Exploring Craft Patronage

As part of our focus on craft patronage during London Craft Week 2019, The New Craftsmen hosted a panel discussion exploring how patronage can enable innovation. We are delighted to share with you the insights, anecdotes and industry wisdom unearthed during the debate hosted by The New Craftsmen’s Managing Director Yelena Ford, with Kit Kemp (Homewares Designer & Creative Director of Firmdale Hotels), Tord Boontje (Industrial Designer), Janice Blackburn (former Curator of Contemporary Craft and Design at Sotheby’s), and artist & designer Charlotte Kingsnorth.

Charlotte's Lichen Patina Collection was inspired by the lichen growing on a railing near her studio Charlotte's Lichen Patina Collection was inspired by the lichen growing on a railing near her studio

Yelena Ford: To start off this discussion, I think it's important to place craft patronage in the broader context, and really acknowledge some of the challenges that face craft and creativity today. The Craft Council and Heritage Craft Association cite certain issues, which I would just like to briefly point out. Of those graduating from craft-related courses, only one percent actually make a living from their practice, often taking on multiple jobs at the same time. Access to technical skills and machinery within the educational realm is becoming more challenging, as are business rates and the cost of affordable workshops especially in London. According to the Crafts Council, craft-related courses in higher education have halved in the last two years. That's time, cost, access and education; all things making craft quite a challenging path to follow and making patronage even more relevant and necessary today.

Charlotte you graduated in 2012 and have worked for the last seven years as a designer. What are some of the challenges you and your peers have faced since you graduated?

Charlotte Kingsnorth: Once you've graduated it’s quite a shock to suddenly be out in the world and trying to run a business, when you don't really have much of an idea about what that really entails. The first step was to try to find an affordable studio space, which is really hard in London and getting much harder. Luckily there are certain organisations that can help with this. I rent my studio from ASC who find art studios in places such as abandoned retail spaces and old blocks of flats. It can also be hard just trying to find work. You can sell the pieces you make but if you're going to be self-employed, live in London and support your studio you really need to diversify your skill set to try and pull in as much work as possible.

YF: Tord, having been at the RCA for years and seeing students like Charlotte moving through that system, what were some of the frustrations that you witnessed for students and as an educational practitioner?

Told Boontje: We were very aware that these students have very sheltered lives in college before they leave. And we have a responsibility to prepare them for that, but at the same time, when you do your Masters, you need to be able to have this complete sense of freedom with no interruption from the outside world to really develop your own thinking and creative vision. So sometimes we would set up projects with external companies, but with a real understanding that there was no commercial gain for companies to do this. It really was to provide a platform to share expertise. Through this we tried to encourage students to consider a more commercial career, working for these companies in a very interesting, cultural way.

YF: That was directly responding to what you thought was an absence of a commercial prowess within the student body?

TB: Exactly. When you have a group of incredibly talented students, so highly motivated and from all over the world, and you see that they're struggling after they leave college, you know that something's wrong. Only one percent of people who studied a crafts course actually make a living from it. That seems like a really sad kind of reality.

YF: There’s a lot of unrealised potential.

TB: Absolutely. I actually think that working for commercial companies is a really good way to break out of this.

YF: So that paints the picture a little bit - those are some of the issues and it would be good to look at the solutions. There appears to be three forms of patronage which are coming to the fore: the first is personal patronage, so the individual establishing a direct relationship with a craft practitioner to support and enable work. Then there's commercial patronage: businesses looking to support craft makers through various different business models to generate income. And then there's institutional patronage: the efforts of government and public sector bodies to help meet the needs of craft makers. These are all equally important, though in quite different ways, so it would be useful to explore all three of these models. Starting with personal patronage, Charlotte coming back to you - you recently completed a private commission, which actually spurred your new collection of Lichen Patina furniture. What did personal patronage enable you to do and what did you get out of this journey?

Yelena Ford with Charlotte Kingsnorth and Janice Blackburn Yelena Ford with Charlotte Kingsnorth and Janice Blackburn

CK: The patinated series started a couple of years ago when a couple approached me to design a dining table specially for them. They wanted to support young emerging designers rather than buying from a shop, and gave my colleague and I a really detailed brief for a table that would fit into their new conservatory. So we embarked on this project together, and it ended up taking quite a long time because they were really supportive; we kept meeting up to discuss our findings. Really the idea revolved around bringing a piece of their garden into the conservatory, and we were able to make a really personal piece for them because they started collecting images of lichen that they noticed in their surroundings. Then we started the process of experimenting with the patina on bronze. I think if we hadn’t worked with them, it wouldn’t have been possible to develop a project like that because bronze is so expensive. If there was something that didn't quite work out how we thought, which is always the case with new projects, they were able to put in a bit more money which was amazing. They were still getting something that was quite reasonably priced as a result of working directly with us, and probably cheaper than buying something similar in the shops.

YF: So your perfecting of that material and process enabled you to then move on to the next collection?

CK: Yes, so when The New Craftsmen approached me to make a collection inspired by that table, I could then explore my ideas about how I wanted to develop the patina finish and push it further.

