Crafts Council's Rosy Greenlees, on how craft can create a sense of identity
The summer is the time of year when the British crafts world really springs into life. Shows such as Art In Action in Waterperry House, the Contemporary Craft Festival at Bovey Tracey in Devon, the Select festival organised by Stroud International Textiles, Cockpit Arts Open Studios in London, and the Sheffield Design Week are just a handful of events taking place from June to August. In different ways and on very different scales what they’re concerned with is a sense of place – whether it’s celebrating the invention, skill and creativity to be found in a pair of buildings on separate sides of the capital, like Cockpit Arts, or showcasing the cultural and commercial opportunities available in a city such as Sheffield.
Making and provenance are inexorably linked – it might seem our economy is dominated by housing and banking, but manufacturing still retains the power to give a nation a sense of identity. As economist and journalist Evan Davis pointed out in his book Made In Britain: ‘Some people think manufacturing is a bit grubby and that financial services are what all modern economies get up to these days. But a far larger number, in my experience, think manufacturing should be seen as part of a special higher class of activity. It seems that, deep down, we are instinctively programmed to think of physical production as the most useful activity.’
From the macro to the micro, making matters, even in our globalised, digitally enhanced market – as a new Crafts Council report shows. In her introduction to Making it Local: what does this mean in the context of contemporary craft?, Dr Julie Brown makes clear that the study has two distinct aims: to help identify and define how the notion of ‘place’ is interpreted and expressed across the contemporary craft sector; and to explore how the changing concept of ‘local’ is impacting on business models of the nation’s makers.
In a wide-ranging document a few things stand out. New technologies are expanding markets for makers across the globe, but the emergence of such digital fabrication technologies as digital printing, cutting and finishing services also mean that our future will likely be in small-scale batch production, in products makers can quickly adapt or accessorise close to home, according to the market’s demands. In other words, making is less likely to be outsourced to other areas or nations.
This is a point that author and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine Chris Anderson emphasises in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. ‘The modern Maker Movement is built on high-tech digital fabrication, and can let regular people harness big factories at will to make what they want,’ he writes. ‘It’s the perfect combination of inventing locally and producing globally, serving niche markets defined by taste, not by geography.’
Importantly too, craft is also being used to brand entire towns. As Simon Olding has pointed out in these pages before (see Crafts no. 246 Jan/Feb 2014), Farnham in Surrey is now a designated ‘craft town’, for instance. The idea is to replicate Hay-on-Wye’s success as a hub for literature by emphasising the role making has in the town – both historically (focusing on the Farnham Pottery and the Greenware it produced), and more recently with the role that the Farnham Maltings plays in the town’s cultural life, as well as the national importance of the Crafts Study Centre on the more academic side.
And Farnham is not alone. West Kilbride is making a point of championing its Scottish makers, with the Craft Town Scotland scheme providing subsidised rents on workshops or studios for makers as well as promoting open studios all year around. The Barony Centre – where you can often see Crafts Council touring shows – provides an excellent education and events programme too. These various activities have raised the town’s profile and given local businesses a fixed point to rally around.
Meanwhile Zoe Murphy is a designer-maker whose work directly reflects the place where she lives and is as a result loaded with narrative. She prints images inspired by Margate, her home town, onto recycled furniture. Place and maker have the perfect symbiotic relationship.
As communication improves and the world shrinks still further, it seems that the importance of ‘place’ becomes ever more important. As Brown concludes: ‘Personalisation, authenticity, provenance and a desire for direct contact with makers; a shift towards the experience economy and the learning of craft skills; ethical consumption and support for local trading, are all influencing the market for contemporary craft and signifying a return to the “local” for craft production.’ And for the small army of UK makers, many of whom will be out in force exhibiting this summer, that can only be a good thing.
The Crafts Council’s Making it Local: what does this mean in the context of contemporary craft? is available to download from our Research Documents page or for hard copies please email firstname.lastname@example.org