Interview with Craft Central
Stylechapel works with a number of designers from Craft Central, a not-for-profit organisation that supports independent crafts people and designer-makers. We spoke to Sarah Hewitt, Events and Professional Development Manager, to find out her thoughts on independent design in the UK.
How do you see the state of UK independent design at the moment?
It’s positive and growing. People appreciate an alternative to the high street and they are very aware of well-designed pieces, whether that’s jewellery, accessories or products for the home.
Programmes like Mary's Bottom Line and Kirstie’s Handmade Britain are always good to keep independent British design in the public eye but the support goes back way before it became popular on TV.
Designers have certainly become more savvy in recent years and started promoting their work better by saying that it’s handmade or that they use recycled materials, for example. But that’s not jumping on a bandwagon to sell more – they genuinely believe in these things as design principles.
And they understand that customers are becoming more interested in how something is made, where materials are sourced from and if there is a sustainable story behind it.
Does handmade mean high price?
Not necessarily. Most designers do have their high-end pieces. But much of their work is very reasonably priced. In fact, the vast majority of items cost no more than something you find in a high street shop that’s shipped in from the Far East and sold in the thousands.
But the difference is you get so much more. Their pieces are beautifully designed, handmade and often use material sourced locally. They may be limited editions or even one-offs. And the great thing is that every item comes with a story. Something to tell your friends.
How easy is it to find independent designers?
People are starting to understand that it’s not as scary as they originally thought. Independent designers have become more accessible with open studio events, exhibitions and casual pop ups. It’s not like you have to go to an upmarket gallery anymore to find beautiful design.
What effect has the recession had on independent design?
Diversifying is a big reflection of the recession for designers. Some are interested in lots of different things anyway but others have had to think professionally about what they are making. In fact, it seems to have made many more resourceful and imaginative.
Does it pay to follow the trends?
In some way, yes. Some people diversify to hook into the current trend. Their challenge is to stand out from everyone else who’s doing the same thing. But there’s a difference between that and a designer whose work happens to come into vogue at a particular time. They tend to stay true to what they do, regardless of what trends come and go.
What sort of designers are more successful in a commercial sense?
Whether they are straight out of college, have been in business for years or are changing their career to follow a dream, there are certain things that make a successful designer apart, of course, from having a great idea and good ‘making’ skills.
The majority are self-employed and work on their own so they have to be comfortable with that. While some people think they will be, the reality is often not as romantic as the vision. They must be motivated and determined. It is hard work to establish yourself in the first place and then to remain current as your career progresses.
Successful ones also tend to collaborate and work with others, set up groups and get involved in support networks. And they are the ones who stand in the queue at the Liberty Open Call, get knocked back but turn up again the following year.
Has the mix of disciplines at Craft Central changed over the years?
We’ve not noticed a huge change. That’s probably because of the area and being down the road from Hatton Garden. We’ve always had around 50% jewellery designers across the network. But we have 600 makers right now, so that means 300 are doing other things.
Millinery is pretty hot at the moment. In fact it’s been steadily growing over the past few years, and now we have quite a few in our network. Katherine Elizabeth is a great example. All the celebs wear her hats. She’s one of those clever people in a recession. She really got on top of the movement for workshops and runs fabulous hat-making parties.
Why is the Clerkenwell area such a hotbed of talent?
The whole area has a rich history in the design and making industries. The Craft Central building used to be a penny bank for artisans in Victorian times. An entire family would live in a studio on an upper floor and swap a penny for the tool they wanted. Now we have designers in every nook and cranny.
The area used to be famous for clock making and of course is still so for jewellery. But now high-end furniture design seems to be taking over. There’s an interesting merging of traditional craftsmanship with modern design.
What are the big challenges facing designers at the moment?
People are still investing in craft and design but they are more cautious. Designers have a constant battle with the high street, so they’ve got to communicate the quality of their work, the skills used in the processes and where they source materials from.
Also there is still this ‘craft is cool thing’ going on. That started about 15 years ago, but it’s hanging around. It’s not new news. Craft is just getting on with it like we always have done. It remains innovative and cutting edge. More and more people are beginning to see that.