Skip to content

Barbara’s blog #11: spying out new talent

Our guest blogger Barbara Chandler has been on a mission to discover the great grads of 20/21.

Well, whilst some friends and colleagues lingered in lockdown – many rather painfully pinged, others understandably reluctant to sally forth – I’ve been criss-crossing the country by train, to see meet as many new graduates as I could physically manage. It started with the stark realisation that with the inescapable cancellation of the physical aspect of New Designers two years in a row, we now have, so to speak, the lost classes of 20/21, who’ve had no effective platform for their work. How cruel. So if they couldn’t come to London for a central show, I thought I for one at least would take a little bit of London and the media to them. I also wanted to top up my photography portfolio.

I was scheduled to have a photo-show last year at New Designers, of the images of designers with their work which I’ve taken over the past eleven years or so. It was of course cancelled, moved to this year, and cancelled again. I realised that if I show next year (and I’ve just had a lovely call to say that’s very much on the cards), then my last pics would be from 2019 – and next year (deep breath) is 2022. Obviously I have to have some portraits labelled 2020 and 2021 to fill the gap. (Do check out my “portfolio” on Instagram @sunnygran.)

My journeys have been so worthwhile. I’ve been blown away by the spread of talent, its richness and originality. I’ve seen such wonderful work, much executed with limited facilities in cramped surroundings – in bedrooms, on dining tables, even on the floor of shared houses, or a garden shed. I’ve been so impressed by the professionalism of the makers.

Kingston University (Furniture and Product Design) were in on the act very early, inviting me to meet graduates in small groups over a full day. We had a ball. Then it was Plymouth where the door opened to a roomful of budding designers. That was a little intimidating, but we soon became friends. Many were also showing in Barclay’s bank five minutes away, which (all credit to them) was hosting a public show. In the afternoon, I was treated to a creative line-up at Plymouth College of Art. Next up was Stoke and the University of Staffordshire, to see 3D Designer Maker students, who, despite the odds, had put on degree shows. What a treat.

At Loughborough, there were also two splendid shows to inspect. De Montfort at Leicester (Design Crafts) also arranged one-to-ones, and graduates had worked their socks off to mount a sophisticated show in a large room flooded with light. Then further north, and a rendezvous with students at Manchester School of Art who came in one by one on a staggered timetable.

Meanwhile in London I zig-zagged around various events at the RCA, St Martin’s and Brunel.

So what were they up to, these potential stars of British design? Notably lots were using waste – their own, that of other makers or of industry, as a precious material in its own right.

At Kingston,  Ameera Azami had fashioned colourful and surprisingly soft fibres out of old clothes and carrier bags, and made a bench with a woven seat. Her colleague Callum Wardle had collected beach waste and transformed it into a robust material for beach toys, which will be rented out by beach authorities for use over and over agin, thus closing the loop. Imogen Gray  had collected leather scraps from all over Brighton and moulded them into a new material: witness her trendy cowboy boot.  Mona Azim of Plymouth University has made a  strong glue/decorative filler from food waste.  Yes, stick it together with fruit and veg peel, onion skins, coffee grounds,and cabbage leaves – and welcome to the world of Materorganic!

Mathilde Wittock (Central St Martin’s) says tennis balls are not much good to anyone after they lose their bounce. So she collected bagfuls from local clubs, invented a clever S-shape to cut them in half, dyed them an earthy browny/green, and slotted them into ply for a sound-absorbing screen. Some of these ideas may not be commercial in the long run, but demonstrate an ingenuity of approach which can only benefit the world in the future.

Glass is a thriving discipline, with furnaces in full blast when I visited Plymouth College of Art. Here Elizabeth Simms has an ambitious project to cast her own body in sections, and then blow glass into the moulds. At De Montfort, of a contingent of ten glassmakers, eight were girls – showing females can deliver a powerful puff. Check out Jade Bloodworth and Rosie Perrett.

Ceramics as always is a favourite – but graduates pushed this malleable medium in widely different directions.  In Manchester, Cicely Peers made 3D-printed sharply geometric moulds to build strikingly original vessels.  She scooped the prestigious Thrown Contemporary Award at New Designers’ online Awards.  Setting a long table with an exquisite dinner service was Parneet Pahwa.  She’s from India, and wanted to express the warmth of welcome at family meals back home.

Textiles were a triumph, in particular at Brighton Uni,  where I particularly loved the collection of Connie Brownjohn @connienitadesigns, based on the ideal of“rewilding,” which she’s been studying at Knepp Estate in East Sussex – a place that has been embracing the ideals of rewilding  since 2001. This Connie had extensively explored, along with adjacent farmland given over to industrial agriculture. Her final imagery contrasts the two approaches/aesthetics, linked with a strong colour palette.

