Excellence of practice is completely central to Design-Nation’s ethos and has been right at the top of the list of reasons why the DN team love their jobs. Our portfolio is full of talented designers and makers who’ve made the grade, assessed and approved by our independent selection panel. It’s hard not to enjoy working with these fabulous talented innovators and masters of their crafts.
The last few months have been a particular delight, as we’ve all had the opportunity to work on our forthcoming major show at The Hub, “Design-Nation: Our Journey”. This exploration of current practice across our membership is themed around sustainability (blog here), diversity and of course, excellence.
In the run-up to the launch event (on Friday 28 January) we’ve been talking to some of our twenty-five exhibitors about what excellence really means to them in their practices. Perhaps excellence is about what’s exciting and challenging in the individual’s own making and development processes?
American-born handblown glass artist Scott Benefield reflects on his technically demanding processes. “There’s a personal challenge in trying to consistently maintain a high standard in your work, but meeting that challenge connects you to a long line of artisans in a way that can be very fulfilling. The Venetian traditions of glassblowing are 900 years old, and they achieved a very high degree of technical virtuosity, so working within that heritage can be daunting. But when you get it right it feels sublime.”
Eighty miles south of Scott’s Antrim workshop, lighting designer and master of making the unusual in Velcro®, Rachel Fitzpatrick concurs: “I love to create a challenge within my making processes to push the boundaries of my craft through the techniques I use. For my piece for Our Journey, I wanted to re-engage with colour within my work. To do this I chose vibrant shades of yellows, pinks and oranges. I wanted to create a dip dying effect blending each colour into the next.”
However, Rachel’s solutions, usually developed in her County Down workshop, involve kit that not many makers use regularly. She went on: “The real challenge comes in how I would pigment over 800 metres of 12-metre-long ribbons. I’m hoping to achieve this by hand dyeing each colour separately in tones, and then joining each coloured ribbon together. I will then need to use a forklift truck to lift the piece up so I can arrange the ribbons to create the gradient colour effect of the piece. The forklift is in the warehouse of a local business who are very supportive of my work, and they kindly let me use the premises to create and pack my work over a weekend.”
From her studio based in a converted church in north Devon, Alison Shelton Brown works with porcelain and found objects, crafting new poetics. She sees excellence in making as “Beauty and innovation, a confidence in making built up over many years of practice and refinement in thinking and process.”
So excellence involves challenging oneself, study of the traditions behind your chosen route, years of refinement of processes – and even using a forklift!
CONTINUOUS AND CHALLENGING
The notion of continual learning is very much to the fore in the strive for excellence. London-based textile artist and homeware designer Georgia Bosson stresses this is a path, not a destination: “Excellence is an intimidating and often unattainable goal, it is enough to do your best at every stage and aim to improve, adapt and grow as time passes.”
In Sussex, award-winning ceramic designer Anna Thomson certainly thinks so. “I particularly enjoy the continuous learning, investigation and experimentation behind my work. I’m very materials and process driven. It’s a relationship where I build knowledge, observe, develop trust, and become instinctive with my material. It’s a continuous and challenging experience.” And her fellow ceramicist Linda Bloomfield, who works from her West London studio (aka several garden sheds) pays tribute to the influence of others, always feeling excited about the new work that other makers produce and the paths they follow.
RISKS HAVE BEEN TAKEN
We asked about the many paths that creative practitioners follow, and what they strive for the most in their own work. Scott Benefield, thoughtful as ever, felt it was hard to express, but then disproved this with his own eloquence:
“There’s an overall sense of precision and fineness in the best work – a sense that risks have been taken and challenges have been met. What I most enjoy about the Venetian traditions of glassblowing is the value that they put on a sense immediacy and fluidity in handling the material; a mastery of the moment when this molten material is changing states from a liquid to a solid.”
