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Barbara’s Blog #12: Revelling in Real

“There is nothing like that face-to-face feedback.”  – Dan Morrison, Blott Works

Our regular blog guest Barbara Chandler meet the makers who, agreeably optimistic and up-beat, are casting virtual aside and revelling in real.

In London at least, there’s a feeling of being let out of school. Although the media is awash with COVID warnings of a winter wave, in practice people are travelling, shopping, eating out and visiting galleries, theatres and cinemas. And going to design shows. There are Christmas ads on the TV, and festive windows in Fortnum’s on Piccadilly.

So what’s it like for our makers emerging into exhibitions and markets after long dreary lockdowns? London Craft Week at the beginning of last month was a bit of a litmus test, with various members cautiously taking part in solo or group shows, including furniture maker Angus Ross and paper artist Clare Pentlow. They were full of enthusiasm.

But it was long-time DN member Amy Cushing that stole the show for me. Six galleries had taken over the grandiose interiors of the Argentine Embassy, packing a seemingly-endless series of rooms with sculpture, art and design at every opulent turn. And ranged along a window sill, backlit to perfection, were Amy’s new pieces of luminous coloured glass, sort of souped-up sophisticated cacti.  “I’ve used a hybrid glass technique developed during lockdown,” Amy explained. “It combines curvy mouth-blown hot glass with flat forms from my kiln. There’s a high level of skill. The pieces are completely handmade with individual colour arrangements – but the making processes are very different.”

And what was lockdown like for her? “Well, although I’m glad now to mix socially and professionally, developing work as an artist is always lengthy and very focused. So when the world stood still, I could indulge myself with experiments and ideas. Outside pressure/demands just seemed to have switched off.”

This is a recurring theme for many makers, who say they always work on their own, so lockdown wasn’t different. But what they missed was the chance to interact, show and tell.

So on to Decorex to see our exhibiting members, coming back into the real world, and blinking a little in the light. Lockdown may have been lonely, but never have makers more treasured their Design-Nation membership – and very vocally. “Design-Nation kept us constantly in touch with ideas, coaching, chats and so on,” said designer-maker Caroline Egleston of Piccolpasso, showing  a dramatic assembly of geometric hand-sculpted tiles, on a group stand with the work of six others.

The Design-Nation stands at Decorex has always been a highlight of the show, carefully curated and presented with style.  Veteran visitors, who are mainly top-end interior designers, now mark it as a must-see, because here is what can set their rooms and public spaces apart and tap into the current demand for handmade, heritage, individuality and provenance.

Design-Nation at Decorex 2021 did not disappoint, with a spread of fine craft, from weaving and embroidery to porcelain lights and tiles. But it was the makers themselves that animated the exercise, there in person to explain techniques, highlight details – and take orders and commissions.

“We were very different from the larger brands,” remarked Caroline Egleston.  “I truly believe people are drawn to the handmade – it is more relatable.” Chiming in was Harriet Caslin, whose centrepiece of perfectly-poised porcelain lights ticked all the boxes at this prestigious show. “Yes, a lot of interior designers are now looking towards crafts for quality and timeless designs that are produced locally.” Added Caroline: “And, it wasn’t just the makers who were pleased to be out – the ‘trade’ was buzzy, fresh and enthused. I’ve never received such positive feedback, and I talked not only to interior designers but also architects and curators.”

Amelia Ayerst is a very new member, indeed new in business. On the wall were her beautiful colour-changing digitally-embroidered textiles. “Design-Nation has helped me to stay positive, and the community and support have been wonderful.” But she missed interactions and meeting people. “Decorex was so much fun!” She gained “positivity and motivation”, and now has lots of contacts to follow up – notably with the celebrated designer Sophie Ashby. “Textiles are so tactile they need a real showcase rather than a picture on a screen.”

Weavers Liz Ramsay (exquisitely fine) and Majeda Clarke (strikingly geometric) completely agreed,  as did hand-embroiderer Susannah Weiland, whose impossibly intricate hand-embroideries were carefully set off in simple frames – are these the “samplers” of the 21st century?

Clever lighting brought the stand alive, highlighting the multiple textile textures and glinting off the intriguing wall-art of Kim Sutherland, telling its stories of myth and mystery, using etching, electroforming and lost-wax casting.