Deprived of their big college looms, many weavers had been loaned table looms for lockdown. Leonie Edmead @leonie.textiles (Manchester) is a wondrous weaver. She took over the dining table of her shared house: “Well, the others were doing history and English.” Sharing a crammed sketchbook packed with inspo was Hannah Bryant whose beautiful collection of abundant woven textures is “Curiosities of the Skies”.

I was looking in particular for talent for a show I’m curating over the weekend of September 25/26 in Samsung KX in Coal Drop’s Yard, N1C. (See you there? Do say hello!) It’s called Green Grads, and is part of Planted Cities, a wider platform for biophilia, sustainability and the circular economy. I’m inviting to take part, for example, Katrina Wilde from the RCA, who has perfected natural dyes with the help of her Bulgarian grandmother.

There were some wild cards. Ben Astrop is hooked on animation, though he now has a degree in Design Crafts from De Montfort. He had made a set of characters from old computer parts and plasticine for an enchanting stop motion film. And mature student Simon Redstone  comes from a family of willow weavers, and had used time at uni to adapt his skills to contemporary design.

A big thank you to Sally Bent of New Designers who made introductions to tutors on my behalf. And to the tutors themselves who unstintingly gave up time to arrange special access and personal interviews. Hopefully I contributed some industry and media insights, and I have some contacts I’m in the process of sharing. Not to mention a platform of the chosen GREEN GRADS! (Their names will filter through onto Planted Cities shortly.)

Our own Design-Nation, of course, nurtures graduates with devotion. I love being a DN ambassador. It keeps me in touch with top talent all over the UK, and I am constantly discovering new artist-makers, and making friends. I also get an inside view on what’s going on, and can report there will be a CPD programme specifically for graduates and emerging makers starting in the autumn, to include writing an artist’s statement and the nitty gritty of finances. We’re planning  an online showcase for graduate members, with a showreel. Our graduate members have ongoing support on product development with hints on pushing a degree collection to market, plus training/workshops. That doesn’t seem bad for £40 a year plus VAT (for not more than two years). There are four intakes of graduate members a year – we’ll be looking at the August intake shortly.

“Yes, our graduates are the stars of tomorrow,” affirms Design-Nation director Clare Edwards. “And we so enjoy discovering their new talents, materials and approaches to making.”

Adds Liz Cooper, development manager: “When your whole life – like mine – is about contemporary craft and design, fresh new talents are a huge part of that. We love seeing how maker’s practices develop after first being spotted at shows – or applying to join our graduate scheme.”

But what do our graduate members think? Well, Belinda King is an enthusiast, joining in her third year on the Design Crafts course at De Montfort Uni where she is now a glass maker as an artist in residence. She’s enjoyed going to DN “cluster hub” meetings and getting advice on how to photograph her work. “The last few months I’ve been focusing on finishing my degree, but hope to take up more opportunities with Design-Nation in the coming months.”

Joanna Terry, ceramic artist, is also currently a graduate member – “and DN has been a creative lifeline over the past 18 months of Covid”. She’s something of a free spirit, making mainly in Parian porcelain, “casting direct from the landscape around me, capturing native wild plants and flowers into the clay.” She’s just taken part in a three-week South East Open Studios – “and I was happy to find I’m not the only person drawn to natural beauty and rather rough looking ceramics!” She’s also done a small makers market, and has been taken on by three local galleries. Next up: the Craft Potters Association autumn Oxford Ceramics Fair. ” She goes on to say:

“I think what drew me to join was the feeling of belonging to a group of like minded people. While studying you are surrounding by people who all love to create, in whatever form that may be. The fear I had was one of isolation, being a maker on my own. DN mentoring saw me through – due to Covid all virtual – but I built up a wonderful relationship with Snowden Flood.”

So if you’re a graduate reading this, do please consider membership. We’d so love to hear from you. The deadline for the next intake is 1 November. Address any enquiries to our membership manager, Hayley Banks.

All portraits by Barbara Chandler

Ameera Azami.

Callum Wardle with his beach toys.

Imogen Grey with her cowboy boot.

Mona Azim.

Mathilde Wittock with her repurposed tennis balls.

Elizabeth Simms at the hot glass furnace.

Simon Redstone’s woven willow furniture.




Posted on


Posted by

Clare Edwards


design-nation dn-logo-2021 facebook instagram search