Georgia Bosson is clear about her goals. “I strive for my work to be playful and ambitious. With every new project the aim is to challenge both my skills and the traditional notions of the techniques that I employ, creating bold contemporary pieces from processes which would traditionally create something gentler, quieter, and softer. I want to have fun when I work, maintaining a sense of exploration and discovery, allowing each project to develop its own personality.”
“At the core of my practice is the belief that materials must be treated with the utmost respect. Valuing the resources, time and energy used to create what I see as a raw material, but which has in fact passed through the hands of many before me. The material choices that I make are the foundation of all of my work, it is not enough to simply celebrate aesthetic ‘excellence’, the unseen must also be elevated and revered in the same way as the final image.”
Anna Thomson echoes the focus on materials: “I like to be innovative and enjoy pushing the boundaries of possibilities of process or materials. I strive for perfection whilst allowing the natural qualities of the materials shine. Control and letting go at the same time, but I definitely find the letting go more difficult! I set up my own studio with a focus on craft in 2012 having worked with production ceramics earlier in my career. I knew there was no point trying to compete with industry on a small scale.”
“Drawing on my craft skills I was striving to make work not possible in industry, but still embracing my love of manufacturing processes. I loved the freedom this gave me both in the designing and making – where the rule book is thrown away, and design and craft and material find a balance.”
Anna’s ambition for balance of form, process and material is similar to Linda’s simple statement: “I am aiming for an exciting combination of form and surface texture.”
And Alison Shelton Brown also has similar values, stressing he need for “an authentic voice. Uncovering new ways of making, stretching ideas and finding the joy in creatively exploring a disparate variety of materials and techniques.”
VIRTUALLY UNRECOGNISABLE SHAPES
Respect for and in-depth understanding of materials is central to craft and design practice, from the purity of traditional materials like textiles, glass and hand-thrown ceramics, to the sometimes startling uses of newer manufacturing processes and media. Rachel Fitzpatrick enjoys the confusion she creates: “I love to see and hear about people’s reaction to my work – the fact that it is created from an everyday material, Velcro®. I love how I can disguise this material and create a different purpose for it through how I colour it, display it or the shapes that I create to make it virtually unrecognisable – this really excites me.”
Great examples of how traditional making and in-depth understanding of chosen matter and tools underpins much beautiful contemporary design: renowned weaver Jan Bowman will be bringing her sensitive design skills to an immersive and thought-provoking installation made of many smaller works, and Alison Shelton Brown’s wearable works skilfully combine new clay, found objects and a poetic and caring approach. Makers are also joyfully embracing new technologies and contemporary materials: textile artist Laura Mabbutt taking a dramatic step into the digital, enhancing the visual impact and story-telling abilities of her felting techniques with augmented reality.
Excellence of design will be seen in many other exhibits in “Our Journey”, for example: hand-dyed weaving by Arra Textiles, nature-inspired mosaics by Julie Vernon, Janine Partington’s artworks carved in leather, beautiful kiln-formed glass by Verity Pulford, and Ash & Plumb’s massed wooden vessels.
Our final question on excellence was about its relevance to other parts of makers’ lives and work. Linda Bloomfield has impressive expert knowledge of making ceramic glazes from scratch and is an accomplished writer. Her useful textbooks on ceramics and glazes have been translated into other languages. So it’s pretty exciting to hear she has a new book on the way – and with a great writing partner: “When I write books I try to do the best I can to share knowledge, both theory and practice. The latest book is a collaboration with Sue Pryke on how to design and make contemporary tableware.” It’s going on our reading list for sure.
Alison Shelton Brown is less bothered about excellence outside of her artistic practice. She says, “There are many areas of life when ‘good enough’ is exactly that – good enough, but as an artist I have to keep exploring and pushing and challenging and to have fun doing it. I never want to stop learning and adding to my knowledge and experience of artistic disciplines and craft techniques.”
The last word though lies with Anna Thomas, surely a woman after our own hearts: “Excellence does seem to seep into other areas of my life. Mostly practical things, but I do secretly like designing a good spreadsheet!”