Hello Design-Nation readers! This month, let us pay tribute to just some of the unselfish individuals who, motivated more by passion than profit, have created organisations and/or events to promote and sustain artists, makers and designers. Theirs, you could say, is an extreme altruism. They work tirelessly in the background, whilst their members and associates shine in the spotlight. Our own founder, the late Peta Levi MBE, is an outstanding example, as I’ve written in an earlier blog. But I’d like also to share my personal experiences of other “visionaries.”
These thoughts have been sadly prompted by the death last month of ovarian cancer in Homerton Hospital in East London of my dear friend and fruitful journalistic source, Dieneke Ferguson, founder and director of Hidden Art, a not-for profit enterprise set up in 1989, at first to promote artists and makers in Hackney, but then spreading London wide, with a branch in Cornwall.
Dieneke pioneered the idea of open studios, and also took cohorts of designers to trade shows at home and abroad. “She had a gift for building networks,” says Natalie Melton, creative director at the Crafts Council, “…and she was a tireless cheerleader for others, organising multiple events.” Regrettably, however, funding ceased in 2011, and officially Hidden Art came to an end. Nevertheless Dieneke kept it alive, often using her own money, offering news and support to designer-makers online, and setting up a successful Hidden Art e-shop to sell their work.
Then there is our own Design-Nation Ambassador Andrew Tanner, a respected ceramicist and now design manager for Sainsbury’s Home. When Peta died in 2008, Design-Nation somewhat lost its way. Indeed it was in danger of closing down, but Andrew, a long-standing member, took on ownership to keep it going. “I wanted to preserve Peta’s legacy and the authenticity of what she had created,” he told me. “So I set about finding a suitable new owner and administrator for Design-Nation.” Step up, North Kesteven District Council, a local authority in Lincolnshire with a splendid commitment to arts and culture. In 2014, they offered Design-Nation a permanent home at the impressive National Centre for Craft & Design in Sleaford. Now Design-Nation, recently merged with Design Factory, has a dynamic management team headed by director Clare Edwards, and has recently secured significant additional Arts Council funding.
Furniture maker Jason Heap, from the Isle of Wight, is another name to know. The niche show Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design (CCD) for furniture designer-makers, founded in 1995 by design enthusiast and author Betty Norbury, was about to fold on her retirement. To the rescue in 2009 came Jason, subsequently holding yearly shows in Cheltenham – until sadly this year, as the pandemic has forced him to close (though he is actively seeking new owners). Last year, Design-Nation sponsored a New Talent Award, which saw 18 fresh faces at the show.
I asked Jason a while back what he got out of running a show that took up so much time and energy for negligible personal gain. His reply was illuminating. “It was two-way, really. Every year I learnt new things as a designer, a maker and as an exhibition organiser. The best part was delivery day – what arrived never ceased to fuel my own enthusiasm for designing and making new work.”
These outstanding individuals have inspired, informed and nurtured countless others. What has been their effect on our own Design-Nation members? Here are just three examples.
Christine Meyer-Eaglestone is a marquetry artist who has exhibited several times with Design-Nation, and eight times with Jason at CCD. This was a yearly “highlight” and a good selling show, she says, with discerning visitors who would remember work from previous years. “And it was a chance to trade advice with other makers from many parts of the world.”
Artist/designer Snowden Flood (whose products include ceramics, textiles, glass and more) joined Hidden Art in 2005. “I had been living in NYC for years and was the single mother of a two-year old. When I started my business I was quite isolated. I don’t think I knew a single other designer or artist in London.” Through Hidden Art, she found “a network of supportive makers experiencing similar issues to me”. And Dieneke created opportunities to exhibit, and multiple networking events. “She had a quiet confidence in all ‘her’ members – she seemed to think we were all brilliant. She was a very positive person, and I never heard her say a negative thing.”
Then there was the time I photographed Snowden, balancing her charming “tree” glass tumblers in her hands, near to her South Bank studio, with St Paul’s in the background. This was orchestrated by Dieneke, to represent Hidden Art in a competition organised by The European Programmes Management Unit. We were so thrilled to be chosen for exhibition at Europa House (followed by City Hall).
Snowden is now an active member of Design-Nation, which she joined in 2014, and her successful exhibitions with us have included pop-ups, MADE Canary Wharf, Decorex and this year’s 20 Makers 20 Objects – “I’ve particularly benefited from D-N contacts, and their publicity is always so stylish and well-handled. Their excellent photo shoots are a great opportunity.”
And she loves the chance to “give back.” This happened earlier this year when a D-N graduate member chose Snowden as a mentor. “This was a really fulfilling process, being able to help and support someone at the start of their career. It allowed me to feel useful in the time of Covid as well as look back over my career and appreciate what I’ve learned, from both successes and failures!”
Ceramicist Harriet Caslin, making highly tactile lighting and homeware in a studio in the Essex countryside, had been selling with Hidden Art, since meeting Dieneke at designjunction. She joined Design-Nation this February – and it’s been a game changer, she says. “I was so alone previously when making business decisions – I really felt I was just stabbing in the dark. Now I have a professional foundation for a successful business and the supporting courses with Design Trust have been invaluable.” She particular treasures the way Design-Nation has “refocused” to support their members through Covid. But she can’t wait “to meet colleagues for real at a real show.” So say we all…
By Barbara Chandler, writer, photographer and Design-Nation brand ambassador.