In 2019, our Creative Director Catherine Lock travelled to Orkney with makers Mary Butcher, Gareth Neal and Annemarie O’Sullivan, seeking inspiration for a new body of work to be presented during London Design Festival 2019.
British craft disciplines and objects, in many of their original forms, are rooted in the culture, environments, resource and needs of the diverse regions of this country.
In Spring 2010, I left my job, rented out my flat and set-off on a four-month journey around the British Isles to discover the distinctive craft and specialist industries rooted in locale. It was a trip which would lead to the formation of The New Craftsmen and change the path of my life.
For fifteen years, I had been working within the world of mass-market retail and becoming increasingly disillusioned by the fast-churn, trend-led cycle of bringing product to market. It seemed to me that the world was becoming increasingly homogenised and our customer disassociated from process and provenance. At the same time I was, however, noticing an increased interest within niche food and hospitality sectors, for buying local, regional, traditionally made produce from source. It was as though the customer was hankering to be connected – for something meaningful and proper.
When supermarkets started selling specialist sausages which proudly bore the name of the pig and farmer on their packaging, and their customer seemed willing to pay more for the quality these products represented, I began to think the same developments would happen in the market for non-food items...and that there may be a business in this. So, I began to plot my adventure.
The itinerary was not set-in stone and so I would move where the wind, and local experts I met along the way, took me. A few firm pins stuck in the map were the Somerset Levels for willow; Sheffield for steel; Fair Isle for its famous knitwear. And Orkney.
During my brief period of research, I had found an object of fascination to me: a chair with a wooden base, a little drawer and a proud, high hood woven from straw. I was struck by its sculptural form, fine craftsmanship, yet utilitarian personality and I longed to learn of its tale. This Orkney chair became my beacon and lit my way to the group of islands, situated off the most northerly point of mainland Scotland where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea.
As my Northlink Ferry docked into Stromness harbour, my first impression of the Orkney Islands was the low-lying land, the vastness of the skies, the clarity and softness of the light and the textures of its abundant nature. Then, the ancient history reveals itself: Neolithic cairns, villages and stone circles; a magnificent twelfth century cathedral of red and yellow sandstone built by Vikings; a traditional farmhouse incorporating an unrestored ‘firehoose’ complete with central peat fire and stone box-bed (‘neuk’). And the Orcadians: proud, kind, creative and resourceful, their accents lilting and sentences peppered with dialect handed down from their island ancestors.
The Orkney chair was made as a practical, and masterful, response to this place and the needs of its people. Most probably, the original designers were fisherman or farmers who created the chairs from the materials which were most available to them, as well as most suitable and adaptable for the job in hand: the high backs protecting owners from drafts, made from a black oat variety of ‘strae’ (straw), which the farmers could grow on the fertile, peaty ground, and the bases made from precious driftwood found on the beaches of virtually treeless islands (there were riots against the emergence of Stephensons’ lighthouses which saw a dramatic reduction in the materials provided by unfortunate ships).
On returning from my trip with stories, characters and ambitions swirling in my mind, I met my future business partners and we launched The New Craftsmen in 2012, with a pop-up shop in the heart of Mayfair. Being a brand-new company, we were keen to illustrate who we were and what we stood for...and very quickly came to the conclusion that the Orkney chair, as re-imagined by pioneering designer-maker Gareth Neal in collaboration with a young, Orcadian straw-chair maker, Kevin Gauld, could help define our very own vernacular and the values we adhere to this day: imagination, integrity and humanity.
Over the past seven years, this ‘Brodgar’ chair and its bench relative, have been sent from Orkney to the furthest ends of the world and has been in constant production. Our company and the makers’ businesses have grown, along with the appetite amongst customers for unique, storied products made by experts.
Last year, I returned to the Orkney Islands and, once again, found myself under its skies, spellbound and energised by the potential of this unique place. I began to wonder at the rich source of inspiration such a place offers artists, along with how fragile the future some of its unique cultural assets (such as straw-work) are, and how much colour they give to the world, in their own small way.
So, in May 2019 we initiated a gathering of renowned English makers to visit and explore the Isles’ distinctive culture and landscape, and to meet extraordinary local talents, with the aim to create and curate pieces which reflect place. In the hands of visitors and locals, the humblest of materials, traditionally associated with Orcadian vernacular, such as straw, heather, wool, and flotsam and jetsam have been transformed and become exquisite totems — a unique poem to the Isles.