Words Josephine Grever
Photography John Spinks
“What is luxury?” asks the title of a current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Diamonds? A private jet? It is a timely question. There are signs that Western consumers are rethinking their ways of staying positive and happy: less with designer labels, more with immaterial goods such as time, peace, health. A clear tendency is also the current boom of craftsmanship.
“People are looking for work of quality and traditional know-how,” says Mark Henderson, chairman of Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes and co-founder of the organization The New Craftsmen in Mayfair, which opened its showroom in 2014. It serves as a platform for Britain’s best artisans and aims to make them better known to a discerning international clientele. And Mayfair, a centre of good living, is the right place to be.
“In the Sahara desert a bottle of water is luxury. What a subjective and almost unnecessary word,” says the potter Matthew Warner, 26. He enrolled in a ceramics course at Camberwell Arts College in 2012 and subsequently took an apprenticeship with the renowned contemporary potter Julian Stair, in whose East Dulwich studio he still works. He bought his own potter’s wheel after a substantial commission from The New Craftsmen. “It was a dinner service for 114 people,” he explains. The clay mixture he uses to create his simple, flowing forms is his own recipe that he keeps to himself. “It is hard to keep afloat,” he admits. “But I do what I like and I almost make a living with it. It feels I stepped into the right time.”
According to Matthew Warner, The New Crafts Centre has invigorated craftsmanship. “And it’s high time, too,” adds the multidisciplinary designer Lola Lely, who is based in Walthamstow, a London suburb, and works with wood, leather, glass and textiles. She is 35, was born in Hanoi and has lived in England since she was eight years old. Lola became known in 2012 when — for her final year exhibition at the Royal College of Art — she designed a functioning restaurant, complete with menu, tableware and every single detail. Since then she has not been short of commissions, whether it’s designing a bronze installation for an Allen Jones exhibition or collaborating with the London College of Fashion on work uniforms. She is optimistic about the future. “Consumers will always understand what is good or not,” she says.
Maybe for this reason, busy artisans can nowadays be found all over London. In Woolwich the furniture designer Sebastian Cox, well known for his tables and chairs from sustainable wood, talks passionately about under-used timber such as cherry from British woodlands.
“Cherry smells good, there is a lot of it and it is well dried. We would like to change the world a little with beautiful objects that last a lifetime,” says Sebastian Cox.
This is also the motto of silversmith Ndidi Ekubia, whose family originates from Nigeria. In her South London studio she beats a flat piece of recycled silver until it has the distinctive patina and “rhythmic” shape for which she is renowned. “Craftsmanship is not bought as an investment,” she says pointedly. “It is produced with a lot of love and work, and that is of high value to buyers.”
For the glassblower Michael Ruh, who was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the day begins at six in the morning. “Only in summer”, he points out. After blowing a vase in his workshop in Tulse Hill near Brixton, which takes about 45 minutes, he pushes the object into the kiln and wipes sweat from his nose. A short climb up a steep staircase ends in a room where he keeps his computer and also a long table on which he has assembled a dinner set commissioned by Calvin Klein and lamps he produced for the Conran shop.
“I like the idea of using something of exquisite beauty as an everyday object,” Michael Ruh says. “And I think the world is so artificial that to mould things with your hands is important for sanity.”
Michael Ruh is convinced that people are tired of mindless consuming and are looking for something more spiritually rewarding. “They want something that expresses a side they might want to see in themselves,” he says.
The message is clear: industrial mass production is useful and often necessary, but only honest craftsmanship touches the soul. And that is real luxury.