COLLECT makers are experimental and clever folk, often fluidly traversing craft, design and fine art practices.
The Crafts Council Collect is one of my favourite shows, a special moment to stare in wonder at some of the finest contemporary craft works and hear voices and stories of new makers. This year Collect presented 400 artists, over 4O galleries and Collect Open 12 artists and collectives. Quite a show. It’s also about renewal as pieces have to have been made in the last five years.
In its new home at Somerset House, ceramics ruled and I missed the textiles of former years. But if you began your journey in the VIP lounge then visceral and flocculent textures abounded in the new body of work by Cox London. The Dada sofa was inspired by deconstructing traditional upholstery to expose raw materials: jute, beech, webbing and wool. And what wool. Sofas and chairs topped with the most tactile soft curly lamb’s fleece. It is wild. These handmade pieces an organic and free form, breaking the handsome symmetry and classical lines of Somerset House.
Above, off centre and suspended by three rig-like branches is the Magnolia chandelier. This monumental forged Iron chandelier is a profusion of tree foliage and is illuminated with grand scale moulded cotton Magnolia blooms.
Christopher and Nicola Cox invited interior design Rachel Chudley to curate the space. Visiting Cox London’s bronze foundry, Rachel was fascinated by the relationship between the manual process of making and the exhibition of the finished object.
‘When thinking about how to explore this duality in the Collect setting, I looked into the history of Somerset House, with its many reincarnations and maritime past. The result is a room of rough and smooth textures, sculptural pieces created specially by Cox London and pulled together with a deep bespoke colour by Donald Kaufman. Some of these new designs feel like rare heirlooms, some full of foundry character, while others threaten to buck you off!’ Rachel Chudley
Dada sofa and chairs with Magnolia Chandelier, Cox London
It was the first major outing of Studio Pottery London (SPL) into a wider arena - a significant international fair of craft and design. Studio’s Pottery Director Lucy Attwood and Artistic Director Gregory Tingay said it was something of a coup to be accepted by the Crafts Council to be a part of COLLECT. Gregory was aware that he was having to be the primary face for this fair, with the work of Michel Francois as secondary, with the addition of Jason Wason.
Studio Pottery London at COLLECT
Since visiting SPL and meeting Michel I have desired a Moonjar. What a word and what a round and gentle shape. Round like the moon and a jar loved by many for the comforting nature of its curves.
The Moonjars of Gregory and Michel are linked by a common form and philosophy broadly rooted in a shared link to the legacy of Bernard Leach, that pillar of 20th Century studio pottery revival.
Lucy says that ‘Michel’s three large moonjars with their generous proportions and ravishing simplicity of surface achieved through reduction-fired specific ash glazes with copper-red blush effects raised the bar for moonjars within the overall fair. Both he and Gregory make their moonjars according to the traditional Korean way of joining thrown bowls lip to lip to create the classic moon sphere. - opalescent moonjars with their blushes of pink and lilac.’
Gregory’s moonjar forms coloured in a variety of dark blues, white and brown are strongly individual art pieces, each telling their own story by sgraffito patterning through slip exterior surfaces. For COLLECT he made two new moonjars, one entitled ‘Marginalia’ in free-flowing organic decoration.
Michel Francois Moonjar
Gregory Tingay Moonjars on the left is Matamorphosis
My textile quest was sated by textile artist Margo Selby who was this year's Collect Open award-winner with Vexillum, a grand-scale series of handwoven artworks exploring ideas inherent to weave: mathematical pattern, the binary system and simultaneous contrast of colour.
Margo Selby explains:
‘Vexillum – the Latin word for banner or flag – seemed a fitting name for this project. It presents my art as a sort of abstract heraldry. It explores colour relationships and patterns created by the mathematical and digital systems intrinsic to weaving. The threads which create the piece are concealed or revealed to create visually striking yet harmonious compositions.
Each artwork is a development of weave structures blown up and abstracted. I’m fascinated by the way juxtaposed colours enhance or subdue each other and create secondary hues. It’s an exploration of the way colours mix in the eye when placed next to each other and incorporates mathematical stripe graduations that change and challenge the viewers’ perception of colour across the work.”
Vexillum II framed by Margo Selby
Vexillum, an art-textile installation , by Margo Selby
This new scale of work is well suited to large gallery spaces, inviting a new audience to see Margo Selby’s work that celebrates the crossover of art, craft and design. That is the essence of COLLECT.