YF: Kit coming to you now, thinking about the other side of that relationship. When we met we spoke about the exchange element of the personal patronage relationship. When did that personal journey around patronage begin? And how did it all start prior to Firmdale?

Kit Kemp: Well one of my first jobs was actually working for a Polish architect, and he came to England via Siberia, so really knew how to forage for things as there is not a lot to work with there. He taught me how to put things together in a completely different way. I'd come from a very ordinary background and yet suddenly he was opening my eyes. There's always a nostalgic affection for craft and folk art because it's a part of all of our backgrounds. And even something as simple as the basket - you go to almost any nationality and they will take ownership of it. Some people can be quite purist about just using one colour of wood or the simplest pieces of pottery but I think, in fact, you can really mix it up and start enjoying it. To see the simplicity and sometimes the calmness that this instils within a room is really something which I never tire of. I think something that is made with soul, made with heart, speaks to so many different people in so many different ways. It doesn't matter if it isn’t perfect, that almost enhances it in a way. That's something which I love because you're always reading the story of that person's life within the piece.

Prints by Jo Waterhouse, seen here in Firmdale Hotels project Prints by Jo Waterhouse, seen here in Firmdale Hotels project

YF: Janice coming to you now; previously you said in an interview that lots of people in the Contemporary Art World have a lemming-like quality and they like to follow other people.

Janice Blackburn: I say that because, before I became involved in contemporary craft and design, I worked for several years at the Saatchi. People would come in and look through these volumes of contemporary art, yet would ask “What are they buying next?” People would have no idea what they wanted, all they knew was that they wanted something that would be an investment, which I have no interest in whatsoever. They wanted something that would impress their friends. After working there, I realised that what I’m really interested in is something much more personal, something that I will have chosen and been involved in myself. It just so happened that my husband had a spare room above his office at the time, so I decided this was my golden moment, my opportunity to do what I want to do, and I started to go around all the art colleges, commissioning pieces. I’m involved in the making process for everything I commission as much as the designers, so to speak. I like to work closely with them and I will say if it is not quite right. Tord will know...

TB: When you get a commission from Janice you learn a lot.

JB: But it's only because I am a frustrated maker. I really want to be doing what you're doing. We amassed so many objects, so people told us to open a gallery. I had no interest in being commercial, however, so a friend of mine introduced me to Sotheby’s. They let me do exactly what I wanted to do because I brought in serious people who might spend millions in their auctions, but were attracted by the idea of seeing great, experimental, edgy work.

YF: So linking back to what you were saying about craft enabling a form of self expression, this was obviously appealing to clients as well as being incredibly enticing for you as a personal collector and then ultimately as a curator as well?

JB: I think what it did was really open people’s eyes. A lot of them had just not seen that sort of thing. As the years went past, I then became interested in doing projects with students from abroad. I did a project in Beijing and we brought all the work to London and did a big exhibition. Then I did a project in South Africa with a trust that operated within the heart of the poorest communities, and I took some young designers to work with the locals over there.

Lichen Patina furniture & lighting by Charlotte Kingsnorth, glass work by Michael Ruh Lichen Patina furniture & lighting by Charlotte Kingsnorth, glass work by Jochen Holz

YF: So we’ve spoken about personal patronage, but now let's actually explore that intersection between craft and industry and how that can enable new work to come to fruition. So Tord coming back to you, you started talking about the commercial partnerships of industry entering into the educational world and what students distinctly get out of it. I wondered if you would be able to talk us through one of the examples of those kinds of relationships coming to the fore.

TB: I think the best example of this is a Korean student we had. She spent two years boiling crabs and other crustaceans such as prawns, extracting the shells, and then made a plastic-like material with it. It's a completely organic material, and she was able to make a radio and a clock out of it. At the time it seemed like a crazy project, and nobody understood it, but we would still encourage her to do it as she was so determined. Then Samsung came along. They bought the whole project and hired her as a designer of the future. They saw something in that project which they wanted to be a part of.

KK: Well it's completely biodegradable.

TB: And buys into that whole sustainability agenda. I think it also takes a particular individual from these organisations to have that vision and appetite to buy into something like that.

TB: Yes, and this is when I think the interesting things in craft happen, when you are not afraid to experiment. It's now fairly popular to look at using sustainable materials in this way. And there’s a lot of knowledge within craft that commercial industries can really learn from.

YF: So actually patronage can exist even at the industrial level.

TB: You know, I’m really interested in William Morris and his thinking. He opposed the Victorian Industrial Revolution and thought people have a much higher quality of life when they live in smaller communities, with clean air, making pots with clay they source from the river, which they sell to the local community. I think this is so relevant for the world we live in today. We live in a global world, but you can still make things locally and sell them globally as well. Craft is not currently a part of mainstream culture, but it should be.

YF: That brings me on to you Kit. Craft is obviously an intrinsic part of your hotel spaces and I think it's interesting to understand what the motivation and rationale behind that is. How do you want people to engage in those spaces as a result of the presence of craft.

