We are on the cusp of a new Arts and Crafts period led by new craftsmen and the circumstances of its coming are remarkably similar to the original.
Arts and Crafts (version 1.0) started in the UK in around 1880 and it spread across Europe rapidly. It followed a period of huge change in the UK, a period in which industrialisation totally changed the lives or ordinary working people. The arts and crafts movement poured scorn on the mechanisation and materials of industry, and it was in many ways a cry for help. This new movement focussed on design, on craft and on traditional skills. The glue that held it together was idealism and it established a new set of principles for living and working.
Fast forward 140 years to today, and society is in a similar place. We have followed twenty years of extraordinary technological change, both in manufacturing and computing, and there is an underlying feeling that society is yearning to get back to working with its hands. People are suffering from TMT (Too Much Tech). In the same way that the burgeoning Victorian industrial mass manufacturing methods placed limits on design (the design of cast iron bridges were controlled by the way the parts could be manufactured), so too have modern automated manufacturing methods steered high street design of today. Modern furniture looks the way it does (often bland) because its design is restricted by the functionality of the machinery that makes it at scale. To overcome this technical constraint, the furniture is marketed slickly and heavily using budgets made available through the large profits generated. The consumer is none the wiser. If the tail is manufacturing, design is the dog, and both then and now, the tail has been wagging the dog. The new craftsmen are fighting against this and it’s producing wonderful furniture rooted in rooted in craftsmanship and narrative.
Take bespoke kitchen and architectural joinery design and craftsmanship, a field we specialise in. For the last 10 years, interiors magazines have been groaning with mass produced ranges of pre-designed kitchen furniture. These products are pre-designed so rooms can be laid out rapidly, and the furniture is designed in such a way that it can be mass produced, allowing manufacturers and kitchen retailers to generate significant margins through economies of scale. Their motivations are financial in much the same way as were the motivations of the Victorian industrial manufacturer. It is an approach which has made many people very rich, but we would argue an approach that will not continue to delight future generations. It is a temporary approach, and one we have written about before.
A small group of designers and craftsmen, ourselves included, have never subscribed to this approach. Our company vision is that great design and craftsmanship will be thriving in 100 years, and if we are to create Britain’s future heritage today we have to design and make furniture which will sit appropriately and elegantly into its surrounding architecture for centuries. This simply cannot be achieved with automated processes which constrain design. Each room we design requires its own very personal touch. Each moulding and the materials we chose for each project have to be intensively scrutinized to ensure they will still look as good today as they will for the next generation. This is why Artichoke only makes around 20 kitchens a year; you cannot mass produce one offs.
A recent article in the Spectator backs this up. The piece focuses on the work of George Saumarez Smith, a partner at classical architects ADAM Architecture. The premise of the piece is that while classicism never went away, it did become unfashionable for a period before now coming back. That’s the great thing about classicism. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and eventually it always comes back. You can only achieve the quality that authentic classical and traditional design demands by designing and making it properly in the first place; with love, by hand, and with an obsessively focussed attention to detail. And herein lies the problem. To create the level of detail needed to pull off a fine classical or traditional interior requires complete dedication to the craft and a rigorous focus on the detail; and this doesn’t sit well with shareholders looking to make a fast buck. So they turn to automation. How many public craft based design or cabinet makers do you know?
As designers we often take inspiration from the great periods of classical English architecture, from early Georgian to Edwardian. We take a particular interest in period house detail, materials and finishes because they are the ones we love and admire the most. They are almost always the ones created by hand, with love. As craftsmen, we make furniture with integrity using traditional skills, not because we are stuck in the past, but because these methods have yet to be improved on by modern technology. Naturally we embrace technologies which make us more efficient, but when it comes to the integrity of our furniture, we do not believe in taking short cuts. Ever.
At Artichoke, we’ve always been arts and crafts; creating Britain’s future heritage cannot be achieved any other way.
Welcome to Arts and Crafts V.02. We hope you enjoy the ride.