Plant Explorations

To mark our 10 year anniversary, The New Craftsmen have invited our community of makers to reflect upon and take inspiration from the evolution and uses of their craft across the centuries.

Earlier this year, we invited six of our existing and four new makers to the Economic Botany Collections at Kew Gardens to examine and creatively respond to a myriad of objects and their narratives, along with the wider world of plants that we inhabit. The collection was opened up to The New Craftsmen makers with the help and knowledge of ethnobotanist and curator of the collection, Mark Nesbitt and leading scholar of basketry and visiting researcher at Kew Gardens, Ruth Stungo. The result is a dynamic new collection of work that celebrates humanity and the practical and beautiful use of plants – entitled ‘Plant Explorations’.

Plant Explorations

The objects in the collection represent how life depends on plants all around the world. Inspired by the skill, imagination and knowledge of makers that came before them, the group - composed of basket makers, furniture makers, artists and woodturners - have responded by creating their own unique pieces.

Plant Explorations

“The 100,000 plant raw materials and products in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection form an extraordinary testament to the ingenuity of humans in adapting plants to serve their needs. First assembled to serve the needs of British commerce, these objects are now powerful prompts for reconsidering sustainability and equity in our relations with the natural world. It has been a privilege to work with the makers in this exhibition. Their choices of objects for detailed study, their questions, and their responses in their own work have all led me to look afresh at the collection. In particular, the intersection between an object's purpose, technique and texture has been fruitfully explored by all the makers. I’m delighted that we are able to show some of Kew’s collection at the exhibition, enabling visitors to also share the counterplay between old and new.” - Mark Nesbitt, ethnobotanist and curator at the Economic Botany Collection, Kew Gardens.

The craftspeople selected for this year’s ‘Plant Explorations’ includes familiar names to The New Craftsmen: Annemarie O’Sullivan, Catarina Riccabona, Hilary Burns, Lola Lely, Maggie Smith and SASA Works alongside four new makers: Cyriaque Ambroise, Lisa Atkin, Pip Rice and Takahashi McGil. This coming together of makers created space for discussion, the sharing of knowledge and collaborative working, resulting in beautifully rich and inventive explorations. Basket maker, Hilary Burns, who played a crucial role in the project, shares an insight into the journey:

“As a basketmaker, I’ve been drawn to explore the Economic Botany Collection at Kew several times. There are so many inspiring objects to discover, and there’s always an incentive to return. As a focus for the ‘Plant Explorations’ project, it seemed ideal and I was certain that makers from different disciplines would find a rich resource to draw on. The makers involved in the project already had an interest in natural materials and processes and chose a wide range of objects, from wax to seeds, fans to carved boxes, to explore, giving us an unexpected insight into each other’s interests.

The collection ties into my long-term interests in natural materials, how they are grown, harvested, processed; the techniques that have been devised to take advantage of what plants offer, and the extraordinary ingenuity of human creativity and invention in producing artefacts of beauty and usefulness. With our renewed understanding of how fragile planet earth is and how little space is left for nature, we risk losing skills and knowledge as the pressure on resources grows.

In the words of Ed Carriere, Suquamish elder, ‘It takes a whole forest to properly produce native basketry materials’ and of Japanese master basketmaker Iizuka Rokansai (1890 – 1958) ‘In Japan, bamboo forests exist everywhere. In the middle of those forests, among two or three hundred species, I never stop looking up to find a good stalk that I could transform into a basket. It sometimes happens, even after a whole day spent looking that I find none'.

We are very used to obtaining ready-made string, paper, fabric, and wood. It’s easy to forget that most of the process of turning these into usable, uniform, ready-to-make materials has been done for us, generally with the help of industrial machinery. This project was an opportunity to go back to basics, remind ourselves what was involved and appreciate the time and effort of slow, hands-on making.

With an opportunity to collaborate with other makers, Catarina [Riccabona] and Lisa [Atkins] came to Devon for a couple of days, where we shared ideas and skills, using a mix of materials: weaving with bark, natural dyeing with plant materials, and processing locally grown flax.”

Plant Explorations

From lighting, furniture and baskets to objects and one-off artworks, each maker worked closely with Catherine Lock and the guidance and expertise of the team at The New Craftsmen to develop their responses to their findings at Kew Gardens and the plant world more broadly. At the heart of ‘Plant Explorations’ is a growing community of makers, a group united to each other and those who preceded them. It demonstrates the generosity and patronage within the community: skills being passed on from maker to maker, and from generation to generation.

We invite you to visit the Plant Explorations exhibition in our Mayfair showroom during London Craft Week from Monday 9th May or begin by exploring the collection and its intriguing stories of inspiration and process, below.