Katharine Fernie

A history of designer makers
a personal view by Jeremy Broun FRSA

‘Art for everyone’ – William Morris. Circa 1895
‘Why are we all doing this ! ’ – Barnaby Scott (founder of DMOU in 2003).

Paradox seems to be the most illuminating truth ! 'William Morris was one of the founders of Design for industry, which he hated' (from "The Craftsman's Art" exhibition catalogue 1975)

The vitality of designer makers in Britain today has its roots in the English Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century and in a sense also shares much of the energy of Art Nouveau. I say this because there was then and is now a clear reaction to the order of the day, expressed in diverse individual artistic expression. Some have argued that the diversity of Art Nouveau became so contradictory that it led to its demise. It was a brief and exciting period of artisan craftsmanship and sheer artistry in a range of materials across several countries. The current British movement of designer makers appears to be longer lasting and perhaps because underpinning the diversity there is a common theme of practical functionality, very much the English tradition. An essential conservatism one might say !

The values of the Arts & Crafts were mainly fitness for purpose, an honest use of material and a joy of craftsmanship at a time when the worker was being robbed of his pride by the advent of the machine. Its main exponent William Morris cried ‘Let us be masters of machines and not their slaves’. He may have been a mediaeval revivalist but not a Luddite ! The contemporary Designer Maker movement certainly embraces the machine as a vital part of economic survival. It is the way the hand and machine is used on a scale which is miniscule compared to mass production that gives the work of the designer maker its character and significance (and may lead the way forward).

The term ‘designer maker’ evolved from ‘designer craftsman’ in the late Nineteen Seventies during a period that has been called the British Furniture Craft Revival (alongside the other craft disciplines). The word ‘craftsman’ was beginning to be devalued in popular culture with its obvious additional sexist connotation. Unlike Studio Pottery, Furniture lacked a single philosophical base and was more fragmented. I think many would agree furniture is about the most difficult craft to establish and sustain not least because of its isolation.

The demise of apprenticeships being replaced by a new breed of graduate furniture makers emerging from institutions such as The Royal College of Art in the Seventies resulted in a loose group of independent makers who were brought together at exhibitions and through the developing craft media. A handful of trained designers were turning their backs on the prospects of a career in an unimaginative and hidebound mass production industry to set up “cottage” workshops. David Colwell of “Trannon” was a typical example. Martin Grierson was an Industrial designer in the Fifties and set up his workshop in the mid Seventies with David Field, another RCA graduate. Alan Peters, a very important figure, now in his Seventies, had a different background and was one of the very few with direct links with the Arts and Crafts Movement having apprenticed to Edward Barnsley. He then established his workshops in the Sixties. The Barnsley Workshop survives today and still offers apprenticeships to young people.

Again I draw comparison with Art Nouveau whose name was derived from a shop in Paris belonging to Siegfried Bing at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The main catalyst of the Designer maker movement, in my opinion, was the appearance of the Prestcote Gallery in Oxfordshire – a meeting of the country’s leading craft furniture makers ranging from the honoured Sir Edward Barnsley (in his latter years) to Fred Baier a freshman of the RCA with his “Star Wars” furniture . I remember well because I was priviliged to be amongst this small group of makers. Happening around that time was the formation of the Crafts Council (which grew from the Crafts Advisory Committee) as a Public funding body, its media outlet Crafts magazine and the emergence of John Makepeace ‘the finest furniture maker since Chippendale’ ! So in effect all these forces interacted and were arguably a collective catalyst.

Why do I single out the Prestcote Gallery ? Firstly it was a private enterprise founded on a passion for furniture by its owner Ann Hartree a musician. Some of the funding came from her friend Ann Crossman, from the Diaries of her husband MP Richard Crossman. One felt that Ann Hartree was an enthusiastic ambassador of our craft.

Prestcote appeared briefly in the late Seventies, drew both makers and public and then suddenly disappeared (just like Art Nouveau !) sadly on the break up of Hartree’s marriage. But the seeds had been sown. It was a unique and exciting showcase drawing furniture makers out of their isolation to pitch their skills against each other ! There were even fierce debates during the exhibitions sparked by one particularly verbose maker, a far cry from the silent and well mannered exhibitions of today ! One felt something exciting was really happening and the magazines and newspapers kept their pens on the pulse.

I believe that Prestcote, in its brief appearance, gave momentum to a movement and throughout the Eighties this small group of furniture makers, perhaps a dozen or twenty strong shared the same exhibition platform throughout the land. Peter Collinette, editor of “The Woodworker” magazine called us “The Gang of 84” and in that particular year it was reported in ‘World of Interiors’ magazine that there were no less than three major exhibitions highlighting furniture (Camden Art Centre, the London Coffee Information Centre and Katherine House Gallery in Marlborough).