What happens when a small-scale initiative becomes a route to rehabilitation?
The UK prison population is the biggest in western Europe (projections forecast 85,800 by June 2022) with the highest population of prisoners serving life sentences. The growing prison population represents a failure of society. Once in prison one aim should be to rehabilitate. The government and its austerity decade has been disastrous. Isn’t is fascinating that it took the vision of one woman to do what our ministers cannot. To sew hope.
Fine Cell Work is a charity and social enterprise founded by Lady Anne Tree in 1997 with the aim to enable prisoners to develop new skills, earn money and acquire the self-belief to stop offending. Why needlepoint? Well, her mother-in-law, Nancy Lancaster, owned the interior designers Colefax and Fowler giving her an opportunity to sell good-quality needlework for good prices through shops. Sewing is also therapeutic.
Today, Fine Cell Work works in 30 prisons across the UK, works with 380 prisoners at any one time and just over 600 throughout the course of a year. The backbone is the close-knit team of 18 plus 85 redoubtable prison volunteers including members of the Embroiderers’ and Quilters Guild.
I never tire of listening to its brilliant founding director, Katy Emck OBE talking about this enterprise’s aim of stitching a new path for prison communities across the country. At a recent event, she was joined by Fine Cell Work collaborator Liz Dowling, the co-founder of Blithfield fabric and designer Margit Wittig who welcomed an audience of interior designers and editors into her home.
Fine Cell Work is a charity and social enterprise which enables prisoners to build fulfilling and crime-free lives. They do this by training them in high-quality, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem.
Katy Emck, Margit Wittig and Liz Dowlin
Why needlepoint and embroidery we asked Katy, considering 96% of inmates are male. She answers, ‘having something worthwhile to do gives tremendous solace. Needlework takes forever and prisoners have time. Some can stitch for up to 30 hours a week in their cells and any one of the cushions can take about 150 hours work and a quilt can take between one and two years.’ They make thousands of pieces a year. The quality and range of the work is impressive. These become objects of intrinsic value and objects for prisoners to care for.
What is heart warming is the cumulative emotional effect of such endeavour. Here’s a quote from one of the stitchers, as the prisoners who sign up are called… ‘Because of Fine Cell Work it has been over six years since I self-harmed. I have no mental health problems now and it has made me a better person.’
Katy furnishes us with more statistics. 50% of inmates are illiterate, a third are abused as children, many have mental health problems and have never been employed. Yet here they are ironically in a job, working but in prison, pursuing a skilled craft and given an opportunity to change.
More fascinating insights follow. Katy reminds us that there has always been a tradition of craft in prisons. French prisons have a tradition of woodwork, Portugal carpet. In women’s prisons, we learn that there is a proportion of foreign nationals – Nigeria, Columbia, East Europe, all of whom have grown up around local craftwork and embroidery. They are keeping these skills alive.
Whether male or female, this is an impressive bank of stitchers who Lady Anne Tree once described as ‘better than the Royal School of Needlework.’
Inspired by the mission of Fine Cell Work, Liz Downing the co-founder of Blithfield collaborated with Kit Kemp, Design Director and co-owner of Firmdale Hotels and the late Melissa Wyndham, to develop a range of cushion - some for needlepoint others where the printed design is stitched over to bring the pattern to life.
Hand-embroidered Blithfield Circles and Oakleaves
Circles has tiny lines of tidy stitching. This leaf green linen cushion is made in fabric from Blithfield’s Peggy Angus collection with Kit Kemp's design of hand-embroidered accents in blue, yellow and grey.
Oakleaves fabric is from Blithfield’s Peggy Angus collection with Kit Kemp's design of hand-embroidered accents in leaf green and yellows.
Another is the red linen Stratford cushion which pairs fabric from Blithfield's Custom Collection with hand-embroidered orange French Knots. Katy says that sometimes the stitchers skimp on the French Knots so there is a bonus for good ones.
Kit kemp with Blithfield Stratford cushion and lampshade and her with Tree of Life headboard - linen applique on boiled wool, incorporating French knots, whipped back stitch, feather stitch, buttonhole, and coral stitch.