“Yes, our designer-makers really are extraordinary people,” mused DN director Clare Edwards. “These objects in wool and steel, silk and porcelain, cotton and brass, are unique treasures that will bring joy, style and beauty to today’s contemporary refuges, our homes.”

In truth, I found the atmosphere in the rest of the show rather hushed and a little timid, though things were definitely merrier at the Circus-themed central bar. We were told repeatedly that sustainability was a big theme this year. Though you would have thought that would be a given by now. Yes, there was a carpet made from recycled plastic, chairs from fishing nets, and a whole range of cork products, but that made omissions more obvious. Why didn’t every stand at least attempt a sustainability statement?

Filling a large hall at the front was Future Heritage, always a powerful draw. Its curator, my colleague at the London Evening Standard, Corinne Julius excelled herself this year, with making skills well to the fore. I really enjoyed meeting designer Fabio Hendry who shares his time between Switzerland and London –  and I want to share his clever making skills which are a happy hybrid of sculpture, design and innovation. He creates visually compulsive twisting shapes for furniture and lighting using his own ingenious method. It goes something like this: he heats twisted copper pipes with a tiny electric filament. They are set in a bed of sand and powdered waste from 3D printing. And hey presto! The material solidifies and the supporting sand drops away.

Then it was onwards and upwards to Manchester to check out the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in the venerable venue of old Victorian baths, oozing stunning stained glass and green glossy art nouveau tiles – but water long since drained, needless to say.

Here Design-Nation was really pulling out the stops – I counted a dozen members and may well have missed some. There was a lovely optimism shared by all, and expressed emphatically by Dan Morrison at Blott Works, whose quirky articulated lights were a showstopper – “I had a good spot, deep end of first class males. There was a natural slope towards our area! It was great to be out and about in public again, and surrounded by buzzing people and beautiful work.” He had several pieces boxed up and ready to take away, but soon sold out, had to go back to taking orders and is still catching up on deliveries. His lamps were £250 – “but people seemed happy to get out their credit cards.”

Dan adds: “The crowd were really enjoying the day out, taking their time to look round and talk to people. It was my first proper chance in over 20 months to show people my new work, to look them in the eye, demonstrate the ideas and discuss the designs. There is nothing quite like face-to-face for feedback and it was brilliant to catch up with other makers.”

Opposite Dan, and in complete contrast, was Mary Macgregor of BAKKA, with fabulously fine Fair Isle fashions. “My work is true contemporary craft –  traditional heritage is finding a modern function,” she told me. She lives alone and isolated on Shetland. “So lockdown for me was psychological rather than physical.” She hasn’t shown in Manchester before. “I was busy all the time, explaining what I do and why, the natural colours and old patterns and techniques. And one of my very best online customers came from Chester specially to meet me – a real highlight. Visitors were spending, and it was a fantastic venue.”

Artist Hannah Lobley had to be sited in perhaps the most gorgeous spot of the whole affair, a room with a huge expanse of the original Victorian stained glass which makes this venue so special. This Design-Nation member was selected as one of just four for “Discuss” – a spotlight on makers pushing the boundaries of their craft.

Hannah has invented a unique medium for her sculpted pieces with their delicate “stripes”. They are intriguingly made of layered paper.  She got the idea initially from a book left out in the rain where the pages had expanded out of control. Now she glues and compresses papers and then carves the resulting blocks – and the “patterns” come from the original colour and texture of the papers used. Clamps and presses have been laboriously collected from car boots and other sales. Bespoke is a strong element of her work, turning people’s fragile papers into lasting mementos.

When makers apply for Design-Nation membership, exhibiting at shows and events like Decorex, Collect, London Craft Week and MADE often comes at or near the top their list of “reasons for joining” – we’ve noticed that lately on the selection panel. Here’s when makers get to share their magic not only with visitors but with each other. And what could be better than that?


All photos by Barbara Chandler.

On news index page: Hannah Lobley at Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair (GNCCF).

Amy Cushing’s glass at the Argentine Ambassador’s, London Craft Week.

Caroline Egleston, Harriet Caslin, Liz Ramsay, Majeda Clarke and Susanah Weiland at Decorex.

Dan Morrison and Mary Macgregor at GNCCF.

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