Art of craft

The world of crafts is not all basket-weaving and knitted sandals. Impressive projects in museums, schools and hospitals are leading a renewal of interest.

Craft and craftsmanship as defined in the dictionary – “making in a skilful manner” – is, far from being an outdated notion in today’s industrialised world, enjoying a resurgence of interest and value.

Independent medical research charity The Wellcome Trust not only spends around 250m each year on medical research but has long had an impressive record of patronage of the arts.

The Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton in Cambridgeshire (the former Hinxton Hall) set in 22ha of rural parkland was opened earlier this month. It has been transformed into a centre that researches the chemistry of living organisms and aims to catalogue each of the estimated 100 000 human genes in what is described as a “recipe book” for human life, to provide information that will, hopefully, benefit and transform medical care in the next century.

The old hall has been superbly renovated, new research buildings carefully landscaped into the parkland and, as part of the opening celebrations, a decorative stained-glass window by Kathy Shaw was unveiled. Its theme is the tree of life – the human genome mapping process. Shaw says the main image, “represents and reflects the majestic oak tree outside the building, surrounded by people, plants and animals”.

Shaw, winner of the Howard Martin best student award at Swansea Institute in 1989, the leading centre for architectural stained glass, has gone on to work on projects in public art; she spent last year completing six windows for Chatham Central Theatre.

A design brief was sent out to a shortlist of four artists, including Shaw, by Denna Jones and Ken Turner, both historians (she in art, he in science) of the Wellcome Trust’s exhibitions unit. Kathy was chosen for the stained-glass window and as work had to proceed quickly, it was executed in a large international glass studio, the Devix studio in Wiesbaden, Germany, with the collaboration of Rahmi Schulz.

The Wellcome Trust is currently exhibiting Saving Bodies, Saving Souls; Hospitals in History at its head office in London’s Euston Road, until 14 February 1998; and The Art of Medicine in the Two 10 Gallery across the road until 28 November. This shows work by three contemporary artists who have completed residencies in hospitals here and in the US.

Wendy Ramshaw’s magnificent double screen, worked in metal, marks the recent completion of a five-year project by architect Austin-Smith Lord of the new state-of-the-art Centre for Research and Conservation of Art in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As a part of the museum’s ongoing commitment to using contemporary artists and craftspeople in new developments. Ramshaw’s work follows the stunning glass mezzanine by Danny Lane in the revamped Glass Gallery and Albert Paley’s bench in the Ironwork Gallery.

The screen is located in the new staff restaurant so is only occasionally viewable by the general public. Ramshaw was originally commissioned by Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the then museum director, as part of the project that brings together in one centre the museum’s conservators, curators, researchers and photographers in a laudable attempt to enable greater cross-fertilisation between different disciplines in the study of the decorative arts.

The abstract design of the screen, rather obscurely called EH 9681 after the stock number of the metal it is formed from, is intended to create an inviting entrance into the new building. The 3 x 4m screen is made from a single sheet cut into two halves with a central decorative lens like a huge drawing suspended in glass.

While Rebecca Newnham was still at the Royal College of Art, many were quick to spot her talent, notably Nigel Coates, who commissioned a mosaic mirror for the Agate Jewellery Gallery in Tokyo. Newnham graduated in ceramics and glass in 1991, but her speciality is mosaics. In a few short years from the days when she made big and whacky mirrored stilettos, she has built a business with her husband and partner David Bird, selling a production range and undertaking large-scale commercial and private commissions.

Newnham started by gluing sheets of styrofoam together into blocks which she then carved like a sculpture. Once they were cast in fibreglass, she covered them with glass slivers. She always prepares her own tesserae, mixing coloured enamels, and spray-paints the colours including gold and silver on to thin glass. The depth and luminosity of her mosaics give them a special character.

Moving on from commissions like those for 24 bathrooms in London’s Docklands Homeless Hospital to the Accident and Emergency waiting area in Whipps Cross Hospital, brightened by bold and lively murals of seasonal leaves, Newnham has been involved in producing work for three ships belonging to Royal Caribbean Cruise Liners.

London Contemporary Arts was asked by the company to commission artwork for the ships. Artists included Kate Malone and Annette Meech as well as Ramshaw and Newnham. For the first ship, Grandeur of the Seas, Newnham made two sculptural mosaic towers, Lily Star and Star Lily, for the main stairwell. She created Wheel, Leaf and Diamond, a three-dimensional mural for the solarium of the Egyptian-© themed liner Rhapsody of the Seas, plus three mosaics based on ancient Egyptian symbolism and jewellery: Falcon and Discs, Wedjat and Lotus Flowers and Scarab, Fish and Sun in Horizon. The third ship, Enchantment of the Seas, features her 30 x 2m Tree Of Life and Knowledge, elements of which are repeated throughout five other areas of the solarium deck.

