Monday, 17 September 2012

The New Golden Age of British Furniture

          I first wrote about 'The New Golden Age of Contemporary Craftsmanship & Design' around 1990 in a magazine called Woodworking International (that was later replaced by Furniture & Cabinetmaking) and my DVD project Furniture Today has expanded on this theme taking contemporary furniture history up to the present time (Furniture Today 3 was produced in 2012). However, any age has a defining chronology, sometimes sudden. 
          The Age of Mahogany (in England) was defined by the lifting of import tax on mahogany from the Americas in the mid 18th Century by Sir Robert Walpole. The Age of Oak spanned spanned several centuries generally referred to as the Medaeival period. The Apple iPhone may very well rank in the general dating of change in this century which in a word is rapid. From an observer's point of view, indeed an insider observer as I am, I look for a useful  barometer and in our increasingly complex age there is no single barometer but a useful guide, and since I chose to focus on the work of furniture designer makers the major internet forum I belong to gives an indication. When new members apply I curiously view their websites. Increasingly I wonder if the same web designer has been used, the layout is extraordinarily similar and then when I look at the examples of furniture, increasingly I see derivative work. A bit of this in a dining table understructure and a bit of that in the way drawers hang, the stocking trade timbers would almost tempt me to call this a New Age of Walnut. Many of the designs now have been done before and I wonder if the period of innovation is being followed by a period of conservation?  Or is it that the true innovators more or less in same number as forty years ago, are treading the old elitist path and not mixing with the hoi polloi of furniture makers today? 
        In the Furniture Craft revival of the 1970's there was clear innovation amongst probably no more than twenty people/workshops. Not only was the style instantly recognisable (admittedly be people in the know) but each maker had something different to say. Many people have knocked the Crafts Council as being elitist which in a sense it has been, but it was a formidable body in fostering innovation and promoted those makers who 'redefined the boundaries of their craft'. I was one of those fortunate makers to be noticed (actually by my late friend Alan Peters who sadly passed away in 2009).  
          If my memory serves me well the influence of client on the work was less apparent than on today's breed of furniture designer makers. In my opinion when you hand over the very thing you are skilled at (creating an idea) to the client it is an open door to a mishmash design solution. The educated and considerate client will allow you the artist to interpret their need for a piece of furniture in your way and the buzz of the commissioning process is where like minds meet and both client and creator get more than they originally envisaged out of it.  With the shift in new money over recent decades the big commissions that feed the egos of the extremely wealthy has little to do with real innovation and at its worst could very well have limited second hand value after the fortunes made have been lost. Money does not equate design taste or indeed a deep understanding of the deep-rooted culture of craftsmanship and design.
The mobile phone and 3D printing open the doors to copying and diluting of ideas. This fairly sudden new democracy where ownership is challenged as never before. The new kids on the block will always have something to say that is their ownership even if the wheel is being re-invented and they like their fathers before kick against the status quo only to find later as their hair turns grey they are dubbed with the brush 'old guard', 'establishment'. It is difficult to avoid the generalised tendency that taste in music is often shaped by those formative years. Those Beatles parties we held when I was a student at Shoreditch college in the early sixties. You were either a Beatles or Stones fan when push came to shove. Stones was definitely for the rebels. I was.t a rebel then, I learned meticulously the traditional craft of cabinetmaking to the letter, to the secret mitred dovetail and long and short shouldered mortice and tenon. I was one of four at the leading British college who gained a distinction in my year and essentially we learned the art of copying. Only later did I then question tradition and necessity was the mother of invention when I set up a workshopwit when I was student


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