Playing safe

Don’t expect any surprises from the contenders for the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for furniture. If you’re a fan of contemporary furniture – or even craft – you’ll have seen it all before.

The fact that colour supplement darlings Jane Atfield, Michael Young and Michael Marriott rank among the final eight says a lot about the selection – a few funky materials, a bit of cool, curved urban chic and a touch of the recycled.

Add Mary Little’s extraordinary upholstered chairs, which border on the grotesque, Simon Pengelly’s refreshingly simple curved laminated lines and Robert Kilvington’s exquisitely crafted wooden seating and you start to get the drift of Nineties eclecticism. Jim Partridge’s natural “green” wood forms and Guy Martin’s quirky ethnic style, using woods such as willow, that no doubt wows the country set complete this peculiar line up.

Choosing one winner will be tough, for though there’s some great talent there, no two compare easily with each other. You’d expect no different given that this is essentially a prize for craft; after all, the Crafts Council backs the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. But that is the unenviable task facing the jury chaired by Floris van den Broecke, who will award the £15 000 prize on 6 September.

Given that candidates have to have made “the most outstanding and innovative contribution to furniture making” over seven years, we can hardly expect to see much that’s new. Unlike finalists for the Jerwood Charitable Foundation’s high-profile fashion prize, which culminated in a full-blown televised fashion show, this line-up hasn’t been asked to create pieces for the awards. There’s no hint of last-minute seaming or a quick rethink among the exhibits. Objects are all too familiar, and therefore lack the excitement of, say, the sideshows of the Milan furniture fair.

It’s good that the prize is there – the cash comes in handy, as does the recognition. But if the Jerwood Charitable Foundation really wants to make a mark, rather than merely honour those who’ve already earned their spurs, it and the Crafts Council need to think hard when they revisit furniture in five years’ time. How much more thrilling it would be to see new work – or, indeed, new faces – up there on the podium.

Furniture contenders for the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize 1999 are on show at the Crafts Council Gallery, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1, until 3 October

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