The recent publication of Modern British Furniture: Design since 1945, Lesley Jackson's fascinating history of the British furniture industry, has reminded me of the adage that design thrives in times of recession. After the war, for instance, manufacturers such as Hille, G-Plan and ercol changed the paradigm, pioneering a contemporary furniture via designers like Robin Day and later Fred Scott. Meanwhile, as manufacturing in this country contracted, it was in the depths of the 80s downturn that various stars of the present scene, such as Tom Dixon and Ron Arad, first emerged, imbued with the DIY ethos of punk, bashing and welding metal to create dramatic new pieces. Ignoring the difficulties, they found their own way to get their voice heard.
Spool forward to our current age of austerity, and it seems to me that more and more young designers are eschewing the traditional route of getting their work made in volume by large manufacturers, and instead are finding new methods to get to market. What's noticeable too is that in spite of the emergence of new technologies, an increasing number are re-discovering craft skills.
Last year's designjunction, for example, saw the launch of the Scapa chair by one of the UK's leading product designers, Simon Pengelly - a version of a traditional Orkney chair made by Scapa Crafts. This followed hard on the heels of Gareth Neal's take on the same piece of vernacular furniture, which he made with Kevin Gauld, to be sold at the New Craftsmen. They are not alone. For the past few years the annual New Designers exhibition, held at the Business Design Centre in Islington, has been notable for the number of graduates re-examining craft skills, many choosing to update the traditional Windsor chair.
Much of this interest, I suspect, can be traced back to the Bodging Milano project in 2010, where a group of designers (including Neal incidentally) went to a wood in Herefordshire to learn how to make furniture using traditional techniques and such tools as pole lathes. The results were subsequently shown at the Milan design festival. However, while this was undoubtedly influential, there was already something in the air. Simon Hasan, for instance, graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2009 with a collection made by boiling leather in an old tea urn, aping a process once used for making mediaeval armour called cuir bouilli.
At the Crafts Council we like to think we've done our bit to aid and abet this new movement. In 2012 we launched our touring exhibition Raw Craft: Fine thinking in contemporary culture, which cast a spotlight on a handful of designers producing furniture that - in the words of one of the show's curatorial advisors Michael Marriott - was concerned with the 'true nature of the material, process and structure of the project'. So Oscar Narud's Keel Series bench relied on a wedge to hold its timber seat and iron legs in place, while Max Lamb's Pewter Stool was made by digging a mould out from the sand on a beach in his native Cornwall. And of course in seasonal mood Fabien Cappello's Christmas Tree Table very simply recycled Christmas trees into furniture.
Why is this happening? As ever, there are many reasons, philosophical and practical. The fact is that we produce more designers than there are manufacturers, so that many are forced to make their own work or find artisans to make it for them. And most of the major (usually Italian) furniture firms seem to have become more conservative in their commissioning - tending to rely on a handful of 'big' names - which has merely encouraged this further. A perennial hunger for modern classics of the 20th century means that any design shop or fair that you visit will heavily feature such work.
There has also been reaction to the increased use of technology in design, as well as a recognition of and backlash against the limits of 3D printing. It is striking how makers are actively engaging with 3D printing, but they are struggling successfully to resolve their pieces.
I suspect too, that some of this work is a direct response to the globalisation of design, and to concerns for the environmental impact of this globalisation. Every major city in the world now appears to have a design festival and yet too often the work on display has a 'samey' quality to it. As a riposte, designers have explored the potential of provenance and craft. Eindhoven - home of the Dutch Design Festival - was full of craft this year.
Whatever the reason, this recession has had the effect of persuading a fascinating group of designers to get back to essentials and, as a result, they've produced some wonderful furniture. Of course no one would wish for our current economic difficulties - things are so tough for so many people - but this might turn out to be one positive legacy.
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This blog post also appears in the January/February 2014 issue of Crafts MagazineSuggest a correction