On the Scottish archipelago of Orkney, to the north of Great Britain, trees are few and far between. The inhabitants of these seventy islands build furniture for their homes out of a material deriving from a combination of timber (brought in by boat) and straw, of which instead they have plenty. Kevin Gauld is a furniture craftsman born on Orkney, who specializes in making the Orkney Chair, this area’s pride and joy. Gareth Neal is an interior designer from East London with a passion for traditional craftsmanship production that uses local materials. Kevin and Gareth are partners in production of the Brodgar Series, a modern makeover of the Orkney Chair. Devised by combining the seat from a Windsor oak chair with a back in woven straw, the Brodgar Chair can be ordered from The New Craftsmen, a store in London that specializes in the sales and promotion of small-scale projects by British artisan.
In the seventeenth century, Great Brookfield, a road in London that is today part of Curzon Street and Shepherd Market, was where the May Fair was held during the first two weeks of the month. Jugglers, fencers, circus performers and street artists accompanied by fairground lights and music, would here show off their prowess. Declared disturbing to his peace by the Count of Coventry, who lived in nearby Piccadilly, it was abolished in 1764. This old festival gave the name Mayfair to what is today an affluent area London, part of it belonging to the British crown, and also the most expensive property on English Monopoly boards. Four roads mark its boundaries—Park Lane, Piccadilly Street, Regent Street and Oxford Street—and its peace and quiet distinguishes it from the surrounding areas. To the west, set between a row of Georgian homes, a pale brick nineteenth-century building stands out. Constructed in 1893 as an artisan workshop producing leather trousers, it was chosen as the premises for The New Craftsmen in 2012 by the three founding partners, who have tried to preserve its original appearance to safeguard its authenticity; a decision in line with their mission.
Natural light floods through large windows into these 1300 square meters, where a series of articles are arranged with no particular criteria in the different rooms. Items in ceramic, fabrics, jewels, glassware, and baskets stand on wooden supports and open shelving, allowing visitors to stop, touch and feel each piece. The New Craftsmen sells artefacts by more than 120 British artisans, but not all the United Kingdom’s creators are represented here. Each piece present is first subjected to a strict selection process and to become part of the artisan collective in Mayfair it must meet precise standards, laid down by the three founders: elegance of shape, high quality and attention to detail. It is then essential that an agreement be established with the craftsmen, to ensure a stable, long-lasting partnership. The aim of The New Craftsmen is not constant exponential growth, but to remain anchored to quality and beauty and collaborate with artisans and potential customers in a manner similar to the contemporary art model whereby galleries act as mediators between artists and buyers. Natalie Melton, Catherine Lock and Mark Henderson, the three behind the project, cover the role of curatorial filter, creating a collection of pieces that believe to be the best the country has to offer and, in a wider context, trying to start dialogue on craftsmanship with the intention of helping people to learn about it, understand it and appreciate it.
Before founding The New Craftsmen project, Catherine Lock worked in product development and trend forecasts for British retail chains, including Habitat and John Lewis. Her training took her abroad to learn more about strategies and acquire the competences she needed for her profession. She however knew little about craftsmanship skills in the United Kingdom and Ireland, an integral part of the two countries’ cultural heritages and an essential part of product studies. She therefore decided to leave her job and travel around the British isles, intending to meet people who produced artifacts, creative designers and artisans. Lock immediately realized that some of them had abilities rooted in British tradition that risked being lost forever. On her return, Catherine therefore tried to work out how to use her new knowledge and how to promote the local crafts she had encountered that had made such an impression on her.
Lock met Natalie Melton during a debate on craftsmanship. Sales director at Arts & Business, a mediation and consultancy agency for companies that support art, together with Mark Henderson, Melton had set up Crafted. This tutoring program for craftspeople intended to put them in contact with experts and buyers on the luxury markets, convinced that this business has deep roots in the world of artisanship. Henderson, a tutor at Crafted, was a professional working in the sector of British luxury brands and he is still president of Gieves and Hawkes, one of the country’s top bespoke tailors. Mark is also on the board for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which helps artisans to widen their knowhow and abilities.
As Catherine was attempting to put into practice what she had learnt from her on-hands experience in and around Great Britain, Natalie introduced her to Henderson and they started to work together to focus their shared competences on local craftsmanship. After about nine months, Melton left her job, too, and joined them. Sitting around a table, sipping coffee and tea, the three of them drew up plans for launch of their project. Their collective expertise has made The New Craftsmen not only a reliable source for lovers of all things beautiful and those with an eye for esthetics, but also somewhere that influences and lends shape to the current canons underlying British craftsmanship.
The New Craftsmen venture started with the opening of a temporary boutique in Carlos Place, again in Mayfair, opposite the Connaught Hotel, in a red-brick building, dating back to the Queen Anne era and today home to MatchesFashion.com. It was designed over two floors (the building had four in total), one of which was dedicated to artisan production processes, while the other was reserved for sales. The store was open for 17 days during the run-up to Christmas and achieved excellent results. The second boutique lasted longer, from June to December, behind the Connaught, in an old stable with all the original details still intact: bowls, Victorian tiles, terracotta floor and a manger for the horses. Despite having just one tap, four power sockets and no toilet, it was a huge success, partly because breakfasts, lunches and dinners were organized here; chances to socialize that helped encounters and exchange between creators and purchasers. Since 2012, when The New Craftsmen opened at 34 North Row, this habit of sharing meals has been continued. Food is in fact very important for the three partners, together with its origins, which, in their eyes, the world of craftsmanship shares many links.
The area that is home to the collective is divided into two parts: the actual shop, with its display of the artefacts on sale and the space reserved for orders.
In the showroom, emphasis is on furnishings, household goods and gifts such as jewels or accessories in leather, namely objects for the home and things that can be used. The concept underlying the selection of handmade creations is that artisan objects must be functional as well as good-looking.
There is a dining table in burnt ash, handmade by Sebastian Cox. Its surface blackened by the flames, this piece perfectly embodies what Cox does, experimentation with fire as a method of construction. The table was burnt to create its dark surface with carbonized central part. Each of the legs also has a hollow, also created with the burning technique. The end product is left intentionally unfinished, revealing the entire production process used to transform wood with fire. Then there are the rugs that Rachel Scott makes by weaving the wool that she personally spins, without dyeing it. Her finished articles therefore come in the same shades of the sheep’s fleece they came from. In this way, Rachel is able to recognize which wool from which breed the rug was produced and therefore, from which part of the country it comes: the Black Welsh has a black fleece with rusty-colored dots and lives on the mountains in Wales, while the cream-colored Devon Longwool grazes in Devonshire, in southwest England and the Shetland with its black and brown fleece, lives in the Shetland Isles, in Scotland.
The studio, on the other hand, is dominated by a big wooden table and chests of drawers in which each craftsman here represented has their own drawer with samples, information about their business and examples of previous orders. An almost holy place, for personalized consultancy sessions, allowing the artisan to offer articles conceived and produced to suit each individual client.
Like a traditional art gallery, the store curates and promotes exhibitions by its artists, while behind the scenes, the founders of The New Craftsmen follow and provide support for their artisans throughout design, production and final delivery of their articles.
W1K 6DG London, UK