

They talked to The Grosvesnor Estate who gave them a space and the means to open up a first pop-up store that was a resounding success in 2012. They did a second one that exceeded their expectations and confirmed their belief that the public was ready to embrace this revolution in making. Thanks to an oversubscribed crowd-funding campaign through crowdcube.com, they at last opened The New Craftsmen on June 6, 2014. The venue isn’t a decorative gallery but rather a place where functional yet beautiful artisanal objects for everyday life are exhibited and on sale. No expense appears to have been spared as the retail space is located in Mayfair-a great spot for the best exposure possible-and in none other than a building built in the 19th century that used to be a workshop for a firm of makers of leather breeches. What better way to present the very best British makers working in textiles, furniture, silverware, ceramics, jewellery, glassware and beyond!

Michael_Ruh_Aimee_Betts_Small_Harbour_Light(3)_£505Small harbour lights by Michael Ruh and Aimee Betts 

The New Crafstmen has already taken international brands around the country to meet makers and they may, eventually, exhibit in fairs in Europe and the USA. But this is not the focus for the time being. Keeping in mind the original function for which these traditional objects were made, The New Craftsmen wants to extend the range of possibilities, opening up the opportunity for contemporary design. That is why they are keen on having artists and designers reinterpret age old pieces for the astute and modern design enthusiast. In Morocco and India, people are very familiar with the concept of ordering one-of-a-kind pieces but this is a fairly new way of thinking about home design for the everyday customer walking in the door. In any case, interior designers and architects are certainly welcomed to commission bespoke pieces. Moreover, more workshops where the public interact with artists will become a monthly fixture. Finally, a series of pop-up tea afternoons in August where the customers will meet artists has recently emerged as the weather is on the sunny side. Two new (and welcome) additions to the space are the collaboration with the BOOKSHOP at, who have curated a selection of books that celebrate and explore craft, design and making; and an indoor garden, created by Hattie Fox from That Flower Shop.  

Cornelia_O'Donovan_Embroidered_Painted_Cushion_£275Embroidered painted cushion by Cornelia O’Donovan

The team behind The New Craftsmen is brimming with ideas and there is no doubt that The New Craftsmen will soon become a major destination for interior designers, architects and adepts of useful and beautifully-crafted products and that it will stand globally as a strong British brand. Be sure to check out their retail space at 34 North Row, London, W1K 6DG. They are open from Tuesday to Saturday from 11 am-7 pm.

Pedro_da_Costa_Felgueiras_Invisible_Green_Painted_Chair_£1350
Invisible green painted chair by Pedro da Costa Feilgueiras

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