‘With the high quality of workmanship and skilled voluntary workers we have created covetable items. It would be wonderful at the end of the day if we could have an upholstery workshop and training scheme so everything could be done in the prisons. I have to thank Blithfield for their inspiring fabrics and everyone at Fine Cell Work for their commitment.’ Kit Kemp
And the thanks don’t stop there. Each piece is tagged with a credit. My pin cushion had the surname of the stitcher and a note saying Feedback is important to our stitcher. To offer your appreciation, please write back to…This is a way communicate to a world beyond their cell walls. Katy describes the thank you letters for their finished work as the softest ‘secret weapons’.
‘Guys exist in a strange isolation – they become normal when talked about, the thank you letters make them feel connected.’ And not just connected by letters but imagine hearing your work has been commissioned by the Duchess of Cornwall and the HRH Prince Charles or exhibited in the V&A Museum. Katy says that ‘in 2015 we worked with the artist Cornelia Parker on ‘Magna Carta- an embroidery’ a 13-metre-long embroidered version of the Wikipedia entry on ‘Magna Carta’ as part of the celebration of 800 years of Magna Carta and displayed at the British Library. Stitched by over 200 people, much of the work was done by Fine Cell Work prisoners alongside lawyers and civil rights campaigners, barons and MPs.
We produced The Wandsworth Quilt at HMP Wandsworth, which was hung at the V&A Museum as part of the major exhibition ‘Quilts 1700-2010’ and seen by thousands of visitors to the exhibition.’
Artists and prisoners continue to collaborate. Fine Cell Work is thrilled to announce HUMAN TOUCH a ground-breaking collaboration between eight leading contemporary artists and Fine Cell Work stitchers working in British prisons.
The artists are Cornelia Parker, Ai Weiwei, Idris Khan, Carolina Mazzolari, Annie Morris, Bob and Roberta Smith, Wolfgang Tillmans and Francis Upritchard.
The collaboration has resulted in eight incredible works of art which will be exhibited at Sotheby’s from 26 February until 3 March 2020 and sold by Fine Cell Work.
Max Rollitt: An Upholstered Victorian Nursing Chair
Max Rollitt does it, Tara Craig does it, so let’s all do it and fall in love with trims and tassels.
Decorative tasselled skirt and tapestry panels are beautifully worn by Max Rollitt’s 19th century nursing chair in its original red velvet upholstery. This charming antique chair exudes materiality and although for domestic intention and grounded in tradition, it is lifted by flair and wit.
Max Rollitt: A Victorian Silk Damask Hanging embellished with fringing
Passementerie was originally applied to disguise seams and edges of textile hangings and cushions but over time became more ornamental. Frills and flounces found favour in fashion. These embellishments give traditional upholstery a sense of couture. I am a forlorn sewer, but have always loved its lexicon. Pin tucks, ruffles, macramé. Fashion and furnishings cross borders easily.
Ensemblier Atelier: Montbray Headboard seen here with tasseled cushion
(image by Natalie Dinham featuring Victoria Stainow Ceramique table lamps)
No one makes upholstered pieces quite as beautifully as Ensemblier, a young accomplished British brand that champions craftsmanship and sustainability. The latest models give a nod to a new breed of heritage glamour with curved shapes, and interlaced with feminine frills and fringing.
Ensemblier’s upholstered pieces are distinguished by Tara Craig’s hawkish eye for detail. Often based on exquisitely preserved British furniture, but heritage in her hands is tres chic.
Ensemblier Atelier: Selton
(image by Natalie Dinham featuring Victoria Stainow Ceramique table lamps)
The beautifully upholstered Selton sofa with its tight bodice back has a full gathered skirt. Inspired by 19th century French and mid 20th century settles and intended for a bedroom as a reading sofa or end of bed sofa, it also makes a pretty settee for a small drawing room.
Ensemblier Atelier: Twisleton
(image by Natalie Dinham featuring Victoria Stainow Bamboo table lamps)
The Twisleton armchair inspired by the French cocktail chairs of the 1930s. A comfortable little armchair that is a friend to posture and fit for informal film watching. To make it more fun, it has an ingenious turning circle and beautiful bespoke fringing punctuated with jewel-coloured studs.
Indulge in frippery. Fringes and frills may well disguise seams but they also soften lines, offer opulence and create an air of irreverence to lighten our interior mood. We all need something to be cheerful about these days.