Craft for art’s sake?

As craft fair Collect prepares to throw open its doors to a different crowd at new venue the Saatchi Gallery, exhibitors are conjuring up the forces of art and technology in their battle for survival in this year of recession.

‘Now that it’s at the Saatchi Gallery, people will see it more as an art show, which is good,’ says glass craftsman Bruno Romanelli, agreeing with fellow Collect exhibitor and furniture maker Gareth Neal that ‘the Saatchi will bring in an extra audience that didn’t come to the Victoria & Albert Museum’.

While some designer-makers are worried about the effects of the recession, others offer the impression that the market occupies a bubble. Collect was founded in 2004, and is set to experience its first economic downturn.

‘We haven’t taken the recession into consideration when planning for Collect at all,’ says Kathleen Slater, assistant director of contemporary at the gallery Adrian Sassoon, which is exhibiting at Collect.’We deal with very high-end work and there will always be a market for that,’ she says with confidence.

But some designer-makers are looking to adjust to what they feel is a changing market. ‘After Collect, I will be going in a new direction, looking to make simpler objects and spend less money on materials,’ says Neal, whose wooden furniture is minutely cut to expose shapes within shapes. ‘You can reduce the amount of time it will take to make something, and thereby broaden your work to become financially accessible to more people,’ he says.

While Neal is edging towards design, furniture maker and sculptor Barry Lane admits that a recession could change things, but reviles the idea of moving away from what he regards as his art.

‘The recession is a good time to re-evaluate why we are doing this, why we are buying it, whether we need it and what we need it for,’ says Lane. ‘I believe it is about feeding the soul, and we need that more than ever in a recession.’ He maintains that he would ‘go bankrupt’ for his art and warns that ‘if you are involved in luxury goods you’d better make sure you mean what you are doing’.

Slater agrees that simplifying one-off works is not a good idea. ‘I can’t see that being successful, but scaling down works is an option,’ she says – and one that Lane claims he would consider.

Romanelli reports that he is, in fact, making bigger, more exclusive pieces than he was last year. ‘In my experience, people are more willing to spend money on larger objects when the economy is slower – they are looking for a different type of investment since they have lost confidence in the financial markets,’ he reasons.

The debate between the crafts purists and those looking to adapt to a changing market seems unquenchable, but Neal attempts to explain the division, at least for himself. ‘I think it is about creating different bodies of work for different outlets and markets,’ he explains.

‘Having proved my worth at the top end of the market, I would enjoy making some nice objects in bog-standard pine,’ adds Neal.

This is a notion that even Slater agrees with. ‘I can see that working if you are very much into cutting-edge production work, coming up with clever ways of cutting down on materials costs, but this is more for furniture designers than craftspeople,’ she says.

Michael Eden is a traditional craftsman unafraid of muddying the waters of his art with modern manufacturing technology – rapid prototyping, to be precise.

For 20 years before starting his MPhil at London’s Royal College of Art in 2006, Eden was a traditional potter. ‘But then I realised I wanted to explore mixing old craft techniques with manufacturing,’ he says. The culmination of his studies at the RCA is The Wedgwoodn’t Tureen, which will be appearing at this year’s Collect.

He claims that the tureen is a one-off design-art piece, and yet if Eden’s finger slipped while hovering over the ‘print’ button on his keyboard, surely this definition would no longer apply to his work?

‘I don’t want to make more than one object the same, I want to use the technology to evolve pieces. Three-dimensional printing allows the customisation of objects, and gives me the creative freedom to do things impossible with the wheel and clay,’ he insists.

The Wedgwoodn’t Tureen may go down well with the Saatchi Gallery crowd.

Collect runs from 15-17 May at the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, London SW3.

Collect highlights

• Select at Collect: a showcase of the Crafts Council Collection of contemporary UK craft. Established & Sons chief executive Alistair Willis and Mint Museum of Craft & Design director Annie Carlano will select their favourite objects

• Crafts Council Showcases will display the work of two recent graduates at the David Mellor Design showroom in London’s Sloane Square and at the nearby Taschen store

• A programme of talks includes the panel discussion ‘Is the future handmade?’, with crafts critic Glenn Adamson and co-founder of The Future Laboratory Martin Raymond

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