1984 was a zenith for furniture and perhaps laid a transition marker between the Craft Revival period and the present movement although towards the end of the Twentieth Century nostalgia tightened its grip (perhaps out of fear of inevitable change ?). It is easy to forget today that most of the magazines throughout the Nineties went slavishly retro and the words ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ were flogged to death. However, during this period a quiet revolution was taking place and what started as a handful of workshops in the Seventies became almost an explosion over the past decade or so.

If magazines such as 'House and Garden' and 'Ideal Home' were shying away from modern,and the public were still largely ignorant, how did the word get around ?

At the end of the Seventies John Makepeace had moved his workshop from Farnborough Barn in Oxfordshire to a Stately Home in Dorset where he set up his famous Parnham School for furniture makers. Mix in with that a little Royal blood in the form of student David Linley (‘eighth in line to the Throne’), some inevitable media attention, together with some fairly high asking prices for furniture and Furniture making was becoming a recognized feature of the cultural landscape and an attractive lifestyle choice.

Education is nothing without inspiration and the success of Parnham also rested on the shoulders of its craftsman/principal lecturer Robert Ingham (whose brother George was a familiar face at Prestcote gallery a decade or so earlier). Whilst Makepeace's entrepreneural and design skills rubbed off Ingham's flair for teaching had its impact on a new generation of designer makers, serious to enter the marketplace.

In the Seventies and Eighties, Rycotewood College in Oxfordshire under the forward thinking stewardship of Chris Simpson, an ex RCA graduate, flourished as a prominent college for training designer makers and many of the visiting tutors and advisors were leading practitioners in the field. Makers such as John Coleman, Jakki Dehn, Ashley Cartwright, Rupert Williamson and AndrewVarah?.

The harvest of fresh young graduates emerging from Parnham College, Rycotewood and Buckinghamshire College in the Eighties and Nineties formed the backbone of the current movement. This is not to belittle the growing number of independent workshops established by self-taught furniture makers, perhaps gleaning the tricks of the trade from the specialist (furniture/woodworking)
magazines emerging also and from the exhibitions. Makers such as David Savage inspired readers of the woodworking magazines through his woodworking diaries.

The auction houses began to play their part with Sotheby's taking the lead at the First Sale of Contemporary British Crafts in 1980. All the furniture sold. I saw my own work come under the hammer and indeed it was an unprecedented event for living artist craftsmen.

But the growth of furniture makers was not evenly matched by an expansion of retail outlets – mainly craft galleries. One in particular held the British flag flying since the mid Eighties is Artizana Furniture in Cheshire run by Iraqi-Americans Jemila and Ramez Ghazoul. The Celebration Of Craftsmanship exhibitions organized by Betty Norbury, wife of the renowned wood sculptor Ian, became an important annual national event and the biggest selling exhibition for promoting furniture craftsmen from the early Nineties.

What’s in a name ? In the bigger picture of what is currently called ‘The Age of Convergence’ and ‘Globalism’ it is inevitably the job of future historians to decide what they call this present movement in British Furniture making and design.

In my recent lecture “Furniture Today” (DVD now available) I have argued that the past thirty years or so has seen a “Golden Age of Furniture Design and Craftsmanship" whereby 'the best work', to quote Alan Peters OBE, 'is equal to if not better than any previous era’. So let’s say this is a working title for the convenience of promoting the craft from within which curiously is vastly unrecognised from outside. Even our heir to the Throne when sitting on one of my chairs in the Eighties, remarked ‘I didn’t realize this sort of thing was going on in Britain’.

The creation of the DMOU Internet forum has allowed an opportunity for UK furniture makers to exercise a unique democracy in exchanging ideas as well as hardware associated with the craft. This is mostly the brainchild of a talented self-taught furniture maker Barnaby Scott of Waywood Furniture whose first Internet posting was in February 2003. In it he outlined a loose template for encouraging other furniture makers to join in. One of his questions was

‘Why are we all doing this !’

I suppose if you ask a mountaineer why he battles against the odds to climb to the highest peaks he might point his finger at the mountain and say ‘because it exists’.

Jeremy Broun
April 2005

A unique documentation of the British furniture designer maker movement against a historical backloth dating back to The Magna Carta is available on DVD at:

http://www.furnituretodayuk.com

Parts One & Two were produced by Jeremy Broun in 2006 and Part Three in 2012.

On 11 October 2009, sadly one of the leading figures of the Seventies Craft Furniture Revival, Alan Peters, passed away. Here are links to his obituaries:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/oct/28/alan-peters-obituary

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article6887811.ece

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/6469338/Alan-Peters.html

http://www.economist.com/obituary/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14793121