Newnham recently exhibited a new range of mosaic-covered tables at 100% Design. The success of the wholesale production line, sold in stores like the Conran Shop, Heals, Peter Jones, Harrods and around 20 outlets outside London, underpins the contract work, which is still largely handcrafted.

Ceramicist Kate Malone, who works in Balls Pond Studios in north London, was also commissioned by London Contemporary Arts for Royal Caribbean, for whom she made three large pairs of pots. Previous projects include some managed by Public Art Development Trust, such as a colourful, but calming wall piece and clock for the HIV & Drug Dependency Unit at West Middlesex Hospital. Her jug and bowl fountain sits in the courtyard at Homerton Hospital, and her four giant fish leap from the disused filter beds in Lea Valley Park. She is now working on a project at Exeter General Hospital and one which will tour internationally for the British Council. She works mainly in ceramics but also works from clay into bronze if vandalism threatens to be a problem, and is looking at having work carved into stone.

Jola Spytkowska has just completed a ceramic relief mural for Kincraig Primary School near Blackpool. The work, commissioned by Lancashire County Council, was completed in August for the new school year. The theme of pond wildlife is inspired by the pond near the school which is a local conservation landmark. It is made up of around 60 jigsaw pieces in high-fired durable stoneware.

Julia Manheim, who works in cast iron, has considerable experience working as consultant artist on public projects. She stresses the importance of bringing in the craftsperson or artist at the start of the project and not at a later stage, when work is an afterthought rather than integral part of the design.

She was consultant artist for Centro, a transport company near Birmingham, for a bus/rail interchange at Cradley Heath. She worked closely with the architects to employ a fabricator, Furnitubes, which designed and built a high walkway with enclosed bus shelters.

She is presently working as principal consulting artist on a Lottery-funded Arts Centre in Maidenhead, again working from the early stages in an integrated way with the design team. Her beautiful paving inserts can be seen outside the new Braintree library, Essex, where she was consultant artist. She selected other artists and the positions for their works to be incorporated while the building was still at the planning stage. Other works include three etched windows, a reference to Braintree’s days as a silk-weaving town, by Diane Radford and Lindsey Ball; Flying Books by Robert Cooper, and a steel sculpture by Amanda Bright.

Maggy Howarth uses natural stone pebbles, cut and carved stones and glass and porcelain to create pebble mosaics. The most recent example of her work is a zodiac garden at Gresgarth Hall in Caton, Lancashire, which followed last year’s commission by Waltham Forest Heath Authority for a floral path mosaic and garden in the courtyard of Whipps Cross Hospital.

Even the fleeting art of window display benefits from craft. Furniture designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose work was admired when he was at the Royal College of Art (Terence Conran was an early purchaser), is responsible for the recent show-stopping birch plywood on a polystyrene core which wove through the whole of Harvey Nichols’ shopfront. Commissioned by head of display Janet Wardley, it co-ordinated the building as a whole with wit and humour (it was in place until 30 October 1997). “The ‘frieze’ took 11 days to install, as it was rather like making a ship in a bottle,” says Thomas. “All 200m of the piece had to fit together into a 60m shopfront, and the main entrance had to be closed for a day. Harvey Nichols was so patient.”

Commissioning crafts

Commissions for craft happen in a variety of ways. The Crafts Council offers an excellent Photostore and slide library service, an easy-to-use computer system containing over 30 000 images of craft disciplines spanning the last 20 years, with new images regularly added. It only offers people on its Index of Selected Makers, who have met a high standard.

Peta Levi of The Design Trust and subsidiary New Designers in Business, which provide information on their members’ work, says many business people and interior designers approach her for advice on craft, particularly for restaurants, bars, clubs and boardrooms – although she does not have many enquiries from architects, which seems a pity.

Craft adds an extra dimension of warmth, colour and texture. However much someone dislikes the idea of drinking in a pub called The Slug and Lettuce, one of a chain, it is reassuring and endearing to find each one slightly different, cheered with works like Sophie Marsham’s murals of recycled items.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the domination of big business, IT and the global village, craft has an increasingly important role. At the same time as downsizing, devoluting and regionalising, there is a renewal of local interests, the revival of urban centres with a sense of their own history and the creation of rural tourist areas, which means that craft is entirely appropriate in these situations.

It is to be hoped that the public image of craft will become one of the modern craftsperson, often urban, who are not hostile to technology and are as ambitious to grow their business as anyone else. Greater synergy between design companies and craft companies can only be of benefit and enjoyment to us all.

The Design Trust is at 9 Burgess Hill, London NW2. Tel 0171-431 6329. Fax 0171-435 5487 (Peta Levi or Jules Cheetham). Website: http./

The Crafts Council is at 44a Pentonville Road, London N1. Tel 0171-278 7700. Fax 0171-837 6891. Website: http//wwwcrafts

The Wellcome Trust’s head office is at 183 Euston Road, London NW1.

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