Charlotte developed her Lichen Patina technique when approached by TNC to expand her furniture collection Charlotte developed her Lichen Patina technique when approached by TNC to expand her furniture collection

KK: I always say that if you can get some businessman, who's maybe not at all interested in his surroundings, to stop and get lost looking at a piece of art or craft, and ask questions, then you're taking a step in the right direction. I'm a commercial person and I don't mind admitting that. Whatever we do has to make sense and that's the reality of it. I do like to be very democratic in the way that we hang our art, so that means that we have, for example, a Conrad Shawcross piece besides loom work by Hermione Skye O'Hea, who we found at her degree show at Chelsea College of Art. She was thrilled that she was working with Conrad Shawcross and he, in turn, loved to see the work of somebody who's very young and full of ideas. So what we always try and do is introduce a dialogue between the people who wish to stay in our hotels. They're often very sophisticated and pick up on so many different things, so we're always learning. Any interior space should have a point of view, because if it has a point of view somebody's going to love it, somebody's going to hate it, and it's better to have that positive or negative reaction than complete indifference. And those that do start to follow the work of different designers and makers are probably going to be interested in their work, not just for one year, but for many years to come.

YF: I think the point around contextualisation and the presentation of craft is a really interesting one. It's obviously come up time and time again because the support that you give makers doesn't always have to be monetary. It can be of that cultural capital variety that is about networking, access and presentation of work in various spaces.

KK: I think The New Craftsmen is so important because so many crafts people, especially if they're women, start their careers very productively and then this can slow down because they have children or have to take care of older family members. But you still need that consistent audience if you don't stop completely, so you can then push on again. Life isn't just one straight line, it's very much an ebb and flow and I think if we can support our craftspeople and just give them somewhere their work can be seen, it's a huge help.

YF: Agreed, this is actually something we've helped a couple of our makers with. They’ve taken time out to start a family so we’ve developed products and revenue streams which allows them to still make money without actually having to physically work and produce all the time. So, I think it's important that the commercial entity is sensitive to how they can support makers in that fashion. Tord, having been a mentor yourself at the RCA, nurturing talent and offering the contacts and networks to help students flourish upon graduating, how important is the network effect for new talent coming into the industry?

TB: I think a lot of the first jobs you get as a designer are through knowing people. But linking back to the exhibition, there's another really big tool at hand now, which is technology. It’s still great to see an exhibition first hand, but you will always have the biggest audience online. For example, it can take knife makers a whole day to make one knife. They film it, put it online and at the end of the day it gets sold to the highest bidder. This is a completely new way of working, or presenting your work, and also a new way of thinking about commerce. It used to be very difficult even getting your work photographed but now it is so much easier to get your work out there.

TNC's Baskets of Britain exhibition at Firmdale’s Whitby Hotel in New York TNC's Baskets of Britain exhibition at Firmdale’s Whitby Hotel in New York

YF: This brings me to the final form of patronage that I want to cover which is the art organisations; those charitable bodies who often have grant giving abilities. Sometimes they just offer a social return on that support, but there's invaluable models out there like Hothouse and Cockpit Arts. Charlotte, you're going at it alone but you haven't attached yourself to these sorts of institutions. Why have you chosen a more independent route and what are the advantages or, indeed, disadvantages of this?

CK: I suppose it didn’t really happen on purpose, when I finished my course at the RCA I moved into a live/work space which was an old art room at a school. I got it through a scheme which let you occupy and look after an empty building, which was actually amazing at the time but I also found it really isolating. So we started a collective of RCA graduates, and we did a few shows collaborating together in Milan and for LDF. We were able to support each other, share the costs of putting on a show and then learning and sharing the skill sets that required. This fizzled out about four years ago, and I moved into a studio with other designers who graduated roughly around the same time from the RCA. They've all got the same sort of work ethic that I do which is great because we really support each other; I think I need that constant back and forth when I’m working and it helps to bounce ideas off one another.

YF: I think that's really important, and one of the things that a lot of the makers we represent praise about being part of our collective is that sense of community and the ability to use our creative director Catherine as a sounding board; to not feel like they're isolated but actually have the opportunity to check in with somebody and present their work as a result. On to closing remarks, posing the question to all the panelists: what do you think is the best method to support makers in this day and age?

KK: I think if you want to commission someone to do an artwork or make a piece, you have to look at their work and decide if you like their style first, as you can't put them in an arm lock and control every element because then they won’t do what they really want to do and inevitably it won't be what you want to achieve.

TB: The best way to support makers is to find what you’re enthusiastic about and be really supportive in your approach to commissioning them, working together to create a piece you’re equally as passionate about.

JB: I was evangelical in my wanting to get as many people in to see the work as possible. For me that was the best way of doing it and it worked. I got people to look at the work and open their eyes. I think curiosity is a wonderful thing. If you're curious, it can encourage other people to be like that too.

CK: I agree, and you can always support emerging artists and designers by buying their work directly rather than more generic, mass-produced designs.

Explore Charlotte’s new collection ‘Processing Lichen & Other Matter’ online & in our Mayfair store. Contact [email protected] to find out more about how you can support makers by becoming a patron of British craft. The discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.